BOSTON — This Northeast U.S. region marked by wealth, smaller independent retailers, ethnic diversity and high-end foodservice keeps adjusting to today’s challenges to feed its people and those beyond its borders.
These characteristics mean good business for New England area fresh produce industry professionals — provided they work smarter and keep a tight control on their inventory to combat the rising costs of, well, everything.
“There’s a lot of power and opportunity that comes out of Boston,” said Fernando Aguiar, senior account manager for Naturipe Farms, an international grower-packer-shipper of berries.
New England is still the No. 1 market for berry consumption like it was 15 years ago, so it was a no-brainer to keep a Naturipe office in the region to this day, Aguiar said.
He handles big-box stores as well as club stores, foodservice and wholesale business in the office above the six-vendor Boston Market Terminal in Everett.
The terminal is a stone’s throw across the parking lot to the larger New England Produce Center in Chelsea, which is near the New England Flower Exchange.
“It’s also a big foodservice market in Boston,” Aguiar said. “They demand higher-grade specs, like a stem strawberry. We get requests for premium products, like a chocolate-dipped, nut-covered strawberry.”
Besides doing local blueberries and fill-ins for local retailers, in April, May and June, Everett-based Ruma Fruit and Produce Co. packs and distributes fresh fiddleheads in all major nationwide chain stores and foodservice suppliers, said Jim Ruma, company president.
“We have a very strong economy in the Boston area, a lot of new businesses coming into the city and new restaurants, hotels and retailers. The Boston area is very active in terms of growth,” Ruma said.
Peter Resteghini, who buys and sells mostly berries and melons for 4M Fruit Distributors at the New England Produce Center, said overall, business is steady day to day, although it’s changed.
“Dollar-wise, business is great. Volume is another story,” Resteghini said.
Retailers are asking for less volume, and growers are getting more yield from less acreage.
“It costs a lot more to package these products, so I think everybody has to work a little smarter, have better inventory control,” he said.
Supplying the trends
This urban environment where many cultures mix means there are more specialty items than ever.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Boston terminal price listings include large categories for tropical fruits and vegetables, Asian vegetables, nuts, herbs and ornamental flowers.
The nearby Market Basket retail location has a dizzying array of produce for the sophisticated trend-oriented shopper, as well as shoppers who stick to the food of their ethnic heritage. The rows of locally grown, organic, fresh-cut, value-added, packaged and loose Asian, Latin and Caribbean items are poised to satisfy most of the world’s preferences.
The top five retailers are Stop & Shop, C&C (a wholesaler), Hannaford, Shaw’s and Market Basket in the Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New Hampshire and Maine region, according to the latest Shelby Market Shares data. Major cities include Bangor, Boston, Manchester, Portland and Providence.
Buyers from these large regional retailers will go to the local wholesale markets to fill in their orders when their supplies from direct sources fall short, or when there are special deals.
The amount of variety in the area is getting almost ridiculous, said Stephen J. Condakes, vice president and director of marketing at Peter Condakes Co. in Chelsea.
“In the tomato line, if you walk through a supermarket, you will see the most confusing display of product that you could possibly see. I mean, we, here, carry maybe over 25 different [stock-keeping units] of different style tomatoes,” Condakes said as he stood in the tomato repacking plant.
“A supermarket will carry over 50. A shopper walks in and sees over 30 feet of tomatoes. What do you buy? It’s confusing.”
At the Peter Condakes Co. wholesale division, vegetable salesman Paul Coronella said he’s watched the consumer demand trends evolve since he started in this business in 1974. He’s amazed by the growing desire for more baby arugula year-round, and Brussels sprouts in fall and winter. Chicory seems to be dwindling in demand.
“That’s going absolutely crazy. It’s unbelievable,” Coronella said about baby arugula. “That’s an item that’s taken off just in the last couple years. Also, kale, year-round.”
Side by side, the Boston Market Terminal in Everett and New England Produce Center in Chelsea, plus all the large companies established in surrounding buildings, comprise the heart of New England’s fresh produce industry.
The produce center was completed in 1968 to replace the Faneuil Hall, where Boston area farmers had sold their fruits and vegetables since 30 years before the Revolutionary War.
It’s the largest privately owned terminal market in the U.S., organized by a board of directors comprised of tenants voted in annually, according to the center’s website. There are 128 store units, 24-feet-by-100-feet.
The center has 27 vendors today taking up those units, said manager John Lucero.
The terminal, which has six vendors today, was built later in 1968 for overflow. It’s owned by three major stockholder and a few smaller shareholders, said Jim Praski, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s officer-in-charge of Fruit and Vegetable Market News.
Railway access still enables train car delivery of carrots, potatoes and onions. Trucks drop off and pick up shipments on both sides of the facilities.
Finding a new niche
Boston’s wholesalers, distributers and marketers are consolidating while also diversifying to survive as national retailers bypass them to source directly at the farms.
Tommy Piazza, corporation clerk and head of potato procurement and sales at Community-Suffolk Inc. in Everett, said the Boston Market Terminal is helping large retailers in the New England region including Maine, Vermont, western Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island when they run long, as well as short.
“We can handle it for them, and handle it fairly,” Piazza said.
“In chain stores’ large-volume contract situations, if there’s a hiccup, they have a place to replace what they need. And with growers, if there’s surplus anywhere, there’s talent and integrity here to sell it at the market rate so as not to cause terrible damage in the market.”
To survive these days, Boston area produce professionals have to work in an even more “smart, honest way,” Piazza said. “The days of taking an extra margin — not that it was ever right — are done.”
For retailers, it’s no longer just filling the produce counter and hoping shoppers buy it. There’s a lot of dot-com business to be had, Aguiar said, from home-delivery programs to curbside pickup services to personal shoppers.
“They all do it a little differently,” Aguiar said.
“Change is coming, and we see that we’ll have to develop something that’s more dot-com efficient. As an industry, we’re going to figure it out — how to get one clamshell of strawberries delivered to your home.”