Produce wholesalers in Atlanta face the same economic hurdles that challenge other distributors.

The city, home of at least 20 Fortune 500 companies, attracts many people from other parts of the U.S. with its fairly inexpensive cost of living.

Unemployment remains high, however, and distributors say news reports have the city’s economy in a depressed state.

“The Atlanta economy is rough,” said Diana Earwood, vice president of Sutherland’s Foodservice Inc., Atlanta.

Slow economy drags business for wholesalers

Courtesy General Produce

Apples repacking at General Produce Inc., Atlanta.

“Being on the street with the people we deal with and what you face on a daily basis, a lot of people are struggling here.”

Declining paychecks affect demand for produce and other items and services and can result in fewer cartons of produce being loaded onto trucks at the Atlanta State Farmers Market in Forest Park, Ga.

David Collins III, president of the Forest Park-based Phoenix Wholesale Foodservice Inc., said business overall has declined.

Soft economy

“We are dealing with a soft economy,” he said. “The housing market has affected so many people. When peoples’ homes are in jeopardy and you have record foreclosure rates around the country, you know other things are in jeopardy. We are optimistic and do see some signs of improvement, but it’s not enough to call it a recovery.”

While produce sales haven’t been setting any records, Brian Young, general manager of Coosemans Atlanta Inc., said business isn’t slipping either.

He said sales remain steady and that Atlanta’s economy seems to be status quo.

Young said several new foodservice entities have entered the Atlanta region, including a steakhouse concept involved in the reopening of the Loews hotel in the Buckhead area of town and a new hamburger chain from the West.

Denver-based Smashburger, where servers wait on customers at their tables, plans to open 30 locations in the Atlanta area in the next 3-5 years, according to the Atlanta Business Chronicle.

“Atlanta seems to be a significant target for start-ups,” Young said.

“When you see all the start-ups that are coming here, that’s a good indication that things may be looking for the better here soon.”

Difficult sales

David Rose, president of broker Merrin-Cravens Co., Atlanta, said produce sales have been difficult.

“It has been a tough last couple of months because of the winter and availability of product and the economy,” he said.

“Not only is the economy to blame for average sales, but a lot of product was tight this winter. There are a lot of high prices as well. Things are in short supply and customers are probably a little more careful.”

Howard Mundt, president of Harvest Brokerage, Atlanta, called most brokers’ and wholesalers’ sales consistent.

“I don’t see anyone closing on this terminal market,” he said. “You don’t even hear any bad rumors about anyone.”

As at other terminal markets, sellers have to deal with customers that are becoming more price-conscious, Mundt said.

In the past, a seller could sell a quality product for maybe 50 cents or a dollar a package more. Today, however, everyone knows who packs the better packages and sellers cannot fool buyers anymore, he said.

“There are no easy markets,” Mundt said. “Everyone tries to shop you. Believe me, they do, for the best price. Pennies, nickels, dimes and quarters make a big difference.”

City remains strong

Andrew Scott, sales and procurement manager for General Produce Inc., Atlanta, said General Produce’s business has prospered.

He said he doesn’t think the city’s economy is on life support.

“I think the economy is going better here than in other areas,’ Scott said.

“Atlanta is a big convention town that still draws a lot of conventioneers, which helps downtown hotels, restaurants and taxis.”

While others lament weaker sales, Mike Jardina, president of J.J. Jardina Co. Inc., Atlanta, said sales are still there.

“We had to work harder last year for sure, but we kept our sales up,” he said.

“A lot of people are hurting with gross sales. Some stores are hurting but overall the economy is trying to rebound. We still had a good year last year but had to work harder to do it.”

Nickey Gregory, president and owner of Nickey Gregory Co. Inc., Forest Park, Ga., said sales remain consistent in the slow economy.

“Our sales have held up but it’s because we are putting in a lot more stops with the trucking and have expanded our customers to a wider geographic area,” he said.

“Like everywhere else, you can feel the crunch with the economy. You used to have people coming in wanting only executive jobs and weren’t willing to pull orders. It’s amazing the number of people that walk in every day looking for any kind of job now that are well qualified to do any position in the building.”