As Boston grows and changes, its marketplace evolves to even greater potential for food.Originally printed in the December 2023 issue of Produce Business.
The metropolitan area of Boston represents a significant and profitable marketplace for food. In 2020, the city of Boston’s population was reported at 689,000 with a median age of 32.4 and a median household income of $76,298, according to Data USA.
“What makes Boston unique is the people,” says Patrick Burke, co-owner of Garden Fresh Salad Company. “The food fits the people, there are so many cultures in the metro area and retail and restaurants reflect this.”
Boston’s diversity has grown with its population. Data from the 2020 census shows that 55.3% of Boston’s population is minority including Black or African American, Asian and Hispanic.
“Boston and its surrounding communities are quite diverse,” says Steven Piazza, president of Community-Suffolk. “We still have an Italian section of Boston, an Asian section, increasing Hispanic communities, and recently a growing Russian community. Most of these groups eat in an old-fashioned way. They don’t want processed; they eat fresh.”
The diversity of the customer base in Boston has continued to grow and affect produce, explains Gene Fabio, president of J. Bonafede. “Tastes and demand have continued to progress as the diversity in the area has continued to expand,” he says. “For example, products such as rambutan and yellow cactus pear are evolving.”
Shane Brunette, sales executive at
in Boston explains how the region has many different cultures due to the number of colleges and universities in the Boston area. “That means there’s a surging need and interest in different cuisines,” he says. “This is where we come in. We supply these ingredients they can’t get elsewhere consistently, such as young coconuts, fresh yuzu and exotic citrus. There’s also a huge focus on local goods, knowing your farmer, and decreasing your carbon footprint.”
After suffering the rollercoaster effects of the pandemic, the marketplace has leveled out creating a new competitive environment. “The retailers and restaurants that survived COVID seem to be more focused on customers and better quality than they were before,” says Piazza. “They are in a better position to move forward.”
Boston encompasses a wide variety of retail and 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. “Market Basket continues to expand their reach throughout Massachusetts, New Hampshire and recently into Rhode Island,” says Brunette. “We also see growing influence of Compass Group and Sodexo.”
Additionally, a multitude of small and independent operators including corner stores, farm stands and ethnic markets continue growing in popularity. “During the pandemic, a lot of the ethnic and inner-city neighborhoods opened old-fashioned produce stores,” says Piazza. “People were afraid to go to the big stores so during that time, smaller stores felt safer. These stores prospered and remained and are thriving still. These types of stores don’t have warehouses, so they shop and use the markets, which is great for us.”
Foodservice in Boston and New England are unique because of the mix of old and new restaurants states Brunette. “We have traditional seafood, New England style and Italian-American restaurants, but they’re mixed in with Asian, Latino and Middle Eastern restaurants,” he says. “So we’re selling coleslaw mix, arugula, broccoli rabe, finger limes, cilantro and lime leaves in the same neighborhoods.”
Boston area restaurants are back in full force. “Foodservice appears to be back to pre-pandemic levels,” says Burke. “People are eating out and places are full.”
Growing restaurant players in New England include 110 Grille, Tatte, Major Food Group, Do & Co, and Life Alive according to Brunette. However, he also notes continued challenges for the marketplace. “Food service and retail continue to be affected by cost of goods and tight labor markets,” he says. “With climate change, we see volatility in the availability of certain items.”