( Courtesy Phoenix Wholesale Foodservice Inc. )

For produce, Atlanta is the Big Time, vendors say.

“Twenty years ago, you could find raspberries — jump through hoops to get them for somebody,” said Robert Poole, sales director with wholesaler Athena Farms, which operates on the Atlanta State Farmers Market in Forest Park, Ga. 

Now, virtually everything is available, he said.

“I think it’s a combination of the grocery stores have upped their game, (and) restaurants are using a bigger variety of items,” he said.

The city’s food scene has evolved over the years, he said. 

“I think Atlanta is routinely rated in the top 10 or top five of restaurants in the U.S., whatever you want,” Poole said. “There are steakhouses, all kinds of burger joints that are amazing. It’s incredible.

It’s Athena’s job to help them grow, Poole said.

“Our goal — we win by helping our customers win; it’s kind of fun,” he said. “Our goal is to be more than just a vendor.”

The business is about relationships, and developing those relationships is how a produce vendor can grow in Atlanta, Poole said.

“It’s kind of like you make your grocery store choices based on more than just price, and so there’s a lot of factors that go in there; ultimately, you’ve got to like and trust who you’re buying from,” Poole said. 

Athena Farms started in early 1997, months after Atlanta hosted the 1996 Summer Olympics.

The company has stayed focused on serving the city, Poole said.

“The way a lot of our competitors have broadened their footprint, so to speak, as far as going into other markets, part of our strategy is to keep a really tight delivery area and service the heck out of that area,” he said.

The Olympics “made Atlanta a destination city,” and the city has been fertile ground for produce sales ever since, said David Collins, president of Forest Park-based Phoenix Wholesale Foodservice Inc.

“Atlanta has always been a hub in the Southeast, with the world’s largest airport,” he said. “Restaurants are a target for them to enter the market. It’s a brisk, vibrant marketplace with a vibrant diversity, and we continue to see strong growth patterns.”

Phoenix has divisions dedicated to foodservice and retail, so the company is “one-size-fits-all,” Collins said.

“We started off in the retail aspect of it and were selling to the foodservice people and, over 20 years ago as we were expanding, we bought a company next to us that had a lot of foodservice business, but I think each one feeds off the other,” he said. 

“The things that foodservice does may be more specialty-minded and helps out the retail when they need it. One might have something that the other one does not.”

Coosemans Atlanta Inc., which also operates on the Atlanta State Farmers Market, has seen demand for its specialty products grow steadily, said Bryan Thornton, general manager.

“It’s been wonderful,” he said. “We take care of the people that walk through this door, and they keep coming back.”
Healthy economic conditions and robust population growth in Atlanta have fueled growth of the local produce business, said Blair Greenhill, purchasing director with Atlanta-based wholesaler Nickey Gregory Co. LLC.

“A strong economy, low unemployment and a continuing migration trend nationally to warmer southern states have all helped our business grow,” he said. 

Forest Park-based Sunbelt Produce Distributors has seen similar growth, said Cliff Sherman, owner.

“Everything is in a steady upper trend for us — everything we touch,” he said.

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