( File photo )

Chicago’s vibrant economy is fueling big demand for produce distributors.

“(The) Chicago economy is strong and does not look like it will be changing anytime soon,” said Ed Romanelli, vice president of sales and marketing for Chicago-based Agrow Fresh Produce Co.

“I believe the economy is probably as good or better than it ever has been,” said Vance Jackson, owner of Vegetable Fresh Inc., Chicago.

TJ Fleming, vice president of Strube Celery & Vegetable Co., Chicago, said it has been a good year.

“The markets are good, demand is good, so overall it has been a good year,” he said.

The Chicago International Produce Market has more than 20 merchants serving the metropolitan region, offering value-added services including ripening, custom repacking, custom packaging, private-label programs, cross docking, daily delivery, full truckload services and forward distribution.

Other firms operate outside the market.

Transportation

While there is more f.o.b. buying of produce among the city’s retailers, Romanelli said, the challenging state of trucking has made that more difficult.

“Transportation is a lot tougher,” Romanelli said.

”We have a dedicated staff that does an excellent job making sure we have the inventory we need delivered on time to us so that we can produce the packages we need to take care of our customers’ needs on time, every time.”

Romanelli said there also seems to be more of a demand for long-term pricing contracts.

“We have aligned our company with growers throughout the various growing regions that will supply us year-round, which makes long-term projections and contract sales easier in these changing times,” he said.

Independent retailers continue to expand in the city, he said.

“Retail seems to have moved to almost a European model with shoppers buying perishables for two to three days instead of a full week,” he said.

“Part of that could be that they are buying center store items online and wanting to see and feel their fresh produce as many of us do,” Romanelli said.

Foodservice trends

Foodservice buyers are paying attention to trending vegetables such as broccoli, kale and Brussels sprouts, said Vance Jackson, owner of Vegetable Fresh Inc., Chicago.

“There seems to be a big push for items like kale and Brussels sprouts,” he said.

“The demand for those items has picked up a lot,” he said, noting for interest in new types of cuts and new uses.

“There’s only so many crops out there to be had, so it’s just a matter of developing new cuts, new ways to serve them, new ways to blend and things like that,” he said.

“Probably eight years ago, nobody even heard of a shredded Brussels sprout and now it’s a hot item,” he said.

“Everybody’s doing everything they can with Brussels sprouts, from quartering, halving, shredding, mixing it with kale,” he said.

Butternut squash is another hot foodservice commodity, he said.

“More and more people out there serving butternut soups and roasted butternut,” he said. “Butternut squash is a big mover over the last few years.”

Organic demand in foodservice sees strong interest from some buyers, but Jackson said organic produce demand in foodservice has been something of a disappointment, he said.

Local produce demand is strong, but conditions didn’t favor some local production this year, Jackson said.

Rainy and cold weather in the spring delayed planting for some crops, he said.

“We’re still experiencing that now, and Wisconsin cabbage never really turned up (with the volume) that it normally does,” he said.

“And that’s probably what’s causing the cabbage market to be what it is right now, which is basically double what it normally is,” he said.

Jackson said green peppers, zucchini and yellow squash were not as plentiful out of Michigan as they normally are.

Meal kit growth

Home meal delivery is gaining traction in Chicago, Jackson said.

“Those guys have taken a huge leap,” he said, though it remains to be seen how sustainable the demand is over the long term.

Delivery of meals from restaurants also seems to have gained ground, Jackson said.

“It’s just easier for people to get food,” he said.

“They just go on their phone and use Uber Eats, and so instead of going out, maybe they’re eating in more, but still ordering from restaurants,” he said

 
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