Snowstorm puts freeze on shippers, wholesalers, retailers


(UPDATED CONTENT, Feb. 4) Shippers, handlers and retailers of fresh fruits and vegetables did their best to keep business moving after being caught in the 2,000-mile-long trail of snow and ice from the brutal winter storm in early February.

Impassable roads, highway closings, airport cancellations and power outages across the Midwest to the Northeast complicated deliveries.

Effects on retail

Any storm effects on retail sales may be limited because severe weather typically shifts sales forward rather than eliminates or reduces them, said Frank Badillo, senior economist with Kantar Retail, a Columbus, Ohio, industry consultant.

“In an aggregate sense, there’s no real evidence that weather reduces sales over the course of a month or a quarter,” Badillo said. “The overall sales may increase just as much as they would have without the weather effects.”

In anticipation of the storm, stores in St. Louis were packed Jan. 30 and Jan. 31, said Mike O’Brien, vice president of produce and floral for Schnuck Markets Inc. During the storm, however, the company closed some stores, including the St. Louis metro area, Columbia, Mo., and central Illinois.

Transportation problems delayed delivery of some fruits and vegetables, O’Brien said. Schnucks had some difficulty getting Fresh Express bagged salad products from Chicago, vegetables from California and apples from Michigan, O’Brien said.

Ripening schedules in banana rooms were thrown off by the storm, forcing Schnucks to display some green bananas.

But overall, O’Brien said, problems were kept to a minimum and there were plenty of avocados for Super Bowl promotions.

Not-so Super Bowl

In Dallas, however, host of the Feb. 6 game, ice shut out some of the expected foodservice sales boosts in the week leading to the game.

Harold Callaway, chief executive officer of Trans Pak Inc., Dallas, said the surge that operators were anticipating with Super Bowl fans proved non-existent because of the weather. Produce wholesaling in general was dramatically affected because of icy roads.

Some Dallas restaurants closed and some remained open, but few customers could get out on the roads.

“Everything was just locked down,” he said.

Quiet in Chi-town

The storm mostly shut down the Chicago International Produce Market, said Lisa Strube, director of finance and administration at Strube Celery and Vegetable Co.

Full-size tractor-trailers were unable to move into and out of the terminal because of heavy snow, though some smaller trucks did make it in, she said. Despite the shutdown, Strube doesn’t expect any supply disruptions or price spikes. Many of the supermarkets served by the terminal bought more over the past week in anticipation of the storm, she said.

“It seems the stores saw this coming and really stocked up well,” she said. “I think this was just a blip on the market.”

Business at the Hunts Point terminal market in New York was only slightly affected by ice, said Rene Gosselin, operations manager for Coosemans New York Inc.

“We’ve had a lot worse this winter,” Gosselin said. “Trucks were able to get in, we kept regular hours. It was just slightly slower than normal.”

By Feb. 3, it was back to business as usual, he said.

“The storm that came through here was historical for this area,” said Scott Danner, chief operating officer of Kansas City, Kan.-based Liberty Fruit Co.

Danner said Liberty Fruit remained open, only missing a Feb. 2 delivery to St. Louis because Interstate 70 was closed Feb. 1.

“We just called those customers and said we weren’t going to make a delivery and they all understood,” he said. “There was no business anyway.”

In general, the firm’s sales on Feb. 2 and Feb. 3 were about 15% lower than usual. Danner predicted business would bounce back strongly on Feb. 4.

Supplier concerns

Mark McBride, sales manager at Salinas, Calif.-based Coastline Produce, said demand for vegetables was unpredictable, changing on an hourly basis during the storms.

“We’re telling customers if you’re going to need more product or less product on the trucks, let us know and we’ll adjust accordingly,” McBride said Feb. 2. “Every customer is different. When the actual storm hits nobody knows the magnitude of the disruption til it’s over, unfortunately.”

Sammy Duda, vice president of Duda Farm Fresh Foods, said supply and demand wrestled each other to a draw in the storms.

“You have an odd combination where movement is hampered by storms and supply is pretty weak on all the Western veg items — celery, lettuce, Mexican asparagus,” Duda said. “But demand is slack so oddly enough there’s a balance. Any boost in demand will expose the shortness of supply. I don’t see supply getting better anytime soon.”

Charles Porter, salesman for Five Bros. Produce Inc., Homestead, Fla., said the delays caused a week of problems.

“Business is bad big time,” he said. “The storm has slowed trucks. We’re getting things through but business is slower.”

Dining out gets iced out

Colder weather typically hurts foodservice sales, said Annika Stensson, director of media relations for the Washington, D.C.-based National Restaurant Association.

According to NRA research, nine out of 10 restaurant operators report that changes in local weather conditions affect sales and customer counts. What’s more, seven out of 10 say weather forecasts influence business, she said.

The following writers and editors contributed to this article: Bruce Blythe, Mike Hornick, Tom Karst, Andy Nelson and Doug Ohlemeier.