An Exporter’s Guide to Cracking the U.S. Produce Market

Originally printed in the December 2021 issue of Produce Business.

There is so much opportunity for international growers/shippers within the U.S. market. To start, we have the perfect audience for their products. We have a diverse consumer base that wants consistent access to all fruits and vegetables at all times.

U.S. consumers are also curious, and with the rise of social media, digital media and TV streaming, we have been exposed to so much more that exists around the world, including produce. And, of course, our climate and temperature play a huge role in U.S. demand for international products. We grow many crops in the U.S., but we cannot grow everything, and what we can grow, we can’t always grow year-round. (If you’re a banana or mango lover, you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about.)

The demand for imported goods certainly exists in the U.S., so why hasn’t every international grower/shipper successfully made it into the U.S. market? In my opinion, it’s because most haven’t teamed up with an expert partner — the right expert partner — in the U.S.

Let’s say an exporter tries to break into the U.S. market on its own. It first needs to make sure its product is allowed in the U.S., and understand the customs restrictions and requirements needed for the product to enter country.

That’s just the start. If and when the product is permitted to enter the country, exporters then need to figure out the logistics of getting the product into the U.S., locate and coordinate a warehouse to store the product, identify and meet with retailers or foodservice companies to sell the product, determine the right price to sell the product, coordinate the logistics to get the product to the customer, follow up with the customer to make sure the product is performing well, work with the sales person to get the reorder, and then launch the next item and do it all over again. Describing the process as a challenge is an understatement.

Fortunately, exporters don’t need to go through all of this. They can partner with an expert on a U.S. wholesale market, like my family’s business, S. Katzman Produce. We’re a wholesaler/distributor located in New York City, and I’ve seen, day in and day out, how mutually beneficial our relationships are with our international grower/shipper partners.

One of the most important benefits that exporters get when partnering with Katzman is instant access to our network of customers. The produce business can be competitive and at times saturated, so it’s vital to have a smart strategy to earn precious shelf space — physical or virtual — in today’s retailers, whether they’re on an app, online, or brick-and-mortar store.

At Katzman, we achieve this through our relationships. Our customers are extremely important to us and we’ve spent decades cultivating long-standing relationships, building trust, demonstrating integrity and establishing our reputation. These are the values that matter most in the produce industry, and it can be hard for someone new to get their foot in the door without this background. But since we already have an established foundation with our customer base, our exporters can get into stores and hit the ground running here in the U.S. Adding a new product to a regular standing order is a lot easier than being a new company with a new item trying to get into a new customer in a new country.

Another benefit we bring to exporters is quick turn-around access to “straight from the source” feedback on products. This could be feedback from a retailer, foodservice, packer, processor, wholesaler, consumers, or even chefs. We can sample products to a wide range of customers to try, then report back on these items with suggestions, information and actionable insights based on a diverse range of perspectives, so we can find the perfect spot for your product to flourish.

The flow of information from the consumer and the ability to make changes the market demands can make or break a new item. Growers may think they’ve created the perfect product, but really it’s the consumer who decides what he/she wants. Anyone can collect sales data on which products are selling and for how much, but the real value is in being able to identify and understand why products are not selling, so problems can be fixed.

In this situation, exporters need the right data, and they need it quickly so they can react and pivot. At Katzman, we work with many independent retailers who own their stores and work out on the floor, really taking the time to learn what their customers are shopping for and why. They form relationships with their shoppers and pass the information and insights they gain back to us. We then share this with the exporters.

As a partner to exporters, Katzman also plays a pivotal role as the location subject matter expert for New York City and the tri-state area, and in coordinating and executing the last mile. Logistics is a key part of this. Logistics have become one of the most expensive parts of the supply chain, and one advantage we have as a wholesaler / distributor is that we handle lots of different items. We’re able to consolidate many commodities, which gives us the ability to build orders to a size where they’re affordable to deliver, and still bring those deliveries in frequently enough to help keep inventory fresh.

We also act as the problem-solver and local “boots on the ground” for different occurrences that could come up day to day. For example, every day in our business, we see changing markets based on supply. But because we know our area and our customers, we’re able to strategically allocate product so it doesn’t destroy a market.

If you are an international grower/shipper looking to become an exporter to the U.S., you should feel optimistic and excited because it’s a great time to do so. But to be efficient, effective and ultimately successful, I encourage you to seek out an expert partner in the U.S. like a wholesaler/distributor, or a business on a terminal market.

It’s all about figuring out what the customers want and the best way to get it to them. So why not partner with someone who already has the answer?

Stefanie Katzman is executive vice president of S. Katzman Produce Inc., located in in the Bronx, NY. She works alongside her father, Stephen Katzman, who is president and owner of the businesses, continuing to lead the amazing team of about 370 employees that make up the Katzman staff today.