Since colonial days, Boston’s wholesale produce companies have been providing services and products for customers. Though some decades labeled them as unnecessary, others have proven their worth.
“In the past, the middleman got a bad rap, but the middleman serves a valuable purpose,” says Gene Fabio, president of J. Bonafede. “Customers need us to break down product and serve their specific needs. We provide an invaluable function for small chains, mom and pop stores and purveyors. There’s no question our job is necessary which is why we’re still here.”
Service to the customer is the core of the business. “Wholesalers stay relevant the same way we always have, by being here with the product when the customer needs it,” says Maurice Crafts, managing partner at Coosemans Boston. “I believe our hard work has led some of our bigger customers to see it’s just as easy to buy here when they need product, rather than speculate on bringing it in direct.”
The evolution of past decades has affected the market wholesale business. “Fifty years ago, there were markets in Providence, Hartford, Springfield, Chelsea and Boston,” says Steven Piazza, president of Community-Suffolk. “Now through consolidation, we’re down to just the New England Produce Center in Chelsea and the surrounding wholesalers in their own buildings.”
The “Boston wholesale market” was historically made up of two facilities next to each other: the New England Produce Center (NEPC) and the Boston Terminal Market (BTM). The NEPC, opened in 1968, was the larger facility housing approximately 38 companies and is still in operation. The smaller BTM, previously home to about seven companies, was sold to a national developer and destroyed in 2019. The area around the NEPC now houses a myriad of wholesalers in their own buildings, including Community-Suffolk who moved into a new facility in early spring of 2021.
LONGEVITY AND EXPERIENCE
One of the most noted benefits of Boston area wholesalers is their time and experience in the business. “We were incorporated in 1927 so we’re sitting at 95 years right now,” says Piazza.
These decades of experience translate into confidence and knowledge. “We’ve been doing business with the same guys for so long, they have a lot of faith in us,” says Dominic (Skip) Cavallaro Jr., president of John Cerasuolo. “I learned one thing a long time ago — this business is singles, not home runs. Just get on base every day, take care of everybody every day, and handle one thing at a time.”
Most of Coosemans Boston’s diverse customer base has been with the company for years according to Crafts. “We do business with well-known large retailers,” he says. “We also do business with many independent retailers of all sizes. We do business with well-known and smaller wholesalers. And, we have a handful of chefs who have bought with us regularly for years. All of this business is equally important to us.”
Customers come to rely on the expertise of the wholesaler. “Communication with customers is crucial to let them know what’s going on and keep them in the loop,” says Dominic Joseph Cavallaro III, general manager of sales at John Cerasuolo. “Honesty also goes a long way. We advise our customers on options when some product isn’t available or isn’t good quality. Our customers trust us to do the best for them.”
Knowing more about product means better handling at the customer level relates Gene Fabio. “We give customers forewarning of new arrivals to allow them to maximize the shelf life,” he says.
In general, New Englanders are very loyal, according to Shane Brunette, sales executive at Baldor Specialty Foods in Boston. “They want something that is going to be good consistently and they’re looking for something they can depend on long term,” he says. “Once you gain a client’s trust, they will buy from you until you break it. That’s a good thing, but on the other hand, it makes it harder to break into a restaurant or retailer who has been using a different supplier for some time.”
FOCUS ON FUNDAMENTALS
With the ups and downs of recent years, wholesalers and customers alike are sticking to what’s proven. “We’re always competing on price, quality and freshness,” says Patrick Burke, co-owner at Garden Fresh Salad Company. “Our salads are packed with no more than 24 hours in our warehouse before the product goes out to our customers. Quality and freshness are imperative.”
Community-Suffolk focuses on a solid offering. “We sell a 25 to 30 item repertoire that we’ve been doing for 100 years,” says Piazza. “Given freight and product costs now, it’s difficult to break into a new trade. So, we stick with our core items and have the most volume and the best quality. We have tremendous support from our customers who depend on us for those items.”
At John Cerasuolo, focusing on key products remains the game plan. “It’s important to stick to the core items and be consistent,” says Dominic Cavallaro III.
For some Boston wholesalers, specialties are also fundamentals. “Coosemans Boston is generally known as a specialty house,” says Crafts. “It still amazes me how micro greens of any variety continue to increase in volume. Year after year, edible flowers, herbs and baby lettuces continue to grow. There seems to be an insatiable demand for chili peppers with our wholesale customers. On the retail side, we do very well with more traditional greenhouse products such as tomatoes, bell peppers and the currently super popular Boston lettuce.”
RESPONDING TO NEEDS
As Boston’s marketplace evolves, so do the offerings of the wholesalers. Bonafede explains they continue to serve a diverse marketplace and their product mix reflects this. “As our customer base continues to diversify, it leads to new niche items,” says Gene Fabio. “Customers want products to serve their specific demographic. Yellow cactus pears, popular with our North African-Middle Eastern customers, are a great recent example of a product growing in demand.”
A lot of restaurants just don’t have the help to prep and cut product anymore relates Burke. “So we help deal with that challenge,” he says. “Bringing in a box of pre-cut helps them with labor issues, consistency and pricing.
Baldor stays relevant by continuing to supply customers with what they need. “We aim to practice ‘radical hospitality,’” says Brunette. “This means listening carefully to our customers, asking questions and going above and beyond for them. Our wide selection of products and knowledge of the market keeps us relevant. For example, when the Q3 regulations regarding the humane raising of pork went into effect this year, we were ready with fully compliant product in Massachusetts.”
Wholesalers also try to help customers with rising prices. “Cost of product and freight remain major issues,” says Butch Fabio, proprietor at J. Bonafede. “We’re trying to help our buyers deal with the rising prices.”
Some wholesalers change operations to address traffic and transportation issues for customers. “Boston continues to expand, and the traffic is getting incredible,” says Piazza. “Tunnel and bridge repairs cause more traffic in the market area as drivers avoid those construction areas. We now have our first crew come in at midnight so we can get rid of the trucks earlier and off the dock. Then customers can start picking up at 2 a.m. and keep their day moving. This is especially important with transportation and driver shortages.”
At John Cerasuolo, the company is implementing new technology to better serve its customers. “A lot of chain stores require use of their EDI system,” says Kara Cavallaro Rullo, treasurer. “We’re working on streamlining these systems to make it easier for them to do business with us.”