A warmer-than-usual spring has given Minnesota fruit and vegetable suppliers a look at the bright side.
“It’s been great, the first year I’ve been excited to be in Minnesota in March,” said Adam Gamble, general manager of North Country Produce, a subsidiary of Russ Davis Wholesale, Inver Grove Heights, Minn.
The weather cooled off to a more typical damp coolness in late April and early May, but nevertheless, the state got an early start on spring with snow off the ground weeks before usual.
“People tend to buy a little more fruit when the sun is out and when it’s warm enough to go outside,” Gamble said. “I think it (the weather) helped some, but some stuff gets going later on in May, so it doesn’t help that much in March.”
But not all is sunshine and roses in the Twin Cities. The mayor’s recent battle with the city’s budget — complete with potential layoffs for government employees — is a sign that, like most of the country, the economy is still on the rocks.
Consumers shop around more
As retailers and restaurants have been fighting for consumers’ food dollars, produce suppliers have been fighting for retail and foodservice business. Although there aren’t any significant additions to the competitive marketplace, there is strong competition.
“A lot of what we’re seeing with customers is there is a lot more shopping,” said Mike McLeod, produce manager for Cloquet, Minn.-based Upper Lakes Foods, a foodservice supplier.
McLeod said it’s not rare for five suppliers to be working on one account.
“People are a lot more aware of and in tune with what they’re buying,” McLeod said. “They’re definitely getting smarter and smarter.”
Customers are more aware of new products and more likely to try new products, McLeod said.
“There are customers asking for stuff they’ve seen right off Food Network, whereas in the past it’s just been lettuce and tomatoes, and that’s what you were looking for,” McLeod said. “Everyday I get a call for something goofy.”
The culinary scene is fast-paced in the Twin Cities, said Kevin Hannigan, vice president of St. Paul, Minn.-based J&J Distributing Inc.
The cities had at least a handful of chefs up for James Beard awards this year, one of the top honors in the culinary field.
“It’s really a fast-moving culture,” Hannigan said. “Life is good for food distributors.”
Gamble said he has seen multiple approaches to improve sales on the retailer’s end.
“Some carry less variety, focus on grades that have lower retail price points, and try to increase movement,” he said. “Then there are people who have gone the other direction, offering more variety.”
North Country Produce has a broad and diverse customer base, so it has to be able to work with either tactic, Gamble said.
Some of the variable markets for tomatoes, onions and romaine this year are still affecting Minnesota wholesalers and distributors.
“We’re in the tomato business, so it affected us directly,” Gamble said. “And onions were very, very difficult.”
Brings Co., an onion repacker that is now part of H. Brooks & Co., New Brighton, Minn., has been working with variable onion markets all spring.
“It’s been an incredible spring. I’ve never seen anything like it in 30 years,” said Pat Coan, president. “I’m really glad we have the relationships we have with our growers around the country.”
Even with Texas entering the onion market, supplies weren’t yet where they needed to be in early May, Coan said.
“Texas doesn’t have enough crop either,” Coan said. “Arizona’s starting to open up, and Southern California.”
Although rumors of an economic recovery are plentiful, no one in the Twin Cities is willing to bet on a quick turnaround quite yet.
“A lot of people have lost their jobs, so it’s hard to say,” Hannigan said.
This year is already looking better than years past for Co-op Partners Warehouse, the distribution arm of The Wedge Co-op, Minneapolis.
“Sales are up 22% over last year,” said Tom Rodmyre, warehouse manager.
Rodmyre attributes the growth to people staying at home for more meals and being more conscious about their health.
“The economy here is picking up a little bit,” said Phillip Brooks, chef executive officer of H. Brooks & Co.
For Fridley, Minn.-based Roland Marketing, with its core business in staple items like potatoes, corn, apples and oranges, the economic downturn has had a minimal effect, said Dan Meuers, chief operating officer.