Fresh produce business in Texas grows

01/18/2013 09:43:00 AM
Pamela Riemenschneider

HOUSTON — In a state familiar with dramatic booms and busts, Texas businesses are enjoying the relative calm of steady growth over the past several years.

The key seems to be getting a foothold in the big markets — Houston, Dallas and San Antonio, and, more recently, Austin. Houston-based Brothers Produce expanded into the state capital, opening a new warehouse in September.

Austin is the key to the company’s growth in the state, said Mike Blanchard, general manager.

“We see a lot of potential in Austin, especially in January and February,” he said.

Fort Worth-based Ben E. Keith Foods plans to open a distribution center in Houston this summer, said Bill Sewell, director of produce and dairy. The new facility has been a long time coming, he said.

“It will free up our Dallas and San Antonio operations for growth,” he said. “Logistically it makes it easier to build business into Louisiana.”

Trey Touchstone of San Antonio-based Touchstone & Associates said growth isn’t to be taken for granted, but with Texas’ growing population, potential for growth is out there for those willing to work for it.

“With the constant growth of our city, the potential to grow is everywhere,” he said.

“Through consistent attention and constant communication, we were able to not only maintain but increase volume last year practically across the board.”

National companies also eye Texas operations for expansion. Immokalee, Fla.-based Lipman purchased Dallas-based Combs Produce in June.

“Texas is an amazing retail and foodservice market,” said Kent Shoemaker, chief executive officer. Having a Texas-based operation was a necessity, he said, not an option.

National retailers also look to Texas for growth. Monrovia, Calif.-based Trader Joe’s finally broke into Dallas and Houston with four locations open and another three in development.

Greensboro, N.C.-based specialty retailer The Fresh Market also plans to make its Texas debut in Houston in late 2013.

The company leased four locations from Houston-based Rice Epicurean, said Drewry Sackett, marketing and public relations manager.

Texas may historically be a major agricultural producer, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy to put together local deals.

“This time of year, we’re scrambling for local,” said Dave Allen, vice president of sales for Dallas-based Hardie’s Fruit & Vegetable Co.

Hardie’s has been working with local growers to make it easier to get to market, however, by arranging backhauls to its warehouses.

Ben E. Keith maintains a local availability calendar for its customers and has been able to put together a good selection, Sewell said, but ensuring the proper food safety protocols are maintained always can be a challenge with smaller growers.

As more business and consumers pull out of the recession, organic has reemerged as a trend to watch in Texas. Blanchard said Brothers Produce is seeing more demand for organic, especially since the company expanded into the Austin market and picked up business from a local co-op.

Ben E. Keith’s roster of local produce continues to grow, Sewell said, and the company adds something nearly every week.



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