Some call it importing. Stefanie Katzman, executive manager with S. Katzman Produce Co. calls it “international sourcing.” Regardless of the appellation, imported fruits and vegetables are growing commodities at the Hunts Point Produce Market, and in crispers and fruit bowls across North America.
As the appetite for popular fruits and vegetables increases, so do the imports. In 2016, 43 percent of fruits and vegetables imported to the United States came from Mexico, according to the USDA ERS, making it the single biggest source of fruit and vegetable imports into the U.S.
“The best thing about imports is that it lets us carry product year-round, and that’s really what the United States has turned into,” notes Katzman. “And I specify the United States because in most other countries it’s still kind of the way it used to be, where they only eat what’s in season. But because we have access to all these imports, and we have planes and boats and other ways of getting product to us, we don’t have to settle for that anymore.”
Importing is more than just filling a gap. Sometimes it’s about finding a better, or singular, product. That’s why BloomFresh flies in pomegranate arils from India twice a week, 52 weeks a year.
“When we went to India we found this sweet variety they grow year-round, and it has a better color and a better taste. And the actual packing they do at this facility is all by hand, so we don’t get any breakage in the arils. We wanted to maintain that perfect product,” says Katzman.
If you Google kiwifruit, Italian chestnuts, and imports, one company dominates the search results: A. J. Trucco Inc., one of the market’s largest importers. KiwiStar, Trucco’s signature brand, contributes the largest sales volume among the company’s imports, with fruit arriving from Italy, Chile and New Zealand, according to Sasha LoPresti, director.
“The best thing about imports is that it lets us carry product year-round, and that’s really what the United States has turned into.”
– Stefanie Katzman, S. Katzman Produce
Showing the biggest growth is blueberries, starring in a year-round program that begins in South America, moves to Florida and works its way up the coast, says LoPresti.
Pineapples from Costa Rica are a recent addition to the Trucco product list. Other imports include lemons, fresh and dried figs, apples, garlic, Clementines and, of course, the Italian chestnuts for which the company was known long before Google.
“We couldn’t be more excited to announce that after significant time and research, we have partnered with a major grower … who will grow and pack bananas in my new banana label ‘Belleza Premium Banana,’” says Charlie DiMaggio, president of FresCo LLC. “The reception we received has been overwhelming, to say the least. Besides acquiring new customers on a weekly basis, we are noticing repeat business and inquiries to other items we handle as well.”
The mango, pineapple and plantain programs continue strong at FresCo, and an avocado program is in the works. “We are also working on a garlic program, which we hope to launch in the very near future.”
At Nathel International, a direct importer, apples and grapes from South America and peppers and eggplants from Holland are the biggest sellers, apart from Mexican imports.
Jimmy’s Gold-branded pineapples stand out among imports at J. Margiotta Co. “Pineapples have been very good,” says Jimmy Margiotta, president. “I’d say the importing of the pineapples has grown, among all the other fruits.”
Rubin Bros., which considers itself more of a vegetable house, turns to Mexico for product at certain times of the year. “But we’re big into Western vegetables,” says Cary Rubin. “That typically remains domestic year-round, so we kind of stay that way even though there are Mexican options there for instance.”
Joel Fierman, president of Fierman Produce Exchange has seen attitudes shift around imports and tells a story to illustrate that. “About 10 years ago, a guy calls me up. He’s a reclamation guy, and he has 10 containers of garlic from China on the pier in Port Elizabeth. And he says. ‘I don’t know what to do with it.’ The garlic market is red-hot — $50, $60 dollars a box. I say, ‘Well, send the container up. We’ll take a look at it.’ … It’s drop-dead gorgeous. I offered it to one of the importers. … I said to him, ‘Take the garlic. The market’s hot. Whatever you get for it, you get for it.’ He says to me, ‘It’s from China. I cannot support China.’ … I sell all the garlic. I have no problems selling the garlic. The following year he comes in, and he drops off four pounds of garlic. They’re from China. I say, why do you bring me Chinese garlic? I thought you don’t support China. ‘Well, you know the prices are so good out of China.’ I said, get the stuff out of here. I only use U.S. garlic.”
EVOLVING WITH LABOR NEEDS
As companies expand and look to the next generation’s labor pool, there are the usual and expected growing pains, and the tensions between the established and the new.
About six years ago, Katzman says the company started recruiting from outside the produce business. “This was unheard of in produce — at least for us. To hire someone who doesn’t know anything about the produce business? This is a very unique business. How are you going to be able to come in here and do this? … Well, I don’t want people to come in here and do this. I want people to come in here and bring their own flair to make this better.
“So, we have someone who used to work for a cheese company, someone who used to work for a coffee company, someone who used to work for UPS. What did they bring to the table? They bring management skills. They might bring leadership skills. They’re going to bring enthusiasm. They might bring buying and selling skills. It’s not produce but you know, if you can buy and sell produce, we say you can buy and sell everything. But if you can buy and sell everything, we can teach you some of the different things about produce. Yes, we’re perishable. Yes, we get affected big-time by weather. So there are a few things you’ve got to take into account. But if you have a salesman’s personality, you’re selling yourself anyway,” she says.
As employers know, or have often heard or read, many in the Millennial generation have a different perspective on work — which can clash with long-held company values, particularly in an industry such as produce.
“So if they care more about work-life balance, you know my first reaction might be that that’s not going to work in this industry,” says Katzman. “But if the entire next generation is thinking that way, maybe it’s the industry that needs to change a little bit. And it’s not that they’re lazy, it’s just that they do things differently.
“Some positions in this company we can change. Some we can’t. I mean, my salesmen downstairs on the walk have their shift. If a Millennial wants to work from home half the week, that’s not going to work in that position. But maybe there’s a position we’ve never had before — maybe we hire someone to handle social media. Do I need them in the office? Yes. Do I need them in the office every day? My normal reaction would have been ‘yes’ 10 years ago. But let’s think about it. No. Especially if it’s going to mean this highly talented person … might work from 10 p.m. to 3 a.m. just because that’s when they like to work. You’re getting all the work done, and it’s better for my business because it’s motivating them, then that’s what I have to do. So, this won’t work for all businesses across the entire company, but there are plenty of businesses where we can bend a bit for the Millennials. And what do we get for it? We get everything they bring to the table.”
“Wholesale’s a way of life for sure,” says Gabriela D’Arrigo. “And it’s tough to get into. Had I not had a family that was doing it, I would’ve never done wholesale. You live here 24 hours a day. But at the same time, it’s not about working harder. It’s about working smarter. We don’t have to be here all hours of the day anymore — except for night buying on the walk and night sales. You have to physically be here for that.”
Merchants are also noticing demographic changes on the buying side.
“There are some Millennial buyers,” says Katzman. “And what we’ve had to adjust to is just how they buy. In our industry, the older buyers have an old-school produce type of mentality. They are more hands-on. They probably came up through the industry. The Millennials we have found to be a little more numbers-driven and analytical. You really just need a mix. On our end, we have a mix of seasoned veterans who have been in this business longer than some of the people in this business have been alive. So, I might take my experienced guy and have him work with an experienced buyer and a Millennial buyer so that he learns a bit, and he can also teach the Millennial a little bit.
“They [Millennials] are going to be focused on the numbers. They’re not going to understand that the numbers this week are going to be different than last year’s this week, because this year we have a snowstorm we’re supposed to get tomorrow. And snow — weather — is a big impact on our business. So, while your computer might tell you that you’re only going to need 1,000 boxes today I, in my experience, am telling you that you’d better order 1,800 because I’m not going to be able to deliver to you tomorrow.”