Business holds steady for Windy City wholesalers

Rob Strube, president of Strube Celery & Vegetable Co., says wholesalers at the Chicago International Produce Market have discussed how to keep business vibrant this year. Photo courtesy FCL Builders

In 2016, Chicago produce distributors said the hometown Cubs’ first World Series victory in more than a century had caused a downward blip in their sales, as viewers stayed home, glued to their TV screens.

This year, there was no World Series, and vendors reported business in 2017 was steady.

Not that there weren’t some concerns, said Mark Pappas, owner of Coosemans Chicago Inc.

“We did lose some smaller retailers in 2017,” he said.

“Some guys that had two stores scaled down to one and guys with three or four scaled down to two. Some closed down altogether. Every year, you get a little attrition, but this year seemed to be a little more active.”

A changing retail scene requires some extra caution for distributors, Pappas said.

“You have to watch your receivables,” he said.

“If somebody is in trouble, you have to stay on top of that.”

Chicago-based wholesaler Strube Celery & Vegetable Co. noted a couple of slow periods in 2017, although sales were generally good, said Rob Strube, president.

“We went through a little soft period in July and August and into September, and October and November haven’t been the greatest of months, at least for the last couple of years,” he said.

“There doesn’t seem to be much excitment yet, but we’re hopeful, with the holidays coming.”

Strube said he couldn’t explain why business had its dips in 2017.

“It’s just a little off, so we’re all trying to figure it out as we walk up and down the market and talk to each other, how to get some excitement here,” he said.

The Chicago produce marketplace has numerous sales drivers, said Jose Gonzalez Jr., owner of Chicago wholesaler J.L. Gonzalez Produce Inc.

“As the grocery market in Chicago becomes increasingly crowded and wages increase at restaurants, our customers are depending on us to provide consistent volume while at the same time they apply significant pricing pressure,” he said.

“Ultimately, our success hinges on customer satisfaction, and they are looking for quality, consistent volume and aggressive pricing.”

 

Online sales?

“My feeling is that produce is still that touch-see-and-smell item,” Strube said about the potential of online produce sales in the coming years.

“At least around here, people want to still see it, touch it, smell it. We still have a tremendous amount of walk-in customers for that reason.”

Chicago-based distributor Testa Produce Inc., which focuses on foodservice, saw steady business in 2017 and expects the same in 2018, said Peter Testa, owner.

“Business has been very good this year,” he said. “It’s a very good market for restaurants.”

The year had its ups and downs, as usual, said Patrick Bowie, a ripener with Chicago-based Atom Banana Inc.

“There’s a peak season where you’re doing well and a time in a particularly in summer where you’re trying to get by,” he said.

“We saw a spike in bananas, usually when school begins. Bananas tend to slow up this time of year.”

Sales should accelerate again around New Year’s, he said.

It also was a very good year for Cee Bee Cartage Inc., a Chicago-based trucking firm, said Tony Capone, partner.

“This year finally put a little life into our business, after the economy and everything before that happened in previous years,” he said.

“Chiquita opened a new distribution center here in 2016. We do four of their lanes for transportation.”

Cee Bee also does regular business with online grocery delivery service Peapod.

“We’ve been very lucky this year, Capone said.

 

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