Michigan produce distributors are optimistic about their state’s economic recovery and what it means for fruit and vegetable sales.
Detroit-based Ben B. Schwartz & Sons Inc.’s chief operating officer, Nate Stone, is bullish on the present and near future.
“Business has never been better. We love it,” Stone said. “All the right things are happening for us, and we don’t see it stopping.”
Americans’ rising interest in eating better is a tide that raises all boats, Stone said.
“Produce demand is up everywhere, not just in Detroit. Health is important for people who never thought it would be important.”
Stone said the healthful turn of Americans has surprised even people like him who’ve made their careers in produce.
“More people than I ever imagined are vegetarians and vegans. People are eating healthier, and we’re happy to supply that need.”
In addition to that nationwide trend, Detroit and Michigan in general have something else going for them, Stone said. An economy hit so hard by the recession has nowhere to go but up.
“If you can stand up and have a pulse, you can get a job in this state. Everybody’s looking for people. It takes a long time for the bad news to go away, but the good news is better than the bad news.”
Count Dominic Riggio, president of Detroit-based Riggio Distribution Co., which markets under the Aunt Mid’s label, is among the other optimists in the Detroit produce industry.
“Business has been good. It seems like we’ve had growth in a lot of categories, and it’s looking like it will continue into 2015.”
Riggio Distribution has enjoyed particularly strong growth in its organic and locally grown programs, Riggio said.
“Everything else is a normal growth rate.”
Michigan took a big hit during the recession, but it’s making a nice comeback, said Jeff Abrash, owner of Detroit-based produce wholesaler Andrews Bros. Inc.
“Everything’s healthier than it was five or six years ago,” Abrash said. “Things have been moving along in a fairly positive fashion. We’re thinking business is good. We’ve found and cultivated a diverse customer base.”
Andrews Bros. expects that trend to continue in 2015.
“Nothing falls into place — you have to make things happen,” Abrash said. “But we’re optimistic about the industry here in Detroit.”
The winter of 2013-14 in western Michigan saw a textbook application of what Jim Heeren, president of Grand Rapids-based Heeren Bros. Inc., calls the “garage door philosophy.”
“People come home, drive into their garage, hit the button and don’t leave again,” Heeren said.
That could be the summary of a Halloween season horror flick, but the “bad guy” Heeren’s talking about in this case is Mother Nature.
For thirty days last winter, the temperature failed to crack 20 degrees, Heeren said. It was not, to say the least, the best environment in which to sell fresh fruits and vegetables.
And it was followed by a cool and rainy summer.
“It was not a great summer, though there’s definitely been an uptick in stuff” in late summer and early fall, Heeren said.
Alas, that could be short-lived, with another “garage door” winter a strong possibility.
“They’re predicting a very cold and snowy winter,” Heeren said.
Michigan distributors also are constantly dealing with the fact that the Wolverine State is not what it used to be, pre-recession. The comeback from the recession, Heeren said, has been “slow and gradual.”
“We lost between a quarter and a third of our population. Will it ever be like it was? No. People have to go where the jobs are.”
Through late October, 2014 business was better than at the same point in 2013 for Detroit-based LaGrasso Bros. Inc., said the company’s Tom LaGrasso III.
Given what Mother Nature threw at Michigan earlier this year, that came as a pleasant surprise.
“Sales are up year over year, which is nice given the harsh winter that slowed the Midwest to start the year,” LaGrasso said. “Our sales were down with all the snow going into Valentine’s Day weekend, and after that weekend it turned the corner for the year.”