Peter Leifermann remembers working in the foodservice sector in Atlanta in the 1990s when importers were flying in hass avocados from Chile and mangoes in South Florida were priced at $15 per carton.
“Nobody flys in hass avocados from Chile anymore and nobody pays $15 per carton for mangoes anymore, anywhere,” he said.
For Leifermann, now vice president of sales and marketing for Brooks Tropicals LLC, Homestead, Fla., the memory is an example of how both demand and supply of tropical produce has grown in 30 years.
A 25-year veteran of the produce business, Peter Leifermann started his career in Atlanta working for a foodservice jobber to white-tablecloth restaurants and pizza joints in the early ’90s.
Working for good friend Steve Krietman at Harvest Moon Produce in Atlanta, he entered the produce industry after graduating from college with a degree in English.
He later moved to work for Coosemans Atlanta. Over the next seven years he worked at various Coosemans facilities, including Coosemans Cleveland.
In 2000, Peter moved to Homestead, Fla., becoming managing partner at C Brands, which was later purchased by Fresh King.
“I was purchasing from them (at C Brand) and they needed some help and brought me on as a partner,” he said. “So I decided I changed my snow boots for flip flops and move from Cleveland, Ohio, where I literally didn’t take off my boots for three months to Homestead, Fla., where I could wear flip flops every day after work.”
After a couple of other career stops in Florida, Leifermann joined Brooks Tropicals in 2011.
He joined Brooks at the same time Greg Smith joined as CEO.
“We really kind of hit the ground running at the same time,” he said.
The company has gone through a lot of changes in the past seven years, he said.
“We’ve gone from a company that grew 100% of our papayas to having grower relationships in Brazil and Guatemala,” said. “We’re known for our papayas and avocados so that was huge — that we transitioned from being 100% homegrown to working with the best growers in the world,” he said.
The company doesn’t grow papayas anymore but does grow avocados, carambola, guava, passion fruit and other commodities in South Florida.
With hurricanes and tropical storms inevitable, Leifermann said that working with growers and buyers with the long-term picture in mind is essential.
“You have to convince the demand (side) that all is not lost — it is just a hiccup,” he said. “You have to able to convince supply (side) to help you out of the situation.”
From his former perspective as a wholesaler early in his career, Leifermann knew that working with tropicals is challenging.
When he came to the shipping point or f.o.b. market, he saw the opportunity for tropical supply to better serve tropical demand.
“It’s not at all about volume — it’s about quality, communication and consistency,” he said.
“That’s what’s helped me be successful down here.”
For example, after Hurricane Irma, Brooks was able to quickly move to offshore supply and become one of the larger importers of greenskin avocados from the Dominican Republic.
“We immediately (went) from never really needing greenskin avocados, to becoming one of the larger importers — that was done because of decades old relationships in the Dominican that I have.”
A key to success in the produce business, Leifermann said, is understanding that money has to return to the growers.
“When sustainability became a big buzzword several years ago, my first definition of it to my customers was sustainability means we can afford to grow this crop to your specifications and that has to do with quality, food safety, social responsibility, tracking, traceability, etc.,” he said.
Leifermann said transparency is essential.
“I have no qualms sitting down in front of a buyer and explaining to them this is what it costs to transport. This is what it costs to package it. This is what it costs the labor to pack it, this is what it costs the labor to pick it,” he said.
A frustrating part of the business, he said, is the disconnect between what the true costs to raise tropical produce at such a high quality consistently enough to maintain shelf space and be able to afford to do it.
“You can’t have an unprofitable year because you never know when the storm is going to happen,” he said. “That’s the reality of the tropics.”
Looking ahead, he said is very encouraged by the increasing consumption of fresh fruit, and the increasing emphasis on flavor by consumers.
One buyer said Leifermann’s passion about tropical fruit comes through.
“I’ve been working with Peter for the last three years while managing the tropical fruit category for Meijer,” said Kris Pedres, produce buyer with Grand Rapids, Mich.-based Meijer.
“Peter is a very reliable vendor partner who brings a lot of passion and knowledge about the industry — a trait that is particularly important when managing a specialty category like tropicals. He is someone who is always looking for opportunities to grow the category while always being engaged and open to customer’s needs.”