CHICAGO — One of the most racially and culturally diverse cities in the U.S. simply means its fresh produce distributors typically have to sell a broader range of items to satisfy the various tastes and preferences. Generally speaking, that’s good for business.

“We’ve been fortunate,” said Bob Scaman, president and chief executive officer of Goodness Greeness Inc., an organic distributor on the city’s south side.

Scaman does great business, he said, in a segment of the produce industry that hasn’t caught on in much of the rest of the Midwest.

Much of the reason for that, he thinks, has to do with the preferences of many different cultural neighborhoods toward specialty items and organic produce.

“(Diversity) is huge for this city,” Scaman said. “You go down somewhere like Devon Avenue. Every third storefront sells food. You’ll have an Indian storefront and three doors down is a Pakistani store.”

It’s why, Scaman said, he sells a more rare item like a black radish, which is eaten primarily by Eastern Europeans.

A diverse makeup

According to the 2000 U.S. Census, the three largest groups in Chicago are white, 42%; black, 36.8%; and Asian, 4.3%. Twenty-six percent are Hispanic of any race.

The percentage of foreign born in the city was 21.7, and of that, 56.3% came from Latin America, 23% from Europe, and 18% from Asia.

The Polish population in the city is the largest concentration of Poles outside of Warsaw, the capital of Poland.

Other main groups include Irish, German, Italian, Bulgarian, Greek, Lithuanian, Romanian, Serbian, Ukrainian and Dutch.

Throw in Chicago’s extremely strong independent retail market, and it all adds up to big business for conventional produce distributors as well as organic.

“I think our diversity is definitely a strength,” said Rich Domagala, vice president of Evergreen International Inc., on the Chicago International Produce Market.

“We originally started out servicing the Asian market 20-some years ago. Now, it’s Asian, Indian, not so much Hispanic. We’re probably the biggest broccoli distributor in the nation. It’s primarily Asians that want it, but everybody likes it.”

Chicago’s diversity especially has been a boon for the city’s distributors, like Coosemans Chicago Inc., that specialize in specialty items.

“It used to be that the classification of specialty was high end,” said Mark Pappas, president of Coosemans Chicago Inc. “But now we cater to the different groups, because Chicago is a huge, diverse city.”

Not everyone is convinced Chicago’s diversity is a positive for the produce industry, but one thing’s for sure — it’s never dull.

“I worked in Atlanta nine years, and there we had certain niches we sold to,” said Mike Ruffolo, salesman with Michael J. Navilio & Son Inc., which also deals in specialty produce at the terminal market. 

“Bigger isn’t always better in my opinion. But this market is fun. It’s different every day.”