(Sept. 22, 12:55 p.m.) PHILADELPHIA — With a diverse population and neighborhoods occupied by a variety of ethnic groups, specialty produce sales have traditionally fared well in the city known for its Brotherly Love.

Because of the slowing national and regional economy, however, specialties haven’t sold as well as they have in the past, distributors report.

“Overall, business seems slow,” said John Vena Jr., president of John Vena Inc., a longtime specialties produce wholesaler. “Overall, sales have been stable in the last few years. We haven’t seen much growth in the last couple of years.”

Specialty sales, Vena said, normally dip in the summer as specialty sellers encounter more indirect competition, particularly in foodservice, as other operators such as farmers markets sell specialty items.

Chefs prefer to shop at the local farmers markets during the summer when such options aren’t available to them, Vena said.

Depending on the time of the year, up to 80% of the products that specialty wholesalers offer are sourced from overseas.

More work involved

One reason why the specialty business has become more challenging, Vena said, is because it’s more labor-intensive.

A typical order, he said, involves a few packages with many items. While typical orders for smaller customers could involve 25 packages of six to seven different items, larger customers may buy three to four pallets with up to 30 items, Vena said.

“That’s a big difference for us,” he said. “If you have to put on five pallets, which is 25-30 items on a truck, that’s inefficient. That expense is a big inhibitor of sales growth for us. We’re looking at ways to improve that.”

Martin Roth, secretary-treasurer of Coosemans Philadelphia Inc., characterized specialty sales as off a little but not by that much.

“We just have to be a little more competitive,” he said.

Coosemans, which carries up to 200 specialty items at its Philadelphia location, receives product primarily from the Port of Miami. Roth said the U.S. Customs process operates much smoother at that port. Plus, he said Central American specialty produce only requires a two-day boat ride to Miami instead of traveling to the Philadelphia area.

Ethnic group buyers keep expanding their purchases, said Dan Storey III, president of Storey’s Fruit & Produce.

“The Asians and the Orientals, they keep growing,” he said. “They are filling the vacuum caused by the lack of large chains coming to the market.”

On the negative side, to remain competitive, Storey said he can see ethnic buyers eventually getting so large that they begin buying direct from grower-shippers.

Ethnics’ purchasing power

M Levin & Co Inc. has increased its specialty sales after receiving better connections with Costa Rica shippers, said David Levin, co-owner.

“We are getting better deals on tropical items,” he said. “We’re seeing more consistent supply from the same people so they are more interested in taking care of you.”
Levin has sold tropicals a long time but has expanded its tropical sales as the region’s ethnic population has grown.

Levin’s plantain business has increased up to 40%.

“Even if the mainstream American public doesn’t pick up on a lot of these items, the Latin community is, and it’s growing by leaps and bounds,” Levin said. “The big chains aren’t geared to ethnics as much as they could be. They’d like to carry everything, but their buyers and merchandisers aren’t really equipped to keep up with them.”

Mike Maxwell, president of Procacci Bros. Sales Corp., said many mid-Atlantic-area supermarkets don’t do well selling specialty produce appealing to ethnic groups.

“It’s probably the most overlooked by the retailers,” Maxwell said. “You have to build big displays. You can’t have only one or two root items. You have to have the full selection. If you don’t address the needs of those customers, you’re insulting them.”

Maxwell said he recently visited a store that had five black plantains displayed. The produce guy said he needed to throw them away. Maxwell said he told him that’s the way plantains are sold.

“There’s a population out there that eats plantains morning, noon and night,” he said. “If you don’t have them out there in bulk quantities, you’re saying you don’t have that stuff for them and are not opening the door for them.”