The repercussions of the economic downturn are still being felt for suppliers of winter produce from Central America and the Caribbean. Suppliers say they are trimming costs and looking for new ways to provide value and keep sales flat this year.
“We’re hoping that there has been a little boost of the economy,” said Lou Kertesz, vice president of Fresh Quest Produce, Inc., Pompano Beach, Fla., who said the industry is also hoping demand will pick up in what is becoming a smaller marketplace for exporters. “Every year less and less growers are involved in the Central American deal. It is survival of the fittest, down to three of us as main shippers.”
Larry Leighton, president of Caribbean Fruit Connection Corp., Miami, said many in the industry are working extremely close to their margins, and the risk of credit is becoming especially poignant right now.
“We are being very, very prudent on our sales and extension of credit, and our customers are telling us that they are doing the same. So that activity in itself tends to contract the market,” he said. “You hear people say, ‘We sell what we know we can collect for.’”
Charlie Eagle, vice president of business development for Southern Specialties, Pompano Beach, said by paying attention to what customers are asking for, his company has still been able to grow programs and attract new customers.
“You have to pay attention to what the economy is saying to you, the market,” Leighton said. “People are making choices in what it is they’re buying. Green bananas are selling extremely well because they are a traditional starch that you can substitute for some of the other stuff at a much lower price.”
Mark Vertrees, marketing manager for M&M Farms, Miami, said mainstream tropicals for Asian and Hispanic customers, such as root vegetables, are probably increasing while other commodities are holding steady.
“Everyone is hurting, and people are being careful of what they are buying,” he said.
Many suppliers talked about efficiencies created, improved customer service and other ways they are preparing for the economy to be back on track.
“We are focusing on what will help make us a better company six months from now, a year from now, five years from now and beyond,” Eagle said. “We’ve been maintaining our diversification of customer base, and we’ve attracted the attention of several retailers that are interested in private-label programs.”
Eagle said progress during a down time was due to investments in infrastructure, personnel and attracting “top-notch people.”