(Feb. 5) TAMPA, Fla. — A diverse population with roots in the Caribbean and Central and South America helps make Florida a fertile ground for distribution of specialty produce.

Specialty produce use remains on a growth track and expands every year, said Marshall Glantz, director of business development, exports and executive director for American Fruit & Produce Corp., Opa Locka.

“A big portion of our business is growing with specialties,” he said. “People want more and more specialties, whether locally or from the Caribbean. Chefs are also using specialties in a very big way along with conventional produce.”

Distributors of Caribbean and Latin produce have become bigger and better organized and are starting to do more of the business, said Roy Kane, vice president and managing partner of Coosemans Tampa Inc.

“Specialties are really big in Florida,” he said. “They have always done well here.”

Baby vegetable sales, Kane said, have been selling well. French beans remain probably the biggest specialty seller as far as sales growth.

Coosemans Tampa offers 250 produce items, with 80% of them being specialties.

The popularity of specialties has led to other large distributors jumping on the bandwagon, Kane said, a fact of the specialties business that hasn’t gone unnoticed by Kane’s sister operation, Coosemans Miami Inc.

Specialty sales overall aren’t seeing the big gains they saw in the past, perhaps because specialties use has become more mainstream with more players in the deal, said Ronald Zamora, Coosemans Miami’s general manager.

To remain competitive with good pricing, Coosemans has had to import more produce to better supply rather than compete against the larger produce distributors, Zamora said.

“Because of our necessity to look for new items — even items we used to buy domestically — for price purposes, we have to go to Central America and South America to look for better deals,” he said.

California freight can also be more than twice the cost of sourcing from Latin America, Zamora said.

Specialty produce sales remain strong in south Florida, thanks to the heavy populations of Cubans and other Hispanics.

South Florida customers are increasing their specialties consumption, said Julie Escobar, director of international sales for The Produce Connection Inc., Miami.

“We’re seeing a lot of interest here, especially in Miami,” she said. “With the Latin community that we have, there’s more of a need for those kind of items.”

The Produce Connection has increased sales of its Latin produce items by 50% to 60% during the past year, Escobar said.

Guatemalan miniature vegetables and peas remain popular, she said.

Procomer, a Costa Rican governmental agency that promotes the country’s exports, has a Miami office and works to educate chefs in resorts and hotels on incorporating specialties in recipes, Zamora said.

“All Latinos source food at whatever cost, to wherever we have to go,” he said. “We like our food, and it goes through the generations. The more food you can have available to the Latin people, the more chances you have to sell them.”

Latin influence fuels Florida’s specialties demand
A.G. Kawamura, secretary of the California Department of Food and Agriculture, visits a produce market in Havana, Cuba. A trade delegation of 11 state agriculture leaders visited Cuba on Jan. 21-24.