Locally grown continues to be a big draw for customers of Michigan distributors.
Business has been good at Detroit-based Riggio Distribution Co., and growth in the company’s locally grown programs is one of the main reasons why, said Dominic Riggio, president.
“This year, Michigan celery, apples and some of the lettuces saw double digit growth.”
Riggio Distribution picked the perfect year to roll out a Michigan celery heart four-pack, which generated a lot of retail interest.
“Celery growers had a really good year,” Riggio said. “Product was plentiful, and it was sold at promotable prices.”
The company also introduced a new 3-pound salad mix featuring Michigan-grown iceberg, carrots and red cabbage, Riggio said.
Both packs are shipped under Riggio Distribution’s Aunt Mid’s label and feature a ribbon “sub-brand” indicating that the contents are locally grown, Riggio said.
The buzz around local is far from quieting down.
“Customers are calling for any and all ideas we have based on local availability,” Riggio said.
For the Michigan-grown apples Riggio Distribution ships, the company uses the Michigan Apple Committee brand as its primary brand, and Aunt Mid’s serves as the sub-brand, Riggio said.
When consumers see “Michigan,” they practically sell themselves.
“Michigan apples are the best-eating varieties in the country,” Riggio said.
Riggio Distribution slices its own Michigan apples and ships them in value-added packs. The company uses several different varieties depending on the time of year, but galas are the predominant choice.
“We’ve done some with Honeycrisp and are looking for others,” Riggio said.
Locally grown programs took a hit in 2014 because of the less-than-perfect growing weather in Michigan, said Jim Heeren, president of Grand Rapids-based Heeren Bros. Inc.
“This year’s down because of the weather,” Heeren said. “It was cool and very wet. The yields were not that good, and the quality was sometimes not that red-hot. It wasn’t one of your banner years.”
That said, local is definitely trending up, regardless of what curves the weather throws at the industry in any given year, Heeren said.
“The local trend has kind of taken over the organic trend.”
And at certain times of the year, Michigan consumers not only like their produce local — they also like it small. Heeren Bros. can feel the effect on its bottom line when the farmer’s markets and farm stands are running full-steam in the summer.
“Even our business goes down. They’re not under the same rules and regulations as us.”
That last point, Heeren said, can be a source of anxiety.
“God help us if someone gets sick at one of those. Anytime that happens, it affects everybody, once it gets into consumers’ minds, ‘How safe is my food?’”
Locally grown fruits and vegetables continue to be a strong draw for consumers of Detroit-based wholesaler LaGrasso Bros. Inc., said the company’s Tom LaGrasso III.
“Given Michigan’s tradition of great locally grown produce, there is a healthy appetite for it with consumers and chefs,” LaGrasso said. “Each summer and through the fall we work with some of the best Michigan growers to offer great local produce for our customers.”
Local is nothing new for Detroit-based Ben B. Schwartz & Sons Inc., which has been in business since 1906, said chief operating officer Nate Stone.
“We’ve handled local produce forever.”
Companies worried about carbon footprints and other sustainability measures have helped generate the current buzz about local, which Ben B. Schwartz is only too happy to help supply, Stone said.
“When local is available, he have as much as anybody else and then some.”
Ben B. Schwartz’s local sales grow every year, proportionate to the increases of its grower-shipper suppliers.
“Local growers are adding acreage, so we’re adding,” Stone said. “There are a lot of great new varieties these guys are putting in the ground. And every improvement they make, we make.”
Robust organic growth
While some Michigan distributors say that locally grown has stolen some of organic’s thunder in the “buzz” category, others, like Detroit-based Riggio Distribution Inc., report continued robust organic growth.
“It seems to be growing across all lines, from commodities to value-added,” Dominic Riggio, the company’s president, said.
As organic produce continues to taste better, the category largely sells itself.
“The product continues to get better and better, which is really helping sell it,” Riggio said.
In the works now for Riggio Distribution is a new line of shelf-stable organic salad dressings, Riggio said.