Chicago’s Wholesale Market Serves Up Variety

Originally printed in the June 2018 issue of Produce Business.

Staying Relevant By Meeting The Needs Of A Diverse Clientele, It Offers Wider Product Mix While Focusing On Value-Added Services

The diversity of Chicago’s marketplace is well served by the region’s wholesalers, especially the Chicago International Produce Market (CIPM). “In general throughout the Midwest, we are a big hub because of our location,” says Mark Pappas, president of Coosemans Chicago. “We pull from Canada, from the East Coast or from the West Coast and serve a broad base of customers.”

Merchants on the market estimate they handle approximately 500 trucks per week inbound. All the houses together represent a lot of product,” says Adolfo Vega, Jr., president of La Hacienda. “We meet needs that can’t be filled anywhere else.”

The Market serves just about every type of business, from large chains to foodservice distributors to small mom and pop stores. “We serve the big retail chains and are a great source for smaller neighborhood and independent stores,” says Pappas. “Probably as much as any city, you’re still able to be a wholesaler jobber here using the terminal market.”

Though many large chains buy product direct, having a relationship with the Market is also essential. “Even if a chain buys ahead and tries to cover what they need, they’re always short something,” says Tommy Durante, sales and purchasing at Panama Banana. “We’re consistently here to fill in those shorts.”

The growth of specialty, niche and ethnic stores in Chicago assures survival of the Market. “Those business models rely on the wholesale market in terms of using us as a warehouse and for our product mix and value,” says TJ Fleming, vice president of Strube Celery and Vegetable Company.

The CIPM is a state-of-the-art 450,000 -square-foot wholesale facility with more than 20 merchants sharing 99 loading docks, and customers value the benefits of market shopping.

“The Chicago produce market is special because it is hands-on,” says Vanessa Dremonas, executive officer for Pete’s Fresh Market in Chicago, with 12 stores. “Actual humans are searching, picking and fighting for what eventually ends up on our shelves. Unlike some of our chain competitors, our team of buyers goes to the Market every day, opening up cases, digging through shipments and marking exactly which lots we take home.”

Changing Product Mix

Over the years, merchants have seen a change from specialized houses carrying traditional products to a wide product mix among most of the vendors. “We have a huge variety,” says Fleming. “We are basically a produce mall. Buyers can compare items and pricing and find fun things to offer customers they may not want to buy FOB. We’ve changed up our mix to cater to the evolving customer base.”

Pappas witnesses increasing innovation of products on the Market. “We have a guy sourcing 10 cases every other day of baby corn,” he says. “We sell baby beets, fiddlehead ferns, Morel mushrooms, tricolor mixed carrots, and red finger peppers out of Holland. Sometimes we’re the only game in town for these items, and other times we’re just the easiest place to go for them.”

Pappas sees more retail and foodservice customers seeking items that aren’t mainstream. “For example, they are trying something such as dragon fruit,” he says. “They add something exotic and also pick up one or two seasonal things such as rhubarb to make their produce mix more interesting.”

Coosemans is expanding its ability to procure some specialties on a more consistent basis. “Products such as dragon fruit used to be spotty, but now we’re able to bring it in direct every 10 days from Vietnam,” says Pappas. “It’s becoming more consistent. It’s still a unique item, but we have customers who want it on a daily basis, and they can be confident we’ll have a steady stream.”

Increasing variety among Market merchants presents buyers with the ability to peruse and purchase all in one trip as companies look to provide a single shopping experience for customers. “I differentiate my business by selling produce, grocery and cash-and-carry,” says Vega. “I’m a one-stop shop.”

Panama Banana reports a push in recent years to become a full-line house. “Six years ago when I started, it was predominantly mangos, banana and pineapples,” says Durante. “Now, if a customer is running pineapples and needs seven skids delivered to the warehouse, they can also get a few boxes of other items as well. It makes it easier for the buyer to buy volume in a single location.”

The market also provides value to buyers. “We can flexibly service a lot of demands with what we bring in,” says Fleming. “We get a lot of special deals from our shippers allowing us to make good deals for our customers.”

Panama Banana asserts it supplies independents and smaller chains at a cheaper price than they could get via direct sourcing. “We have good relationships with the shippers,” says Durante. “A company such as Panama Banana can always put out a good deal on our core items. We have a big inventory, and our customers know they can rely on us.”

Durante considers the ability to consistently source and provide volume as a huge benefit. “It comes down to being consistent,” he says. “Buyers know they can always get these products here, and they’ll always get consistent product.”

Adding Services, Growing Knowledge

CIPM merchants offer value-added services including ripening, custom repacking, custom packaging and private-label programs. Fleming reports Strube does some breakdown of product for customers. “Not everybody can use a 50-count cilantro, so we’ll break it down to 30-count,” he says. “This is a growing segment of our business.”

CIPM merchants also assist with transportation issues including full truckload service, forward distribution, cross-docking and daily delivery. “Strube is expanding our trucking so we can better and more frequently service the customers who need delivery,” says Fleming.

Another often-overlooked benefit of wholesale market merchants is the merchants’ expertise. “We’ve been around for 105 years now, and we have the fifth generation already in place,” says Fleming. “We help our buyers with our knowledge, guiding them in the right direction.”

Customer trust is fundamental, according to Pappas. “Some of our large customers or customers who are far away will just give us the order, as opposed to sending a buyer down,” he says. “They know they’ll get the best quality and a fair and reasonable price from us. Our customers rely on our eyes on the product.”

Vega echoes the sentiment. “We pride ourselves on our service and expertise,” he says. “We are one of the longest-tenured houses on the Chicago market, started in 1973. Our longevity says something about our value.”

Dremonas recognizes the CIPM has some of the strongest wholesalers in the nation. “Similar to Pete’s Market, these are family owned and operated businesses, with a foundation of grit, perseverance and passion,” she says.

One example illustrating the emphasis experience holds on the market is Coosemans bringing back a former longtime employee — Nick Donofrio — as director of sales. “Nick is now working hand-in-hand with sales manager Doug Kawa,” says Pappas. “He offers more than 30 years of experience. He has a lot of knowledge, which benefits us and our customers.”