John Gates, president of Lancaster Foods Inc., checks out the company's fresh-cut produce. ( Courtesy Lancaster Foods Inc. )

In a sense, all roads lead to the nation’s capital — the center of power in the U.S.

But the megalopolis that is the Washington, D.C.-Baltimore market has also become a destination for produce, produce suppliers say.

It’s been a long time coming, said Kevin Keany, president of Landover, Md.-based wholesale distributor and fresh-cut processor Keany Produce Co.

“I think both cities have become regional powerhouses of bringing farmers to the table,” Keany said. 

“Chefs are building connections with farmers at area markets and have the expectations for wholesalers to provide their crops.”

There are many growers in the region to whom Keany and other purveyors look for product, he said, adding that some of his company’s relationships with growers go back decades.

“We currently offer the most robust local program in the area, with over 40 local partners in Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Delaware, West Virginia and North Carolina,” Keany said. 

“The market’s demand for local has become a way for us to be a mid-Atlantic resource for these small farms to expand.”

Farms across the region benefit, as well, Keany said.

“As a result of their expansion, crops are able to diversify because farmers are able to invest in other methods of farming,” he said. 

Things were a bit different only 10 years ago, when “the only local crops you could find in abundance were tomatoes, corn, squash, and some stone fruit,” Keany said. 

“Now, the market is extremely diverse, with regional growers like Baywater Farms, Lakeville Specialty, and Fresh2o Growers, who are able to offer year-round products because of their investment in hydroponics.”

The market has become digitized, easing access to its bevy of restaurants, in particular, as well, Keany said.

“Digital recognition has become, not only in this market, but across all of foodservice, a central driver that was not nearly as valued 10 years ago as it is today,” Keany said. “People have access to all information at any time, and they’re also able to contribute to that information. Platforms like Yelp, Google Maps, Trip Advisor and OpenTable are giving consumers a peek into a restaurant without having to try it themselves.” 

Social media has also played a huge role in digital recognition as many consumers prefer the visual appeal from sites like Instagram and Facebook before investing time and money at a new venue, Keany said.

“Additionally, transportation has become more readily available and affordable with companies like Uber, Lyft, Bird and Lime, ultimately creating more ease for people to get around the city and try new restaurants they may not have tried before. All three of these factors are playing an instrumental role in the entire foodservice industry and will lead it into the next phase.” 

Distributors can order full lines of fruits and vegetables from Virginia, Pennsylvania and the DelMarVa Peninsula, all of which are in their peak production seasons during the summer.

“This is the busy season, and it has been rather busy,” said Dave Goodman, president of Jessup, Md.-based wholesaler Sid Goodman & Co. Inc., which is located on the Maryland Wholesale Produce Market. 

The local season this year has had a few challenges, though, Goodman said.

“It’s a strange growing year with all this heat,” he said. “Some stuff’s way ahead, some way behind. You work around it.”

Business also has been vigorous for Jessup wholesaler Edward G. Rahll & Sons Inc., said Joe Rahll, president.
“Sales are stronger than in the past — no complaints,” Rahll said.

Strengthening the business climate, the Baltimore-D.C. metro area has a melange of cultures, with varying tastes, said Steve Vilnit, vice president of marketing for Capital Seaboard/G. Cefalu & Bro. Inc., Jessup.

“The biggest changes we have seen in the market have been the push for both more local and ethnic products,” he said. 

“The foodservice side of our business, primarily the high-end dining establishments, want to have the story behind their product and have a connection with where their produce is coming from.”

Produce vendors have diversified, along with the demographics of the market, Keany said.

“There are changes in cuisine offerings as more ethnic food becomes more accessible and consumers are willing to try new things,” he said. 

“As a result, our product mix has become much more diverse than it was 10 years ago.”

The wholesale business has been growing rapidly, with multicultural markets opening across the region, Vilnit said.

“The demand to have more products that their customers are familiar with has also changed where we are sourcing our products from, as we look to more Asian produce than we have in years past,” he said.

Diversity is a fuel of the produce business in the metro area, said John Gates, president of Lancaster Foods Inc., which is based in Jessup but off the terminal market. 

“We’re defined by diversity here in this market,” Gates said. “We also have some really top-notch retailers who have really upped their game. That works in driving sales, which is good for us in this marketplace.”

The more products a supplier can offer, it seems, the more opportunities are available, Gates said.

“All these meal-kit companies are innovative,” he said. “Major chains are excellent. We’ve got some new chains and independents that are doing well. We have a good mix here.”

Business hasn’t changed much over the years; the region was good and remains so, for produce suppliers, said Bill Class, president of Class Produce Group LLC in Jessup.

“I don’t see it as any different (than it was 10 years ago). I mean, it’s different by heavy retail and restaurant business in an area with a large amount of people,” he said.