( Courtesy Nickey Gregory )

The Atlanta State Farmers Market is so much more than the name might imply. 

Yes, in the shed area, the general public wanders booths laden with fresh fruits and vegetables from area farmers.

But on the rolling 150 acres in the Atlanta suburb of Forest Hills, Ga., this place is also a major marketing hub and distribution point for fresh produce in the Southeast and throughout the country.

The new entry sign says it better: Atlanta/Clayton County Produce Terminal and Market.

About 50 companies handle wholesale retail, foodservice and nursery business, as well as direct-to-consumer foot traffic. 

ATLANTA MARKET TERMINAL 

The property is divided into two parts; the traditional farmers market to the west and the wholesale distributor warehouses with loading docks and refrigerated semi-trucks to the east.

After more than three years of construction, Collins Bros. Co. moved into an almost 80,000-square-foot additional facility on market property in April.

“It is the biggest one-time addition to the wholesale market since it was built in the 50s. We are very thankful to have it and proud to say they are in the building and operating,” said Paul Thompson, director of marketing for the Georgia Department of Agriculture.

Since COVID-19 pandemic closures walloped much of the foodservice business, leaders have been working with the Georgia Department of Agriculture to find ways to make it through this health and economic crisis.

“We saw foodservice just completely die overnight,” said Jeff Howard, markets manager. 

Many businesses redirected the focus from foodservice to retail as much as possible.

Supply hasn’t been a problem, however. 

“During this whole pandemic, we have not seen shortages. The sheds here remain full,” Howard said.

Also, the shed area’s farmers market, where goods are sold directly to consumers on foot, has picked up considerably during the pandemic.

“People like to get outdoors and shop,” Howard said. “I’m seeing more and more sales to individuals.”

PLAN AHEAD

The department’s marketing and communication teams have helped farmers connect directly with consumers in several ways, especially online and with a new Georgia Grown To-Go program. 

The program is basically a farmers market drive-through at higher volume, Thompson said.

“As this pandemic hit, we were able to learn some lessons from some of the things that were happening with the food chain and the distribution in South Florida, and saw some of those things occurring and were able to make some plans, to have some ideas in the works,” Thompson said. 

The department’s marketing and communications teams spread the word about what companies were doing online and what kind of markets were transitioning to touchless.

Thompson said he’s seeing greater interest in Georgia Grown Products and local farmers markets.

“With more consumers staying home and wanting fresh produce, the awareness of how the food supply chain works is growing,” Thompson said. 

ONE DAY AT A TIME 

The pandemic is affecting everyone in different ways, said Eva Moghaddam, owner, president and CEO of All Seasons Fresh Produce at the market.

The company’s foodservice sales dropped to 30% of what they had been, but by June 17, sales had returned to 70% of previous levels, said Matthew Moghaddam, general manager and chief financial officer.

“I am learning from this event every day,” Eva Moghaddam said. “I can say the most destructive part of the pandemic is the constant confusion and getting stalled with your past ideas. I always want to provide, or make it easier, for every family to find healthier food options.”

As the state reopens, the Moghaddams said they’re handling operations on a day-by-day basis without looking too far ahead.

“That’s all we can do, and hope it gets better. And it’s not looking good, as far as the numbers of people getting sick,” Matthew Moghaddam said.

At Nickey Gregory at the Forest Park market, staff shifted focus to retail sales to get through the challenging months for foodservice customers after restaurants, offices, schools and entertainment centers closed to slow down the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic.

But by June 17, demand was finally picking up, especially with Georgia being one of the first states to re-open its public spaces, said Andrew Scott, director of business development and marketing.

“It’s nice to have restaurants open and people getting back to work after quarantining,” Scott said. 

Also at the market, Athena Farms, a full-service foodservice distributor of fresh produce and other items, lost about 75% of its business overnight, said Robert Poole, senior sales manager.

About 15% of the company’s customers were from nursing homes or other kinds of eldercare facilities, so those didn’t shut down, he said. But the other customers were hotels, restaurants and catering companies.

“We’re slowly, slowly inching back to normal, but we kind of have to see what the next three months hold. We’ll see,” Poole said. 

“After all the protests, if there isn’t a spike, we should go back to normal. All we can do is take one day at a time and keep plugging away.”

RETAIL

Retail produce sales are up, as well as home delivery meals, Scott said.

Comparing 2020 and 2019 Shelby Market Shares data for Georgia (Atlanta, Athens, Macon, Rome) shows that Publix took over the No. 1 position from Kroger within the past year :

  • Publix: 140 stores, 33.6% share;
  • Kroger: 115 stores: 25.2% share;
  • Walmart Supercenter: 81 stores, 17.1% share;
  • Ingles: 35 stores, 6.6% share;
  • Food Depot: 24 stores, 3.4% share; and
  • Whole Foods: 9 stores, 2.4% share. 

2019 Shelby Market Shares data showed that Kroger was the clear retail market leader, with 151 stores and a 30.5% share of the retail grocery market.

FOODSERVICE

“Even though there was a severe downturn with the hotel and restaurant industry, things are slowly coming back. There may be a little thinning of the herd, if you will,” said David Collins, who runs

Collins Bros. Produce Co. with his brothers at the Atlanta State Farmers Market. 

“Maybe those that remain will get stronger or healthier. It’s not going to be what it was overnight.”

Collins’ foodservice customers initially expected foodservice business drop to 20%, but it dropped 70-80%, he said.

So, they shifted employees from foodservice to fill in the gaps in the retail division and also collaborated with other companies in the distribution community to help each other out. 

And then Collins Bros. received the biggest award in the state from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farmers to Families food box program.

USDA FOOD BOXES

On June 1, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue visited the three companies at the Forest Park market that won contracts: 

  • Athena Farms received $1.3 million for fresh fruits and vegetables boxes, as well as $495,000 for dairy products; 
  • Collins Bros. received $7.3 million for a fresh produce box; and 
  • Nickey Gregory received $1.7 million for fresh produce boxes.

Also, Atlanta-based Federation of Southern Cooperatives received $480,000.

Poole said everyone at Athena Farms is “incredibly grateful” for the USDA box program, and they’re anticipating another round. 

“That really saved our butt. We’ve been in business 25 years, so this would be the first time we’d have had to do a really significant cut to our workforce, and I’m not sure if we would’ve survived,” Poole said.

“It’s helped us employ a lot of people, and we’re reaching a lot of people who need help. And when you see people’s faces, the grateful look on their face to receive a box that feeds a family of four, we just feel really, really good about this,” Collins said.

Using its new, almost 80,000 square-foot facility on the market meant for the Phoenix Wholesale Foodservice division, Collins Bros. created about 385,000 Farmers to Families food boxes by June 17, and was 90% complete on the contract, he said.

Nickey Gregory also appreciated the help during the health and economic crisis.

“The USDA program has been a nice shot in the arm for us with our sales being down the past few months,” Scott  said.

The company is delivering the boxes to 12 food banks across Georgia, Florida and North Carolina and also partnering with local counties to deliver more boxes to residences, he said. 

 
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