Forest Park, Ga.-based Nickey Gregory Co. showcases some of the tomatoes it packs.
( Nickey Gregory Co. )

Atlanta remains one of the fastest-growing metros in the nation, and demand for fresh produce seems to be keeping pace.

The market added nearly 90,000 people from 2016-17 to a population that already numbered almost 5.8 million, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

“The main factors driving a strong demand for fresh produce in our area are a booming economy, a growing population base and a diversity in product offerings,” said Matt Jardina, vice president of general business operations for Forest Park, Ga.-based J.J. Jardina Co.

Industry members report that changes in the makeup of the market have spurred some innovation in the foodservice arena.

“As Atlanta continues to grow and expand outward, obviously there’s more people so there’s more demand for a lot of diversity in the restaurants and the palates because people come from different ethnic backgrounds, so it’s expanding, especially (for) Coosemans since we’re a specialty produce company,” said Bryan Thornton, general manager of Forest Park-based Coosemans Atlanta. “That does help some of our items.”

Andrew Scott, director of marketing and business development with the Forest Park-based Nickey Gregory Co., also remarked on the growth.

“It’s become almost like an international city,” Scott said. “Tremendous restaurant scene here.”

David Collins III, president of Forest Park-based Phoenix Wholesale Foodservice, noted the increased traffic that accompanies the metro’s growth has also factored into demand.

“It makes it one of the cities to where the average commute time is pretty high, so the more people are on the road, a lot of times the more that they will do convenience shopping ... going to drive-thrus,” Collins said.

He noted that while traditional retail is still very strong, channels designed with ease of use in mind have been growing.

Jardina also mentioned increased interest in convenience, saying fresh-cut produce continues to be on the rise.

“Grab-and-go fruit that has been processed and packaged is in demand and will seemingly stay in demand,” Jardina said.

Consumers are not the only ones who want their food in a form that is closer to ready-to-use; foodservice operators have the same preference.

Scott said that Nickey Gregory began doing some processing a few months ago at the request of customers, as restaurants seek to eliminate more labor from kitchens. In addition to saving time, the change also makes for fewer worker’s compensation claims.

Gene Sutherland Jr., president of Forest Park-based Sutherland’s Foodservice, noted that interest in ethnic produce items has grown as the population has become more diverse.

“Restaurants are using more and more of these items,” Sutherland Jr. said. “Adding these items to their menus help keep them relevant to all types of customers.”

Thornton said he has seen a big jump in hothouse commodities like tomatoes and eggplant.

“There are lettuces also which are grown hydroponically in greenhouses — those seem to be very popular right now,” Thornton said.

He expected discussion around food safety could be one factor increasing interest in those items.