In whatever form they take, whether retail or foodservice, the produce business is thriving in Boston, wholesalers say.

Vendors say there are a number of potentially viable niches to fill. For Mark Ruma, general manager of Ruma’s Fruit & Gift Basket World in Everett, Mass., it’s primarily retail.

“We do fill-ins when they run out of product,” he said in discussing trade with major chains.

Vegetables are the major revenue stream for Everett-based Community-Suffolk Inc., said Steven Piazza, president and salesman.

“We at Community specialize not in a full line, but the thing we do specialize in is vegetables in serious volume,” he said.

Major items for his company are carrots, potatoes, onions, celery, broccoli and lettuce, he said. Community-Suffolk has about a 50-50 split between retail and foodservice sales, Piazza said.

Among retail customers seen on the terminal market every day, Piazza said, there’s a resurgence of independent retailers.

“I think you’d have to reclassify it, but there’s a new independent out there,” he said.

Many are immigrants from Russia, Cambodia, Vietnam and other countries who have bought up smaller, independent grocery stores, Piazza said.

“They’re catering to local populations, local trends,” he said.

The newcomers are successful, he said.

“And, because they don’t have warehouses, they support the market daily,” he said.
Ken Cavallaro, treasurer for Chelea-based wholesaler John Cerasuolo Co. Inc., agreed the new breed of independents is excelling.

“Whether it’s Russians, Hispanics or Asians — whatever area they’re in, they seem to do well,” he said.
Hispanics and Asians are two of the larger groups.

It translates to sales for Coosemans Boston Inc., said Maurice Crafts, salesman.

“Business seems to be getting better,” he said. “We just recently started loading an extra truck out of (Los Angeles) to satisfy demand.”

New Bedford, Mass.-based Sid Wainer & Son focuses heavily on foodservice business, said Victor Simas, vice president of sales.

“We do a lot of colleges and universities and schools,” he said.

Tastes in that area can be eclectic, which is fine for Wainer & Son, which offers specialty items, Simas said.

“For colleges, most of them are basic, but a lot of them do offer a lot of events where they need specialty foods and those types of needs,” he said.

Restaurant sales booming

The foodservice business is growing in the area, Simas said.

“We have a tremendous reputation, as far as quality, service and value, and if you have those three things going, you’re going to grow,” he said.

South Dennis, Mass.-based Ring Bros. Wholesale operates a wholesale business and two retail sales operations, said Ed Ring, owner.

“Both parts are strong, but the wholesale business is changed, with 25 kinds of lettuce and 25 types of tomatoes,” he said.

The retail business also has expanded its offerings, he said.

“In my little department here, there were over 650 items just in our produce department, where 30 years ago, there was 200 at the most,” he said.

Convenience is a business driver, too, and fresh-cut fruit sales have gone up, Ring said.

“People are busier, or think they are, and they want a good quality product that’s ready to go,” he said.

Ring said one of his retail shops has a Stop & Shop grocery store across the street.

“They do a nice job, but we do everything we can do. It’s our niche,” Ring said.

That niche is to do things that aren’t practical for bigger players to do, Ring said.

“They sell Green Giant bagged beans. We bag our own, and we bag our own brussels sprouts, squeeze our own orange juice fresh every morning, do fresh fruit baskets per order,” he said.

The service makes a difference, he said.