Georgia’s capital is a well-established regional hub with strong local ties.
Atlanta is among the most vibrant produce hubs in the country, receiving loads of fresh fruits and vegetables from farms around the state and far beyond, and shipping the bounty back out to markets throughout the Southeast.
There is also an expanding desire for Georgia Grown produce at Atlanta’s gourmet restaurants, which feature dishes made from seasonal produce harvested by nearby farmers.
But this city’s bustling produce business is defined by its role as a reliable source of produce for a region extending, at times, all the way up the Eastern Seaboard.
“Atlanta is the hub for produce in the Southeast,” says Andrew Scott, vice president for business development at Nickey Gregory Company Atlanta. “With three major interstates crossing through downtown Atlanta, you can cover a lot of Southeastern cities overnight with fresh produce deliveries.”
Nickey Gregory is a full-service distributor, boasting more than 400 fresh produce items stored in facilities in Atlanta and Miami and shipped throughout the Southeast in its fleet of climate-controlled trucks.
“We have some regional customers that will drive to the Atlanta Farmers Market to pick up orders, but many we deliver on our own fleet of trucks,” says Scott. “You can also have fresh produce flown into and out of the world’s busiest airport, located four miles away from the market. Cross docking also has become an important service we provide for growers/shippers that have LTL [less than truckload] orders. We deliver overnight to 10 Southeastern states on our own fleet of trucks. You call us by noon, and we will deliver that night or the next day to your warehouse.”
The 150-acre Atlanta Farmers Market, established in 1958, has grown to become one of the largest fruit and vegetable distribution centers in the country. It is the crown jewel in the network of nine permanent regional facilities the Georgia Department of Agriculture established and maintains in order to help the state’s rural producers.
“Business on the market has grown, and space [60 major tenants] is at a premium,” says Jeff Howard, markets manager for the Georgia Department of Agriculture, Atlanta. “The tenants on the market want more space to grow, and we receive calls daily from outside businesses wanting to relocate to the market.
“Businesses here primarily serve the Southeastern United States. However, we receive produce from all over the United States, Canada and the world. More than 100 tractor trailers arrive daily servicing wholesalers on the Atlanta Farmers Market. Here at the market, consolidation has provided opportunities for tenants to expand their services and business.”
A GROWING PRODUCE HUB
Georgia is among the fastest-growing states in the country, as the population nearly tripled from 1950 to 2010 to become the ninth most populous state in the country and rising.
The population in the Atlanta metropolitan area is also increasing steadily and, according to United States Census data, the city proper is on pace to overtake Philadelphia as the eighth largest city in the country some time in 2022.
“With the buildout of the Savannah ports, Georgia and Atlanta are becoming more and more of a hub for produce in the Southeast,” says Matt Jardina, vice president for sales/business development at J.J. Jardina Co., Forest Park, GA. “There is a vibrant economy in Georgia and a growing population with more and more companies looking to do business in Atlanta and the surrounding areas. The state’s market we operate out of continues to grow and be recognized as a great place to do business.”
J.J. Jardina is a third-generation family wholesaler specializing in apples, pears, grapes, berries, melons and stone fruit since the business started nearly a century ago a little north of Atlanta in Gainesville, GA.
“We are selling to more customers across our base, and we have also extended our product offering beyond just fruit,” says Jardina. “Though fruit is, and will continue to be, our No. 1 focus, we are now targeting vegetable items such as potatoes, onions, peppers, squash, asparagus, cabbage and tomatoes, etc. We are also offering organic and continue to build out our locally grown options with various Georgia growers and national shippers.”
Open 24 hours a day and seven days a week, the Atlanta Farmers Market has a restaurant and welcome center but is largely devoted to wholesale and retail storage space occupied by virtually all the major shippers in the region.
“The Farmers Market is the place to come; it’s like going to the bar Cheers from the television show,” says Bryan Thornton, general manager of Coosemans Atlanta, which has offered specialty produce since 1993. “People come here, and we also deliver out of here. We service approximately a 150-mile radius around Atlanta. We cover national grocery chains, smaller chains and the independents.”
As with other wholesalers, Thornton praised Gary Black, the Georgia State Commissioner of Agriculture, for helping to improve the Atlanta Farmers Market and local produce business as a whole.
“Gary Black has done an exceptional job with the Atlanta Farmers Market,” he says. “He’s done an exceptional job with Georgia Grown and perishables, in general.”
