Many Texas distributors say they’re in kind of an in-between mode — between the sales bump of the holidays and the next buildup that starts as spring nears, tourists arrive and conventions come to town.
As schools reopen after the winter break, suppliers who serve institutions of higher learning, such as Big State Produce on the San Antonio Produce Terminal Market, say business is picking up again.
“We’re starting to see an increase now in volume,” Lucky Gonzalez, general manager, said in mid-January.
But prices on some items were a bit hard to swallow because of tight supplies caused by rain in California.
“Tomatoes are way up right now,” he said, as are prices on green bell peppers. And he added that shortages are in evidence on some greens, like baby arugula.
“The prices go up, and you have to adjust your margins and try to convince the customers that it’s just a temporary shortage,” he said.
Still, Gonzalez was optimistic about the coming year.
“I think the conditions are good-to-better to have a good 2020,” he said.
California wasn’t the only area experiencing bad weather.
Severe weather and disease in major Mexican growing areas also have bumped up tomato markets and “caused a tremendous jump in prices” this winter, said Scott Blanchard, CEO of League City, Texas-based TMC Produce Solutions.
The new tomato suspension agreement between the U.S. and Mexico isn’t helping either.
Product that usually costs $15 per carton now is in the $30-40 price range, he said.
Under the agreement that took effect last fall, if a load of tomatoes does not meet stringent criteria, the shipper must pay to return it to Mexico, he said.
As a result, shippers at times are reluctant to export tomatoes to the U.S., resulting in tight supplies and high prices, Blanchard said.
Meanwhile, the emphasis is on local at Hardie’s Fresh Foods, a Dallas-based distributor.
Michelle Weech, vice president of marketing, said she believes the company offers the widest variety of local produce and other items — like locally produced honey — of any distributor in the state.
Hardie’s has been working on its local program for quite a while, she said, and even has a sustainability coordinator — Larry Lee — on staff who works with local growers.
“He’s kind of a cross between product management, marketing and procurement,” she said.
One of his tasks is to help growers — especially smaller ones — prepare for third-party audits, which the company requires of all of its vendors.
The company’s products include hydroponic lettuce, local sweet potatoes, beets, ruby red grapefruit and Texas oranges.
Many Texas companies offer a wide range of quality products, and Brent Erenwert, CEO at Brothers Produce Inc. in Houston, said he can’t tell customers that his lettuce is necessarily better than someone else’s.
So to set Brothers Produce apart from the competition, Erenwert decided to focus on marketing the firm as the go-to source for food safety, education and top-notch service.
“Customers are becoming more cautious about food safety,” he said. “The cost of liability for an end user who does not pay attention to where their produce is coming from could put them out of business.”
Erenwert created a slogan that he said sums up what his company stands for: “Grown by nature, driven by food safety and delivered by us.”
The company works primarily with retail and foodservice customers, and Erenwert said he tries to educate schools and universities about food safety awareness.
Getting fresh produce from one place to another is a concern of Mark Frazier, owner and president of WG Frazier & Son Inc., a San Antonio-based truck broker.
He said rising transportation costs and tightening regulations are making life difficult for truckers and shippers alike.
The company, which transports a variety of produce commodities, including avocados, onions, watermelons, cabbage, as well as non-produce items, handles product from sources in Texas and in Mexico.
He said he’s hopeful the transportation situation will improve in February, when the local harvest starts in Texas.