Dominic Etcheberria, general manager of JBJ Distributing Inc./Veg-Land Inc., watches workers repack California-grown organic lemons in early May. ( Tom Burfield )

Business on the Los Angeles Wholesale Produce Market seemed to be off to a slow start this summer, while the supermarket industry continues to evolve and organic, specialty and foodservice categories thrive.

It’s not unusual for the late spring/summer season to start off slowly, said Rocky Ramirez, sales manager for Olympic Fruit & Vegetable Distributors on the Los Angeles terminal market. 

“But it seems that we’ve gotten into a slower start than normal,” he said.

At least part of the lackluster launch of summer can be attributed to heavy winter and spring rains from the California growing areas all the way down to southern Mexico.

Wet weather delayed crops, created quality problems and pushed up prices.

Thirty-count cartons of celery were selling for $55-60 in mid-June, Ramirez said, several times what they were going for a year ago.

“This is the slowest start I can remember in quite some time,” he said.

But Ramirez tried to remain positive.

“It’s taking a long time for this to kick in,” he said. “It’s a slow, slow kick.”

Across the street, the Seventh Street Market now is part of what is known as ROW DTLA, a collection of retail outlets, pop-up shops, offices and restaurants in a 30-acre historic district.

The property was purchased by New York-based Atlas Capital Group LLC in 2014, and the company says it remains “committed to our bustling produce market.”

On the supermarket scene, member of the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union were expected to take a strike authorization vote June 24-25 after three months of stalled contract negotiations.

The vote can be a tactic to put pressure on Southern California’s major supermarket chains to step up talks, next scheduled for mid-July, and doesn’t necessarily mean a strike is imminent.

Meanwhile, Aldi, the German discount grocer, continues to open stores in California, albeit at a slower pace than originally anticipated, said Dick Spezzano, president of Spezzano Consulting Services, Monrovia, Calif.

The chain opened its 64th California store in Panorama City on April 11 and is expected to open 14 more by the end of the year.

Specialty produce also continues to be popular.

While summer traditionally is a slower time for retail, tropical items from Los Alamitos, Calif.-based Frieda’s Inc. are affecting summer sales year-over-year as a result of the company’s innovative merchandising, said Alex Berkley, sales manager.

In a study with C+R Research, Frieda’s found that up to 20% of consumers are more excited to try items tropicals this summer instead of traditional items like pluot varieties, she said.

Besides three major summer fruit categories — tree fruit, melons and figs — a number of seasonal vegetables will be available from Los Angeles-based World Variety Produce Inc., said Robert Schueller, director of public relations.

They include Melissa’s brand zucchini, yellow squash, beans, and green, purple and baby artichokes.

Organic fruits and vegetables also continue to make inroads in Southern California.

All of the growers for Fullerton, Calif.-based JBJ Distributing Inc./Veg-Land Inc. are certified organic, said general manager Dominic Etcheberria.

The company recently finished its leaf program out of Hollister, Calif., and was preparing to start mini sweet peppers out of Orange County for a one-month push before moving to Lompoc, Calif., from August to October.

Foodservice produce sales also are going strong in Southern California.

“Business is up overall in our LA region,” said Terri Fletcher, sales director, Los Angeles, for Los Angeles-based Harvest Sensations.

“Last year, plant-based protein shipments from foodservice distributors to restaurant operators increased 20% with double-digit growth across the country, not just here in Los Angeles,” said Robin Osterhues, director of marketing.

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