The growth of Georgia as a major regional hub and the cosmopolitan diversity of the Atlanta metropolitan area has kept the produce business revving.
“Whole Foods came in, and everybody else stepped up their game,” says Robert Poole, senior sales rep at Athena Farms, Forest Park, GA. “It’s not just Whole Foods; everybody has significantly more variety than they did 10 years ago. You step up your game or you die.”
For the past two decades Athena Farms has transported a variety of produce out of its 20,000-foot storage facility.
“We’re constantly looking for new produce items,” says Poole. “Ten years ago, nobody had baby kale. Ten years ago, you would see bunched spinach 24 in a bulk box. Now you probably can’t find a box of bunched spinach in the entire Atlanta Farmers Market. People are willing to pay more for clipped and washed spinach because of the savings in labor at the restaurants.”
FOR GEORGIANS, LOCAL STILL MATTERS
In this agricultural state, the desire from consumers to buy local has built on a very old tradition of wanting to support farmers down the road.
“Locally grown has been a big push for the past 8 to 10 years,” says Thornton. “It’s good for the local economy and for the farmers. California, Mexico and other areas also play a significant role, but local means Georgia Grown. Green bell peppers, eggplant, cucumbers and watermelons are all important local items, but we also do specialties.”
Like much of the country, Atlanta shows signs of segmentation, with many well educated and affluent residents sharing the city with a large population stubbornly trapped in poverty.
In 2017, this city of almost 500,000 people still had a poverty rate of nearly 20%, and for children it was an even more dismal 30%, according to U.S. Census Bureau statistics.
At the same time however, nearly half of Atlanta’s residents had college degrees, including more than 20% who had gone to graduate school.
The city’s population was more than 50% black in 2017, nearly 40% white, with, by most urban standards, relatively small Asian and Hispanic populations. Only 7.5% of the city’s population was foreign born, a fraction of the figure for Los Angeles and New York, with Asia and Latin America supplying the lion’s share of the immigrant population.
Kroger and Publix still command half the produce market in greater Atlanta, according to the Chain Store Market Guide, but Whole Foods, Sprouts and Trader Joe’s are also attracting significant numbers of consumers.
Although there are no large ethnic chains in the metropolitan area, Walmart, Sam’s Club, Target and the dollar stores have grown to more than a 27% share of produce sales.
In Atlanta, buying local produce means the preferred varieties change with the seasons.
“It’s like reinventing the wheel every year,” says Cooseman’s Thornton. “Produce items have always been here, and the changes are seasonal. In the fall people want warm salads so you have calls for beets. In the summer it goes toward cool salads and gem lettuce. In the late spring strawberries and blueberries are big.”
Many chefs in the area have developed seasonal menus built on the availability of fresh fruits and vegetables they can source from local farmers.
“Local is a big deal for metro Atlanta, especially with local chefs,” says Scott from Nickey Gregory. “Atlanta has an extensive restaurant scene with many concepts that demand an array of fresh produce items. The Georgia Grown program has become very popular. Their website is very useful for those searching for locally grown. Buy local means Georgia Grown.”
The Georgia Grown website offers a list of participating restaurants and other foodservice operators, farmers, their available crops and even recipes using those fresh varieties.
“Collards, okra, peaches, peanuts, Vidalia sweet onions, Eastern veggies and Muscadines are characteristic of Atlanta area tastes,” says Scott.
In addition to the many uniquely Southern vegetables and fruits, the Georgia Grown seal also can be found on mainstream produce items.
“Of course, items like fresh citrus, apples, watermelon, local cantaloupes and stone fruit such as peaches, nectarines, plums and apricots are all good movers,” says Jardina of J.J. Jardina. “It’s a pretty wide variety of items that you will see interest in.”
Although consumers appreciate the Georgia Grown affiliation, it is less clear that they are prepared to pay more for these items.
“It’s hard to tell for sure how important ‘buy local’ is, but there seems to be more interest in it,” says Jardina. “If you walk your local retailer stores, inevitably you will see locally grown signage and displays for both fruits and vegetables. It appears, based on the sheer volume of these displays, that there is interest in local options. However, I don’t think people are willing to pay a premium for local like they may be willing to do for organic.”
Even Atlanta-based purveyors who source from around the country and beyond, however, have noticed an increasing interest in locally grown produce.
