Chicago: A Hub Of Opportunity

Diversity, location and love for food generate a flourishing produce atmosphere in the Windy City. 

Chicago’s central location has made it into one of the United States’ most bustling cities and business centers. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the city proper was home to more than 2.7 million people in 2016, making it the third largest city in the country. The total population of the greater Chicago-Joliet-Naperville metropolitan area (Chicagoland) is more than 9.5 million people.

Chicago is a good market because of location, location, location, according to TJ Fleming, vice president and director of sales at Strube Celery & Vegetable Co. “We’re a central hub for everyone in the country — right in the heart of everything,” he says. “The city is vibrant and has diversity.”

The impressive population numbers represent a diverse demographic with strong cultural ties to food. “Being a hub in the Midwest means we have a large city with great ethnic diversity,” says Mark Pappas, president of Coosemans Chicago. “We have great world-class restaurants and hotels. With such a large and diverse population, Chicago provides a lot of opportunity for success in produce and food.”

Chicagoans are foodies by nature and extraordinarily open to trying different cuisine, says Vanessa Dremonas, executive officer at Pete’s Market, which operates 14 stores in the Chicagoland area. “Pete’s has many customers who are excited by our diverse produce selection and not afraid to try new recipes or flavor profiles. We often hear about customers who ventured to an Ethiopian or Indian restaurant over the weekend and wanted to replicate those dishes in their own kitchens.”

The area’s demographic diversity leads to strong and varied produce demand. “We have such an extensive variety of cultures that people of Chicago demand a wide spectrum of produce,” says Greg Kirwan, sales at La Hacienda Brands. “Such great demand yields a wide variety of products.”

Chicago was a melting pot for immigrants, explains Patrick Morales, specialty produce buyer at Pete’s. “They carried their culture and cuisine with them through the generations,” he says. “The dishes each ethnicity prepares call for different fruits and vegetables, and because of that, it creates a need for diverse produce that wouldn’t be found in many other states.”

La Galera Produce’s staff views the intersection of several factors as contributing to a strong marketplace. “Chicago is made up of very diverse communities, which in turn create a market embracing different foods and cultures,” says Francine Cossyleon, chief communications officer. “Chicago is also home to various food trends, including street vendors and food trucks.”

Variation In Retail

Chicago’s competitive retail environment continues to evolve. “With companies coming and going each year, the retail scene is constantly on the move,” says Kirwan. “Retail chains grow larger with the consolidation of stores. Larger chains are finding the one-stop-shop is the way to capture more business. Smaller stores still have purpose in the neighborhoods, capturing small niche business. Smaller stores still carry value here in Chicago, where the ethnic neighborhoods are prevalent.”

Major retailers continue to lead the market share, according to Chain Store Guide. Jewel-Osco, a banner brand of Albertsons, accounts for 22 percent of market share, and big box retailers Walmart, Costco and Sam’s Club hold the next slots with 12.2, 10.5 and 6.3 percent respectively. Yet, the rest of the market is fairly evenly divided by a host of chain and independent retailers. Mariano’s (Roundy’s), Meijer and Pick ’n Save post a little more than 5 percent of the marketplace with other format-based stores, including Aldi, Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s and “dollar stores” holding a smaller percentage. And, dozens of independents each claim a share including fresh-focused operations such as Pete’s Market and Standard Market.

Chicago’s independent retailers provide a strong and varied environment. “We have some independent customers with 10, 12 or 14 stores,” says Fleming. “The market also still has a lot of retailers with four to five stores, and hundreds of mom-and-pop operations with just one or two stores. They all have a niche they’ve carved out depending on their location, who they sell to and what needs they’re trying to fill.”

Pete’s Market has taken advantage of the area’s diversity by understanding each of its 14 locations’ surrounding neighborhoods and cultures. “We provide a bountiful produce department that will serve their needs,” says Morales. “Whether from Europe, Asia, Africa, South America, Australia or North America, shoppers will find what they need for any dish in our stores.”

The small stores remain an important part of the business. “We all want to sell the big guys 200 pounds of basil per order, but we also want to sell 200 small companies one pound of basil each day,” says Pappas. “Everyone is equally important. You need the big customers, but you also need the little ones.”

Finest For Foodservice

Though Chicago boasts world-famous restaurants, the city’s thousands of lesser known ethnic- or neighborhood-oriented places make up the life’s blood of the foodservice marketplace. “Some of the best restaurants in the world are here,” says Fleming. “But our neighborhood spots also offer great dining. You can find any kind of food you want in Chicago.”

A key trait of Chicago’s foodservice is that only the finest quality goods go into most restaurants, according to La Hacienda Brands’ Kirwan. “Local chefs demand the highest quality and the greatest variety of goods to showcase their menus,” he says. “Produce plays a key role here. Healthy eating has been, and will always be, on the finest menus.”

