ST. LOUIS — Though it appears to be picking up steam in certain areas or segments of the city, organic produce can hardly be considered to be going gangbusters around here.
“There’s a certain clientele that wants it, but not much here,” said Marvin McDonald, produce category specialist for William A. Straub. “I don’t know if people aren’t ready for it, or this just isn’t a base where people ask for it.”
McDonald said he originally stocked a 12-foot section of organics in the produce department at Straub’s sparkling new store in suburban Ellisville, which just opened last December, but has since cut that section way back.
“They just weren’t moving,” he said.
Like Straub’s, other retailers around the metro area have found mixed degrees of success in selling organics.
“It’s becoming a bigger part of our business,” said Steve Duello, category manager-produce for Chesterfield-based Dierbergs Markets Inc. “We’ve been adding on it for a while. In fact, we’ve aggressively grown the category to where it’s doubled or tripled in the last several years.”
Duello said he’s found that, the closer he stocks organics to conventionally grown produce, the better the organics sell.
“It’s to the point now where it’s here,” he said. “It isn’t going anywhere. I don’t think it’ll ever all be organic, but I think there’ll be more and more as you go along.
“I’d love to take the lettuce, broccoli, baby peel carrots and just have organic only, but you can’t do that because of availability issues and pricing.”
Mike O’Brien, vice president of produce for Schnuck Markets Inc., said demographics had a lot to do with how well organics sell. They’ve traditionally done well in college markets, where the younger students are conscious about health and are more freshly educated about what goes into growing their food. And St. Louis is a bustling college city, what with St. Louis University, Washington University, and several smaller colleges like Lindenwood dotting the landscape.
“(Organics) don’t seem to have taken a hit in this economy like some other categories,” O’Brien said. “Washington University is a huge organic market. In Urbana, the University of Illinois … those are the best organic places.
“It’s not necessarily about income. It’s more a lifestyle choice.”
Despite the strong collegiate environment, organics don’t seem to be a big deal in the St. Louis foodservice industry. Sam Sanfillipo, chief executive officer of Sun Farm Foodservice, estimates a very small portion of his company’s business is in organics.
“I think the marketplace starts on the West Coast and trickles back across the country,” Sanfillipo said. “A lot of colleges get on board with that. But it’s not our bread and butter. It’s gotten competitive. Usually, there’s a price to play for organics. The price is usually a little higher, and people aren’t looking to pay more these days.”
Some brokers in the area use organics to fill in gaps when conventional supplies run short.
“We sell organic onions about every six months or so, usually when other onions get tight,” said John Parr, owner of Fresh Start Marketing LLC. “In the last two weeks, we’ve sold a couple truckloads of the stuff. It seems like organics are tied to a more higher-end clientele, more East and West coasts.”
Another broker said that if anyone wanted to deal heavily in organics, that company had better be prepared to go up against stiff competition.
“We sell a pallet here, a pallet there,” said Neno Pupillo, broker/salesman for H.R. Bushman & Son Corp. “Whole Foods deals with organics. They have a produce department piled high of the stuff. And they sell it. They have the clientele that loves the stuff.”
One prominent area distributor credited the eating habits of those who love organics as one of the reasons for that category’s lukewarm growth.
“People who buy organics tend to buy like birds,” said Charles Gallagher Sr., chairman of the board for United Fruit & Produce Co. Inc. “They’re not going to buy a 10-pound bag of potatoes like people normally would.
“We do a few organics, but we’re not big in it. We just do a few restaurant trades.”