“We only sell in the Atlanta area to a mix of restaurants, caterers, golf courses and motels,” says Athena Farms’ Poole. “Only a small percentage of our produce comes from Georgia. It’s more than it was 10 years ago, but we get produce from wherever in this world it is in season.”
The large distribution center at the heart of Atlanta produce, a hub for the region, also still plays a role in helping supply Georgia residents with locally grown fruits and vegetables.
“Judging from the success of the Georgia Grown program, Georgia consumers are very loyal to Georgia Grown produce products,” says Georgia Department of Agriculture’s Howard. “We’re proud to play a role in what eventually makes it to the consumer.”
The produce favorites that have come to be known as uniquely Georgian are particularly prized by the locals.
“The Georgia seasonal produce in demand includes Vidalia onions, watermelons, cantaloupes, peaches, pecans, apples, blueberries, strawberries, peas, tomatoes and butterbeans,” says Howard.
The state is emerging as a source of a variety of produce that trails only the fruit and vegetable giants California and Florida.
“Georgia is blessed with a climate that allows tremendous opportunities for farmers,” the Georgia Farm Bureau says on its website. “Virtually any crop can be grown successfully somewhere within the state. We’re known for our sweet Georgia peaches, our peanuts and those delicious Vidalia onions. But the state’s ag picture is so much larger. The census showed more than 42,000 farms operating across the state, with 9.6 million acres in production.”
The Hungry Peach: Classic Southern Dining With A Twist
At The Hungry Peach, which is located in the prestigious Peachtree Hills area of Atlanta, you can find beet salad with shaved carrots, arugula, fennel and goat cheese living side by side on the menu with a burger featuring a 6-ounce beef patty, bacon and crispy fried onions with a barbecue glaze.
What these odd menu neighbors have in common is they always feature ingredients locally sourced and as fresh as possible.
“Produce is extremely important to our menu, and we only deal with local distributors and farmers,” says Steve McNerney, manager of The Hungry Peach. “We take pride in having fresh produce, and if you look at our reviews, people mention that our ingredients are fresh.”
In order to keep them coming back for a taste of freshness, the restaurant maintains a network of local farmers and food distributors.
“We like to get our stuff daily or every other day,” says McNerney. “We deal with Fresh Point Distributors and Athena Farms.”
From its location in the Atlanta Farmers Market, for the past 20 years Athena Farms has provided the foodservice sector with a variety of Georgia Grown vegetables including bean sprouts, collard greens, hydroponic Bibb lettuce and watercress, okra, jumbo carrots and micro arugula.
The Hungry Peach turns these ingredients into a unique mixed menu that includes a garden burger and chicken pesto Panini alongside a Southern BLT Grilled Cheese Sandwich and a Southwestern Turkey Bacon Ranch Wrap.
“We are in the Atlanta Decorative Arts Center,” says McNerney. “Most of the people we serve work in the building. We have a pretty affluent, upper-middle class clientele; they mostly work in the building.”
The five-story Decorative Arts Center that houses the restaurant is in an area of the city enjoying a Renaissance.
“There is a lot of rebirth in Atlanta,” says McNerney. “When I was in Los Angeles in 2009 they were calling Atlanta East Hollywood. Now they call it Yollywood, as in Y’allywood. We’re also in the Front Porch Market and the Floral Park Market. The word gets around.”
Floral Park Market features an abundance of locally sourced organic ingredients that might feel at home in an affluent neighborhood of Northern California, but this is still the South.
“The Hungry Peach has always had a Southern accent,” says McNerney. “We have a Pimento cheese snack, chicken salad and miniature ham and Swiss cheese biscuits. We have some Southern comfort foods, like five cheese macaroni, but we try to keep it healthy.”
The newest menu items include Avocado Toast with herbed buttermilk, Mixed Greens and Sunflower Seeds, and Southern Lox with smoked salmon pate, pickled onions and bagel crisps.
The Hungry Peach has taken root in an Atlanta, where nearby farmers are making available an ever-expanding variety of produce items, both traditional and new.
“I would say produce becomes more accessible in Atlanta every day,” says McNerney. “There are more providers, and there are a lot of opportunities for farmers to sell their goods in town. There’s a lot of demand for fresh ingredients.”
THE HUNGRY PEACH
- 351 Peachtree Hills Ave. Suite 232
- Atlanta, GA 30305
- Mon–Fri 9:30 a.m.–3 p.m.