Traditional produce wholesalers don’t normally export produce to other countries.

But given Florida’s proximity to many Caribbean islands, exporting produce remains a natural for many Miami and Jacksonville-area distributors.

Export sales have increased 12% over last year for American Fruit & Produce Corp., Opa Locka, Fla.

Marshall Glantz, director of business development, exports and executive director, said the wholesaler has experienced tremendous sales growth in the export arena.

“I think the business is pretty much on an even keel, but it’s just that we have picked up a lot of additional business,” Glantz said.

American, which calls itself the largest U.S. produce exporter to the Caribbean, loads containers bound for 33 island countries. Glantz said American sells directly to owners, retailers and wholesalers, which distribute to island hotels and restaurants.

Glantz attributes American’s success in export sales to American’s owners personally visiting their Caribbean customers.

Produce Distribution Center LLC, Jacksonville, Fla., exports a full line of produce to wholesalers and service wholesalers that distribute to stores in Caribbean countries and Bermuda.

Larry Movsovitz, chairman and managing director, said the deal has remained solid.

“Even with last year, it’s a little better,” he said.

“I attribute the sales remaining strong to the fact that their economies are not in as bad a shape as we are here. Mainly in Puerto Rico, which is doing a lot of business.”

Because Caribbean and Bahamian customers can’t buy truckloads of product, Produce Distribution Center does a lot of consolidation, cross-docking and freight forwarding of product loaded in ship containers.

Tourism affects sales, however.

Walter Vazquez Jr., chief executive officer of Freedom Fresh LLC, Miami, said export sales have been off during the last couple of years.

“You just don’t have as many tourists visiting those islands,” he said.

“Like everyone else, they have had a rough time and are still fighting a challenging economy. None of those Caribbean countries are immune to that.”

Vazquez said he’s seeing export buyers purchasing more staple produce items and fewer specialties.

Freedom Fresh ships produce to island retailers as well as wholesalers who distribute to retail chains.

Bruce Fishbein, a partner with the Produce Connection Inc., Miami, said exports have remained steady.

The Produce Connection sells to about a dozen Caribbean countries.

“Though the U.S. has always been a leader in economic recovery, I believe this kind of recovery, the rest of the world is recovering and we’re rebounding off them recovering,” he said.

“We’re in a different world these days. The smaller countries are starting to help us rather than us helping them.”

Cruise ships have also become big customers of Florida produce wholesalers.

As more Americans experience cruise vacations, sales have expanded as well.

Robert Ondrus, director of category management for produce for U.S. Foodservice Inc., Rosemont, Ill., which has Florida operations in Boca Raton, Port Orange, Tampa and Lakeland, said he sees the cruise business continuing to increase.

“If you look at some of these cruise ships, the size of them, it’s unbelievable,’ he said.

“Everyone has a portion of that market. The cruise lines may have a primary supplier, but all suppliers do have a piece of the action, some more than others. It’s a huge business.”

Glantz said sales in its cruise ship division have more than doubled over the past year. Glantz said American likely services about 40% of the cruise ships that call on Miami-area ports.

“This area continues to grow,” Glantz said. “NCL has more ships coming with 10 more ships being built that will enter service in the next 2-2.5 years.”

American also supplies produce to cruise ships calling on ports throughout Florida and in Charleston, S.C., as well as in the Gulf of Mexico as far west as New Orleans.

Freedom Fresh’s Vazquez said sales to the cruise ships seems busy as normal.

He said the cruise business remains strong as patrons receive much value for their money.

Freedom Fresh supplies some purveyors and sells directly to some cruise operations.

“They will use anything from staple items up to exotic specialties,” Vazquez said.

“They’re like everyone else. They’re trying to provide a lot more variety for their customers. They’re also trying to get a little more innovative with their items.”

The Tampa area cruise ship business remains healthy, said Chuck Bruno, vice president and general manager of DiMare Fresh-Tampa Inc., Riverview, Fla.

“It’s a sporadic business,” he said.

DiMare Fresh supplies tomatoes to the purveyors who service the cruise ships that set sail from the Port of Tampa.