Sometimes people selling the produce outnumber the buyers at the LA Wholesale Produce Market. ( Courtesy Coosemans LA )

The COVID-19 pandemic’s effect on produce sales is playing out at terminal markets across the country, and Steve Cantor, partner at Produce International LLC at the Los Angeles Wholesale Produce Market, described how barren the location can get.

There are times when you can roll a bowling ball down the row of businesses and not hit anyone.

Lately, those selling produce can outnumber the buyers.

The situation is similar, if not worse, at the Seventh Street Market next door.

So far, most of the markets’ wholesalers and distributors have managed to stay afloat, but they say it can be a challenge.

As with produce suppliers nationwide, Los Angeles distributors that serve the foodservice industry are hardest hit.

Coosemans L.A. Inc. has suffered a one-two punch: Not only is most of its business with restaurants, but Coosemans specializes in high-end, specialty vegetables.

Restaurants that are still open — offering takeout or delivery — aren’t spending a lot of money on seasonal wild mushrooms or wild leeks from the East Coast, said Alan Pollack, general manager.

“Nobody’s knocking down the doors for it,” he said.

At the same time, some retail customers have changed their buying habits.

They are buying more retail packs, such as overwrapped trays of mushrooms instead of bulk cartons, Pollack said.

“(Retailers) don’t want people touching and sorting through open items.”

Rocky Ramirez, sales manager at Olympic Fruit & Vegetable Distributors, has seen better times on the market.

“It’s rough going,” he said. “I’ve never seen the market in this shape.”

Ramirez considers Olympic lucky, because sales are down only 15% or so.

“We’re very fortunate that we handle the schools,” he said.

Even though schools are closed, they continue to feed children in need.

“Those are probably the healthiest meals they have all day,” Ramirez said.

Business can be off more than 50% for companies whose sale are 80%-90% foodservice, he said.

But he said most of the business on the Los Angeles Wholesale Produce Market is retail.

“Everything is moving,” he said. “Just not as much as it used to be.”

Distributors say they are complying with COVID-19 mandates, requiring employees to wear masks and gloves and adhere to social distancing requirements, sanitizing surfaces, keeping customers out of offices and warehouses and asking employees to stay home at full pay if they are sick.

Some distributors are cutting employees’ hours or closing an extra day each week, Ramirez said.

Olympic has tried to open later and close an hour or so earlier, but that’s been hard to do.

Stragglers tend to come in around closing time, he said, so the business ends up staying open almost until the normal closing time.

On the Seventh Street Market, Carlos Franco, manager at Elias Produce, said business at some places is down 70%-90%.

Sales seem to be coming back slowly, but he said some companies that depend on the restaurant industry may not survive.

“I feel bad for them,” Franco said.

Many small restaurants, bakeries and smoothie shops that Elias Produce supplies have remained opened, although sales are down. A smoothie shop that used to order 50 cases of strawberries is down to five or 10, and a restaurant that bought 10-15 boxes of iceberg lettuce now buys one or two.

With people confined to their homes, the company has launched a home delivery service, primarily for strawberries.

“It’s been going really, really well,” Franco said.

Though business is down significantly, Franco said he has not reduced his workforce.

“If they were with us in the good times, we can’t let them go in the bad times,” he said. 

At Produce International, Cantor said the pandemic has prompted him to caution his sales staff when making sales.

Many buyers must receive payment from restaurants before they can pay their bills.

“We don’t want their overall balance to go crazy,” Cantor said. “The people they sell to might have trouble paying them.”

Produce International monitors credit ratings and holds weekly meetings to review all accounts and to see where buyers stand.

“We critique everyone,” he said.

For updates on the pandemic's effect on retailers, foodservice operators and wholesalers, see The Packer's COVID-19 webpage.

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