Boston Customers Remain Strong and Consistent

Boston retailers and restaurants count on wholesalers to move them into a more steady supply situation post-pandemic.

Originally printed in the December 2021 issue of Produce Business.

The New England Produce Center, in Chelsea, MA, and its surrounding wholesalers benefit from a wide and loyal customer pool. “We have a solid customer base made up of faithful customers and good people,” says Maurice Crafts, owner of Coosemans Boston, a wholesale specialty produce company in the New England Produce Center. “They know what we do and they value it.”

Boston still enjoys a diversity of food formats. Traditional retail operations include Market Basket, Stop & Shop, Shaw’s, Whole Foods, BJ’s Wholesale, Walmart, Costco, Hannaford, Roche Bros., Trader Joes, Wegmans, Big Y, Target, Dollar Tree, and PriceRite. Additionally, a multitude of small and independent operators including corner stores, farm stands and ethnic markets are scattered around the region and are growing in popularity.

Steven Piazza, president and treasurer at Community-Suffolk, also located in the produce center, relates the customer base has not changed much. “We have the same 200 active accounts we’ve had for years,” he says. “We may have lost a few small wholesalers or restaurants who didn’t have the cash flow to withstand the pandemic, but we’re back to about 90% of what we were pre-pandemic. Most of that is due to the mix of people who shop the market.”

Significant But Diverse Retail Presence

The market’s blend of customers yields a heavy retail presence at many of the wholesaler operations. “Our business, specifically as wholesalers, supplies 70% retailers and 30% foodservice customers,” says Paul Travers, co-owner at Travers Fruit Co., Chelsea, MA. “The daily customers consist of brokers, independent buyers supplying schools and restaurants and seasonal farm stand buyers.”

Dominic Joseph Cavallaro III, general manager sales at John Cerasuolo Co., a wholesale fruit and vegetable distributor, describes supermarket activity on the market as bustling. “Restaurants still do steady, and processing companies are still doing well, but mainly we see a lot of supermarket business,” he says.

Retail customer mix continues to diversify. “We still see a lot of ethnic stores opening up,” says Gene Fabio, president of J. Bonafede, which also sells at the produce center. “Some are large, some are medium, some are small. The business has moved from mostly chain stores to a variety of independent stores catering to a specific clientele. That’s been trending for many years, and it’s continuing in that direction.”

The smaller independents tend to be the operators still walking the wholesale market as well. “There is a fair representation of big retailers on the street, but it’s mostly small independents, mom and pop shops and individual restaurant owners,” says Piazza.

An operation’s customer base also depends on what a wholesaler sells, explains Patrick Burke, co-owner of Garden Fresh Salad Company, Chelsea, MA. “We’re mostly foodservice,” he says. “We’ve seen large chains are less of a presence and foodservice has stayed consistent.”

Community-Suffolk’s mix is about one-third retail, one-third small wholesaler and one-third foodservice distributors, according to Piazza. “This gives us more consistency in our sales numbers because when retailers aren’t doing it, the restaurants are.”

Changes In Foodservice

Wholesalers report seeing stabilization in foodservice after the ravages of the pandemic, but not without lingering consequences.

“In Boston, fast casual is definitely growing faster than fine dining,” says Glenn Messinger, vice president of branch operations for Baldor Specialty Foods, including Boston, Washington D.C. and Philadelphia. “The trend of outdoor dining doesn’t lend itself to fine dining, and fast-casual is also a lower labor investment.”

Baldor Specialty Foods is an importer and distributor of fresh produce and specialty foods in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic regions.

Foodservice operators and distributors are looking to simplify procurement, says Messinger. “They want only one delivery and only one invoice to pay. A restaurant that used to get items from different providers — for example, one for meat, one for produce, one for dairy — is now looking for all of it from us.”

Continuing Alternatives

The challenges of the pandemic witnessed the evolution of home delivery and food box programs, as foodservice distributors and wholesalers pivoted to find business — a revenue stream some are keeping.

“A lot of our smaller wholesalers developed the home-box delivery model during the pandemic and there is continued demand for it,” says Piazza. “So, they’ve stayed in it. It’s a nice add-on and for some of them who lost a restaurant chain, this can bring their sales figures back.”

Home delivery became an increasingly important business during the pandemic for several large companies, explains Jackie Piazza, citrus sales at Community-Suffolk. “Several of the larger companies I sell to are still doing it,” he says. “Consumers have gotten used to this service and convenience and still want it.”