Pappas, of Coosemans Chicago, notes one example that recently opened in suburban Park Ridge called Reyes. “The chef there has a diverse menu, and he pays attention to details and the quality of the food,” he says. “You can go to a lot of places all over this city and get a great meal.”

Because of the focus on quality, there is a thriving foodservice produce sector, according to Fleming, of Strube Celery & Vegetable Co. “In addition to the large foodservice distributors, we also have independent foodservice wholesalers who buy here,” he says. “These can be operations with a van, or a two-step truck or a semi. They serve the large chain restaurants, but they especially supply the smaller mom-and-pop or neighborhood restaurants.”

Over time, Kirwan explains, foodservice companies have expanded their product
lines to reach deeper into produce with the variety of goods offered. “Once thought of as just a ‘staples’ provider, foodservice distributors now offer such a variety of lines including organic and vegan — new lines that restaurants requested and were provided over the years,” he says.


Chicago International Produce Market: ‘The Midwest Source For Fresh’

Wholesalers stay significant with freshness, variety and valuable service.

By Jodean Robbins

Chicago’s vibrant food retail and restaurant sectors require a reliable, quality source of produce. For decades, the old South Water Market, designed and built in the 1920s, served the community. However, in 2003, Chicago produce wholesalers proudly relocated to a state-of-the-art terminal market to continue providing the best-quality fruits and vegetables to an increasingly demanding marketplace.

Today, the Chicago International Produce Market (CIPM) houses close to 20 different businesses in one convenient location. “The Market plays a key role in supplying Chicagoland retailers with the finest variety of produce,” says Greg Kirwan, sales at La Hacienda Brands. “Through sourcing the freshest produce from around the world, the market offers the widest variety of produce, thus playing a very important role in the success of the retailers and restaurants.”

The 450,000-square-foot facility features 99 loading docks and modern refrigeration space. “This progressive facility has a lot to offer,” says Mark Pappas, president of Coosemans Chicago. “Our spaciousness means we can get trucks in and out easily.”

The Market continues to be the most viable source of wholesale vending for both Chicago, surrounding suburbs, and even surrounding states, asserts Francine Cossyleon, chief communications officer at La Galera Produce. “With direct connections both in the United States and outside the border, the market has been the freshest source of produce for even the biggest grocery giants,” she says.

Variety In Customer Base

Kirwan reports a vast collection of buyers utilizing the Market these days. “From retail buyers to foodservice procurement directors to small mom-and-pop stores, they all shop at the Market on a daily basis,” he says. “All these groups play an important role in the cycle of business.”

One example of new types of customers frequenting the Market are street vendors, according to Kirwan. “The Market has a following of customers that buy and resell fruits and vegetable year round at flea markets and street corners,” he says. “This group of customers plays an important role at the market. They allow the market merchants an outlet for certain fruits and vegetables.”

Geographically, the market has expanded its reach as well. “We have great customers coming up from Indiana and Wisconsin every day because we offer things they don’t have access to in their own areas,” notes Pappas.

Chicago’s diverse customer makeup is reflected in CIPM’s business. “The larger customer base gives us more opportunity to sell wider variety,” says TJ Fleming, vice president and director of sales at Strube Celery & Vegetable Co. “Indian produce has grown, and we’ve expanded tropicals and Mexican produce. Even the bigger stores that do FOB buying, still come here for some of the products they can’t find.”

Freshness, Quality, Value

CIPM merchants have been providing fresh produce to the Midwest for many decades, with some wholesalers dating back to the early years of the last century. Their businesses have evolved based on quality, variety and value. “Some of the main reasons retail and foodservice buyers shop at the Market include quality, competitive pricing, variety and availability,” says Kirwan. “Wholesalers provide a daily service of the highest-quality produce that buyers can inspect and see hands-on.”

Constant movement of produce through the market plays a vital role in keeping Chicago’s produce scene fresh, explains Pappas. “We are close enough to provide high quality to Chicago buyers,” says Pappas. “Since we’re in the middle of the country, we bring product in from the East Coast, California or Canada at good rates and freshness.”

Getting the most for the money is another benefit buyers find at the Market. “There’s a lot of value on this market,” asserts Fleming. “There are opportunity buys, and a retailer can get product at a good value.”

Customized service and experience are other benefits of dealing with local wholesalers. “Companies such as La Galera have generations of experience, so they know what is worth selling and what isn’t,” says Cossyleon. “They’ve invested their time and labor into the products they sell, so they’re experts. Relationships and partnerships are established here. For the buyer and seller to feel confident, they should trust and get to know the people they work with.”

