“Chicago is a very competitive market,” says Janice Honigberg, president and founder of Sun Belle Inc. The company specializes in the berry category and provides blueberries, strawberries, raspberries and blackberries year-round. ( Courtesy Sun Belle Inc. )

With the arrival of the holiday season coupled with the general trend toward more healthful eating, business among Chicago-area produce distributors seems to be thriving.

The Chicago International Produce Market itself is doing solid business, said Steve Serck, owner of JAB Produce Inc., which is based on the market.

“The Chicago International Produce Market is a very strong, viable place for people to get produce,” he said.

The market is supported largely by independent grocers throughout the Chicago metropolitan area — and beyond.

Buyers visit the facility from as far away as Kentucky, Indiana, Michigan and Wisconsin, Serck said.

“We’re the biggest market in the Midwest,” he added.

He noted that quite a bit of consolidation has been taking place on the market.

“Some of the smaller houses have closed up and been bought out by other vendors that needed more space,” Serck said.    

JAB Produce offers a wide range of produce, including berries, vegetables and “super vegetables” like watercress, arugula and brussels sprouts, he said.

Agrow Fresh Produce Co. in Chicago also has been doing well, said Ed Romanelli, vice president of sales and marketing.

“Business is pretty good for us,” he said.

The company offers several pack sizes of red, Yukon gold and russet potatoes.

But he said problems in some growing areas could present a challenge this season.

“It’s going to be tough going forward,” he said, because of prolonged wet conditions in late September and early October in North Dakota, where some growers lost 45% to 60% of their potatoes.

“They never got them out of the ground,” he said.    

Tight supplies already were affecting prices, he said in late November, but still, he expected supplies to be adequate to fill orders for the company’s regular customers.

The Agrow Fresh product line includes 5-pound bags of yukon gold, red and russet potatoes and 24-ounce bags of petite-size red and Yukon gold potatoes.

Business has been “steady” for Strube Celery and Vegetable Co. in Chicago as retail customers grow and expand their stores, said TJ Fleming, vice president.

The company has been doing more repacking and breakdowns, he added, since many stores don’t need a 40-pound box of jalapeno peppers or cilantro.

“We’re breaking those down to 5 or 10 pounds or customized counts for customers,” Fleming said.

Strube has just launched its own organic department.

Many customers place their conventional orders and then go to the organic desk and buy organic versions of the same items, he said.

Fleming said the company is preparing for a “surge around the holidays.”

The holiday period also is a very busy time for Sun Belle Inc., Schiller Park, Ill., said Janice Honigberg, president and founder.

“Chicago is a very competitive market,” she said, “with a variety of fine retailers.”

The company specializes in the berry category and provides blueberries, strawberries, raspberries and blackberries year-round.

Sun Belle also offers a variety of specialty items, including hothouse vegetables, papayas, Belgian endive, French beans, sugar snap peas, snow peas, ginger, shallots, cucumbers, eggplant and tomatoes.

Sources of produce for Chicago-area buyers vary by season, said Roger Riehm, owner of Blue Creek Produce Co. Inc., St. Charles, Ill.

During the winter, the company pulls largely from Florida and Mexico. But in summer, “local” produce, including product from Indiana, Ohio and Michigan, make up most of its product line.

Canada has a full greenhouse program in summer that can offer next day delivery in the Chicago market, he said.

Foodservice accounts for a large part of the business at a number of Chicago distributors, including Blue Creek Produce.

Tomatoes and peppers are popular foodservice items, with some operators requesting specific types of tomatoes, Riehm said.

For example, white-table cloth establishments may order large-size tomatoes, a selection of colored fruit or even yellow pear tomatoes.

Fast-food restaurants often request grape tomatoes for salad bars.

Strube Celery and Vegetable Co. also does a healthy foodservice business.

Fleming said nearly 50% of the company’s sales are to major foodservice suppliers as well as independent suppliers with one or two trucks.

Speaking of trucks and transportation, Fleming said trucks were running steady as of late November, but he added that new regulations require more advance planning than a year or so ago. 

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