Originally printed in the April 2020 issue of Produce Business.
The nation’s lucrative capital region is hotbed for produce expansion.
As its population grows, so does the movement of produce in one of the country’s largest metropolitan areas. The 6.2 million people living in the Washington-Arlington-Alexandria, DC-VA-MD-WV metropolitan statistical area (MSA) reside in one of the fastest-growth metro areas. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the region is the country’s 6th most populous MSA and 10th in most numeric growth between 2017 and 2018. Between those years, population increased 11%.
For the even larger area that combines Baltimore and parts of Maryland and Pennsylvania, population increased eight percent from 2010 to 2018. The 9.7 million people in the larger MSA constitute the country’s 4th largest Combined MSA.
Suburban areas of the metro area are experiencing growth. “The suburbs have expanded as our business has expanded,” says Tony Vitrano, president of Tony Vitrano Co., based in Jessup on the Maryland Wholesale Produce Market. “As people move farther out, the stores are also obviously moving with them and go further (distance-wise) than they might have 10 to 15 years ago.”
Situated about an hour’s drive to downtown Washington, DC, and about a half hour from downtown Baltimore, Jessup — and it Maryland Wholesale Produce Market — is the epicenter of the region’s produce distribution.
“DC is a big mixing bowl,” observes Bill Santoni, director of sales for Coosemans D.C., Inc., Jessup, MD, which distributes specialties and conventional produce to retail chains and other customers throughout the East Coast from Maine to Savannah, GA. “There are a lot of different people here.”
Santoni says the temporary nature of the region’s workforce helps move produce. “This area is very transient,” he says. “Many people are not from this area. Many come from all parts of the world to live here, because of the government. It’s a very diverse group of people.”
DIVERSE PRODUCTS, CUSTOMER BASE
That diversity helps sales. “That’s when you can use all the different items from all over the world,” says Santoni, noting, that if one is in the military, that shopper become accustomed to seeing new items overseas. “All the sudden, this creates demand for those items,” says Santoni.
Several factors are driving the region’s overall market, especially as Baltimore and DC are finally becoming food destinations, says Kevin Keany, president and founder of Keany Produce & Gourmet, a Landover, MD, foodservice distributor. “Both cities have become regional powerhouses of bringing farmers to the table,” he says. “Chefs are building connections with farmers at area markets and have the expectations for wholesalers to provide their crops.”
The region’s many ethnic groups’ love of produce helps with restaurant sales. “DC is a hotbed for creative, fast-casual concepts, and they continue to grow,” says Kathy Hollinger, president and chief executive of the Restaurant Association Metropolitan Washington. “Vegetables are front-and-center in Washington, with more chefs exploring center-plate presentations with seasonal produce. There are still countless celebrities and noted chefs from around the world with their eyes on Washington.”
According to Keany, there are changes in cuisine offerings as more ethnic food becomes more accessible, and consumers are willing to try new things. “As a result, our product mix has become much more diverse than it was 10 years ago.”
The population density and the large variety of food establishments make for congested roadways and often difficult access to loading/unloading areas. “From the consumer’s perspective, the Washington DC area is a ‘Foodie’s’ paradise with a nightlife that rivals any city in the world,” says Don Darnall, executive director of the Maryland Food Center Authority, which owns and operates the Jessup terminal market. “From a distributor’s perspective, moving food products throughout the area is a logistical-nightmarish challenge.”
In normal circumstances, wholesalers characterize the region’s economy as favorable. The region is primarily driven by the government and white-collar type jobs versus manufacturing. “The economy has been good, regardless of what’s going on in DC,” Vitrano says. “That helps us a lot.”
The region’s many government offices draw large federal and state employees. “That keeps our economy on a relatively steady pace,” says Vitrano. “It seems like the government certainly is not shrinking.”
Usually, after the Christmas and New Year’s holidays, produce movement slows. This year, however, January and February brought strong business, says Santoni.
“There are a lot of grocery stores in the area, and the restaurant business is strong, particularly in the DC area,” says Vitrano. “Produce is market-driven, but the produce economy has been healthy in the most recent years.”
AGGRESSIVE RETAIL MARKET
The Washington, DC, area’s supermarket scene is competitive. Customers are drawn to a mix of big national chains, regional independent chains and smaller stores owned by local business people.
Giant Food, Safeway, Costco, Wegman’s, Harris Teeter, Walmart, Whole Foods, Food Lion, BJ’s Wholesale Club, Trader Joe’s, Target, Sam’s Club, Weis Market, Aldi, H Mart and Dollar Tree are among Washington, DC’s leading grocers.
In 2004, Wegman’s first entered the Washington, DC, area by opening a Dulles, VA, store. In the fall of 2020, the Rochester, NY- based chain plans to open a Tysons Corner, VA, store, in the Capital One Center. In 2021, additional locations are scheduled for Washington, DC, Alexandria, Arcola, VA, Reston, VA, Rockville, MD, and Greenville, DE, its first Delaware location. Wegman’s operates 11 stores in Virginia, eight in Maryland and 15 in Pennsylvania.
Independent operator, MOM’S Organic Market, based in Rockville, MD, operates 17 stores in the region. In 2020, it plans to open a store in Pennsylvania and another in the New York Metropolitan Region.
“Produce is front-and-center in our business,” says Chris Miller, MOM’S produce director. “We get people in the door with our produce. In the DC and Baltimore metro areas, we have a diverse customer base that varies depending on the store location.”