Pappas explains how they go the extra mile for customers. “If a customer calls and says they need squash blossoms next week, we call around and find out if they’re available,” he says. “We’re responding not just on a daily basis but also by planning ahead for special events such as weddings or holidays.”

Though Pete’s Market sources directly, it values relationships with wholesalers as well as its growers. “Wholesalers help with logistics to cut down on some transport and delivery costs,” says Patrick Morales, specialty produce buyer. “Pete’s Market has worked hard over the past 45 plus years to cultivate relationships with our wholesalers and growers. They help by keeping us ahead of the market, letting us know of any problems with upcoming crops because of weather or conditions. They are always ensuring we get the best quality available.”

Expanded Service

Market wholesalers continue to evolve by providing new and expanded services. The state-of-the-art facility at CIPM allows for efficient loading, unloading and delivery. And many market merchants offer value-added services including ripening, custom packing, custom repacking, private-label programs, forward distribution services, cross docking and transportation services.

Repacking and branding are particular areas of growth. “Many wholesalers differentiate through repacking of goods,” says La Hacienda Brands’ Kirwan. “Packaging with logos and names helps provide value-added produce to customers. This provides an extra level of service, offering a wider variety of products packaged differently for customer convenience.”

Fleming reports the biggest area of growth currently for Strube is in repacking. “Many small restaurants or grocers can’t use a 60-count but need a 30-count,” he says. “Customers are willing to pay for this because it eliminates shrink and labor cost for them.”

La Galera is proud to bring its own Galera Fresh brand to the CIPM. “With our name to back the brand, our customers receive the best in quality Mexican produce,” says Cossyleon. “It’s picked from our own Galera Farms. We have more than 50 trucks arriving weekly from across the border.”

Market merchants also are upgrading facilities and systems. Strube has switched over to a new updated computer system. “The new system enables us to be more efficient,” says Fleming. “We’ll have better information, and faster.”

La Hacienda Brands has been settling into its new location as of September 2018. “Our facility boosts more than 60,000 square feet of dry warehouse, refrigerated and freezer storage,” says Kirwan. “Of the total square feet, we also feature more than 25,000 square feet in retail space.”

Human capital is another area of investment for Chicago wholesalers. Strube recently added two fifth-generation members of the family to the business. “My cousin’s son, RJ Strube, is working in operations and helping with the new computer system,” says Fleming. “And my daughter, Brianna, is working part-time in the office as she finishes school. We are always looking for young blood to add to our staff. We have an advantage in the future because we already have a fifth generation invested and look-
ing forward.”

Coosemans also added personnel to enhance its continuing programs. “We’ve brought in Jose Perez, who is very skilled in the foodservice arena,” says Pappas. “Also, my son, Alec, came on board this year. He has a passion for the business and is working in sales, working mostly with the independents right now.”

Hemmingway’s Bistro

French farm-to-table roots anchor this successful bistro.

By Jodean Robbins

Hemmingway’s Bistro combines classic French dishes with the freshest Midwest ingredients. The food reflects the pride chef and owner Christopher Ala proffers in plating the finest quality for his guests. “I want our guests to know that we care,” he says. “We want to give them a great meal for their money with a professional ability to serve it.”

The 90-seat bistro serves breakfast, lunch and dinner. Celebrating its 17th year, the spot has become a core eatery for the Oak Park neighborhood as well as a destination for those further out. The thriving restaurant pulls in close to $2 million per year in revenue.

A Fresh Approach

Ala spends close to $2,500 weekly on produce, and his main criteria for sourcing is freshness. “Our cuisines have to be fresh,” he says. “We never use anything frozen, and we love to follow the seasons. Quality is crucial. It’s my No. 1 factor in sourcing.”

Because of his focus on freshness, Ala sources most of his produce directly from the Chicago International Produce Market. “I visit the Market three times a week so I can select the best quality,” he says.

Handpicking the produce used at the restaurant is crucial to Ala. “When I pick it, I’m guaranteed what I’m getting,” he says. “If I rely on a distributor who drops product at 3 p.m., I get what they have. If it’s not great-quality lettuce, for example, then I’m stuck with bad or no lettuce for the night. It’s also very cost-effective to negotiate price at the Market.”

The Market also serves as a muse for Chef Ala. “I may be inspired by something I see as I’m walking the floor,” he says. “I also rely on the merchants’ expertise. These guys are the best in the business.”

Unique Offerings

Produce is an integral component of Hemmingway’s menu. “Almost every dish on our menu has some type of produce,” says Ala. “The French have eaten fresh and with the seasons forever — it’s nothing new. We parallel this philosophy in our menu, changing with the seasons and showcasing the versatility of different items.”

Hemmingway’s menu changes three to four times a year. “I love to use wild produce, too,” says Ala. “I source out local mushrooms and ramps and use a lot of parsnips and root vegetables. I want something you don’t see every day. If you’re going to have a meal with me, it shouldn’t be something you can find in every supermarket.” 

