“I think our business has really been hurting for years because of the takeover by big corporations, so we had already trimmed our ship pretty good. So when things shook down last fall, we were pretty acclimated,” Piazza said.
Minnesota Produce serves mostly the foodservice sector because there’s little opportunity in retail with a giant like Supervalu in the market, he said.
“This market has been very competitive,” said Doug Strandquist, produce manager for Upper Lakes Foods, Cloquet, Minn. “There are a lot of players, a lot of sellers, and the restaurant industry has shrunk a little bit, so it’s gotten more competitive.”
Suppliers are cutting their margins to keep cases moving, Strandquist said.
Rodmyre said he started to see a turnaround by mid-April.
“It was starting to rebound a little bit. Since Easter it’s looking better. Volumes are up, and we’re almost to the point we were last year,” he said. “Demand from consumers seems to be on the rebound.”
With the spring comes hope for the market.
“April gave a lot of people hope,” Gamble said. “April was better than March. January and February were bad.”
“It’s good to have a sense of demand. We haven’t had that from our customers all winter,” Piazza said.
Dean Schladweiler, produce manager for The Wedge Co-op in Minneapolis, said he hasn’t seen a pick back up but that the market has stabilized.
“In the beginning it was slowing and we weren’t sure where the market was going to go,” Schladweiler said. “We have definitely leveled off where the rate of growth has slowed down.”
Regardless of what happens this spring and summer, only the fall and winter will tell how the market is really shaping up.
“It’s hard to tell because everything’s seasonal,” Gamble said. “In the winter, people don’t use as much produce.”
Most businesses are just trying to ride out the storm.
“Right now we’re just trying to be as efficient as we can,” said Dean Balzum, produce director for Kowalski’s Markets, Woodbury. “The economy, it’s affecting everybody. There are weeks where you think you’re good, then you’re not again. So it gets good, but it’s not sustainable.”
Balzum said he takes solace in being a part of the produce industry.
“I feel good about being in produce because they value here is going to stay,” he said. “Produce in general is probably above store trends now and probably has been. People see value in produce, and it still is a really good value. If they’re making cuts, they’re making them on the side of chips and pop.”