Scott Leimkuhler, vice president of sales for Progressive Produce LLC, checks out some onions in mid- August. ( Tom Burfield )

Perspectives on how the Los Angeles produce scene is unfolding this summer range from very good to mediocre, but nobody’s saying the season is a dud.

“The year got off to a strong start in Southern California,” said Scott Leimkuhler, vice president of sales for Los Angeles-based Progressive Produce LLC.

“We felt the impact of the first quarter of total produce dollars and volume being up,” he said.

And that impact continued.

“The market has seen an exponential growth of organic items with a 5% increase in volume,” he said, adding that sales of non-GMO items are up as well.

At Veg-Land Inc./JBJ Distributing Inc., Fullerton, Calif., general manager Dominic Etcheberria said, “Sales are about even. Steady as she goes.”

The company had a successful lettuce program out of Hollister, Calif., this spring; will ship red, yellow and white onions from California until fall; and will have green bell peppers until October, he said.

A notable growth item is the 1-pound retail pack of plastic pouch bags and netted bags for items like Brussels sprouts, green beans and mini sweet peppers, he said.

“We’ve seen a lot of consistent business with that, and it continues to grow,” Etcheberria said.

Business this summer “has been steady and comparable to last year,” said Donald Souther, vice president of marketing and sales development for Vision Produce Co., Los Angeles.

Tropical items like mangoes and limes have experienced strong movement, he said.        

 

Retail

On the retail scene, Los Angeles, like other markets, continues to react to Amazon’s $14 billion purchase of Whole Foods Market.

The deal made sense, said Dick Spezzano, president of Spezzano Consulting Services, Monrovia, Calif., since the demographics for the food stores and for Amazon Prime, whose members get perks at Whole Foods, are similar in many respects — young, highly educated, high-income earners.

Other chains are trying to counter Amazon’s delivery operation by implementing their own online programs or turning to third parties like Instacart to avoid losing market share, he said.

Meanwhile, Aldi, the German discount chain that opened its first stores in California a little over a year ago, is spending $5 billion to remodel its legacy stores to make them look more like California stores by installing refrigeration for produce, for example, and adding new fixtures, Spezzano said.

               

Foodservice

Foodservice suppliers appear to be profiting from consumers’ desire to eat healthy.

Los Angeles-based Harvest Sensations LLC “has been enjoying a healthy uptick due to dietary shifts and trends in eating behaviors by all age groups, but especially for millennials,” said Robin Osterhues, director of marketing.

“The shift toward plant-based diets has greatly propelled fruits and vegetables to be the new center of the plate,” she said.

Even baby boomers are adopting a “flexitarian attitude” — eating more fruits and vegetables with less focus on meat — she said.

Vegetable bowls are becoming a new favorite for breakfast, Osterhues said, and value-added foodservice items, fresh herbs and organics, such as diced sweet potatoes and butternut squash, have shown steady growth.

 

Produce market

Business on the Los Angeles Wholesale Produce Market has been “OK,” said Rocky Ramirez, sales manager for Olympic Fruit & Vegetable Distributors.

“It is steady as she goes,” he said. “The needle is not moving one way or the other.”

Sales may up a bit from last year, but the market has changed a lot from a decade ago as major retail chains continue to bypass it.

“Instead of using the market as their main source, they’re going direct and using the market for shorts,” he said.

Even some buyers who used to sell through distributors on the market are forging their own deals directly with buyers, he said.

“Sometimes they are our biggest competition,” Ramirez said.

Across the street, rumors continue to circulate about the fate of the 101-year-old Seventh Street Market, which was purchased by New York-based Atlas Capital Group LLC in 2014, but the company said it plans to continue operation of the market.

 

Specialties

Specialty produce has been another summer favorite.

“This summer has been one of the busiest summer seasons,” said Alex Jackson Berkley, assistant sales manager for Frieda’s Inc., Los Alamitos, Calif.

“Even with the strong heat and California fires, we have seen momentum with summer crops like chili peppers, melons, stone fruits and tropical fruits,” she said.

Jackfruit, red dragon fruit, young coconuts and Hatch chilies have been popular this summer.

Los Angeles-based World Variety Produce Inc., which markets under the Melissa’s brand, is “seeing an exciting summer season” of variety grapes, melons, figs and tree fruits like peaches, nectarines, plums and plumcots, said Robert Schueller, director of public relations.

Vegetables like tomatoes, summer squash, cucumbers and Hatch chilies were peaking in mid-August, he said.

 
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