(Aug. 5) Atlanta produce wholesalers who make their living selling fresh produce to foodservice purveyors and those distributing produce directly to foodservice establishments report a noticeable decline in sales.

Cliff Sherman, owner of Sunbelt Produce Distributors Inc., Forest Park, Ga., said he has noticed the downturn in foodservice sales.

“I sell to a few foodservice distributors,” he said. “They’re all whining, but the stores we sell to are good. People are not eating out as much these days.”

Brian Young, general manager of Coosemans Atlanta Inc., which sells specialty produce to foodservice distributors and jobbers, agreed sales have slowed.

“They are still buying the same commodities, just not as many of them,” Young said. “I think everyone is watching their inventories a little closer. They’re buying items that might not be as costly as what they may have procured in the past.”

Still, Young sees demand remaining strong from one segment of the foodservice chain: the operators that serve hotels and conventions. He said the tourist and convention business in the city that is home to one of the world’s largest airports remains solid.

Declining foodservice sales

David Collins III, president of Phoenix Wholesale Foodservice Inc., Forest Park, said restaurant sales have slid.

He called restaurant sales soft and said sales this year compared to last year are trending close to even.

“I would say that people are taking that one extra meal they use to eat out and putting it in their gas tanks,” Collins said.

At one seminar Collins attended recently, the speaker said the evening meal remains the sector’s hardest-hit segment. The lower end of the foodservice chain, the fast-food outlets, hasn’t suffered as much, with the casual dining segment considered somewhat softer than normal, he said.

Hubert Nall III, president of Hubert N. Nall Co. Inc., Forest Park, characterized Atlanta’s restaurant sector as healthy.

The people that go out to eat a lot typically have always been the people with the highest incomes, he said.

“The fuel situation has seemed to affect them less,” Nall said. “I know people are still going out to eat quite often. They may not be going to as nice a place, but they’re still going out.”

Limited geographic focus

Athena Farms, Atlanta, distributes produce to customers in a limited geographical part of Atlanta. The foodservice wholesaler distributes produce to customers primarily in the city’s downtown area, and the area north of downtown inside the “V” formed by the intersection of Interstates 75 and 85.

The area, said Robert Poole, vice president of sales, is home to most of the region’s foodservice money.

“That has helped us with this whole fuel issue,” Poole said. “If you’re servicing a place that’s 1.5 hours away and have an emergency, that’s a lot of money being spent just taking care of that. With diesel at $5 a gallon, it’s tough.”

Another benefit of focusing on the downtown area is its abundance of independent restaurant operators, Poole said. The suburban areas feature more multichain stores, he said.

“Because we deal with the top-tier restaurant customers, there’s a sense that in spite of the fuel costs, I think the economy is surviving,” Poole said. “People are probably cutting back but when it comes to actual dollars, they are still spending money out there.”