Chef Ala’s most recent menu pairs produce with a delectable lineup of starters including: Escargots de Bourgogne with herbs, garlic and pernod d’anise; Ahi Tuna Tartar with avocado, cucumber, sesame seeds and spicy aioli; a Bistro Cheese Plate with sweet fresh fruit; and Zucchini Blossoms with Mozzarella di bufala and roasted red pepper coulis. The menu also offers seven unique salads showcasing a wide variety of produce from frisée to fresh oven-dried tomatoes to watermelon, Feta and pickled onion, to wilted spinach.

An ample entrée selection runs the gamut of steak, chicken and seafood. Portobello Steak combines with 
fingerling potatoes, asparagus and basil oil. Jumbo prawns are highlighted with prosciutto, basil risotto, crispy basil and red pepper coulis. The Five Spice Moulard Duck Breast in orange sauce features broccolini and soy glazed eggplant. The Australian Rack of Lamb in a Dijon crust is served with fresh-made cauliflower gratin.

Hemmingway’s Bistro

  • 211 N Oak Park Ave.
  • Oak Park, IL
  • 708 524-0806
  • Hours
  • Mon–Sun  7 a.m.–10 p.m.

Fresh Farms International Market

Neighborhood establishment brings the world to customers’ tables.

By Jodean Robbins

Fresh Farms International Market began in 1980 at its Devon Avenue location in Chicago’s Rogers Park neighborhood. Initially named North Water Market, the store’s success was built on the ability to identify and cater to the specific needs of its community. As a result, Fresh Farms now operates four stores throughout Chicagoland’s diverse neighborhoods and offers unique, culturally specific products to reflect each community’s needs.

The stores vary in size, with the smallest being the original 10,000-square-foot Devon Avenue location, to the largest at 60,000 square feet. “We’ve become a staple in our communities by listening to our customers,” says Dino Svigos, owner. “We have managed to survive and thrive for the 40 years we’ve been in business because we sell what our customers want.”

The Best Nature Has

Fresh fruits and vegetables make Fresh Farms a destination. Produce focus is so important that all store receipts state The Best Nature Has To Offer at the bottom. “Produce is our bread and butter,” says Svigos. “People know we have variety, freshness and value.”

Produce represents a significant amount of space and a healthy chunk of store sales. At the smaller Devon store, the 7,000-square-foot department (occupying 70 percent of store space) contributes about 60 percent of sales. The other stores average around 40 percent of space and 40 percent of sales.

In bringing the world to these neighborhoods, Fresh Farms offers hundreds of produce items daily in its signature department. “We have about 300 to 400 items in produce at any given time,” says Svigos. “There aren’t many produce items available that we don’t bring into the store.”

The stores’ produce departments are merchandised to give shoppers a farm-fresh feel. Displays are built open and abundant with product. Large island displays with bold, bright signage allow shoppers easy access to the colorful selection of produce. “We have the ability to really showcase a lot of different produce items,” says Svigos. “We enjoy showing off the great products we sell. We love to build enormous eye-catching displays outside weather permitting.”

Relying On Partners

In addition to effective merchandising, the store is also set up to source the best of nature at the time. “We take great care to ensure the freshest produce is delivered at the best price around,” says Svigos.

The store relies heavily on local wholesalers. “I support the Chicago Produce Market completely,” says Svigos. “The wholesalers there work really closely with you, and together we all achieve more. We must support the Market. It is crucial to having a reliable, quality supply for retail in our area.”

To ensure store individuality, each one of Fresh Farms’ stores has a separate buyer. “The buyers work together to get volume discounts but each buyer caters to the needs of his/her store,” says Svigos. “The buyers will coordinate needs, and the buyer with the biggest volume of a particular item will buy that product then give it to the other stores. For example, okra on Devon is important, so the Devon buyer buys the okra and sends what is needed to the other stores.”

During the summer, Svigos reports the stores do purchase some product locally direct from growers. “It makes sense because they’re here in our backyard.”

Fresh Farms

  • 2626 W Devon Ave
  • Chicago, IL 60659
  • 773-764-3557
  • Hours: 7 a.m. – 10 p.m. daily
  • 8203 W. Golf Rd.
  • Niles, IL 60714
  • 224-470-2060
  • Hours
  • 8 a.m. – 10 p.m. daily
  • 20 S Milwaukee Ave
  • Wheeling, IL 60090
  • 847-484-1930
  • Hours: 7 a.m. – 10 a.m. daily
  • 5740 W Touhy Ave
  • Niles, IL 60714
  • 847-779-7343
  • Hours: 7 a.m. – 10 p.m. daily