Serving a diverse population with produce from near and far.
Originally printed in the October 2023 issue of Produce Business.
The combination of ethnic diversity and access to diverse growers in California, Latin America and the Pacific Rim birthed a Los Angeles produce culture that is vibrant and dynamic.
Los Angeles and New York often compete for the crown of the most diverse city in the country. According to the 2020 Census, Los Angeles County is 48% Hispanic, 15% Asian and 8% African American, and there are ethnic enclaves of every race scattered throughout the county.
“Los Angeles is a city of culture, bringing many ethnicities together,” says Alex Jackson, vice president of sales, marketing and procurement at Frieda’s, Los Alamitos, CA, who adds the city has continued to grow in diversity over the last decade.
“The Los Angeles produce industry caters to a diverse customer base, including Asian stores, Hispanic markets, chains that serve Anglo customers and more,” says Jackson. “The diversity of the produce industry in Los Angeles reflects the diversity of the city itself.”
Frieda’s was started 50 years ago by Frieda Rapoport Caplan, the first woman to set up shop at the Los Angeles Wholesale Produce Market. Caplan introduced kiwis, then known as Chinese gooseberries, to U.S. consumers in 1962 and her company has since built a reputation as a source of unique produce items.
Los Angeles is an unparalleled hub, with access to the nearby Central Valley and the salad bowl fields, and imports from Mexico, South America and the Pacific Rim.
“Despite challenges, there are opportunities for growth in the produce industry, especially with the increasing demand for health-conscious and flavorful fruits and vegetables,” says Jackson. “The diversity of Los Angeles is an opportunity for the produce market, but these consumers know what they want, and so do the retailers.”
Offering a value or competitive advantage is key to being successful in the LA market, Jackson adds. “At Frieda’s Branded Produce, we make unusual produce approachable. We show people how to use it, enjoy it, and why the unusual creates some of the best, most memorable food experiences.”
INDEPENDENT CHAINS THRIVE
Although corporate giants Kroger, Costco, Safeway, Albertsons, Target, Walmart and Trader Joe’s still head the list of top retailers in the LA metropolitan area, numerous independent chains thrive by serving large ethnic populations.
El Super has 58 stores in the area. The third largest retailer in Mexico opened its first El Super in Southgate in 1997. The chain has since grown to 123 El Super and La Fiesta Markets in the U.S., including more than 50 in California.
In addition to El Super, Vallarta has 27 stores in the Los Angeles area, and Numero Uno has 10 outlets, all serving predominantly Hispanic customers.
The Asian population is served by Tawa Super, with more than 40 stores; Uka’s Big Saver with 14 stores; and Marukai with 11 stores.
WHOLESALERS AND SHIPPERS
Successful wholesalers and shippers have learned to serve the diverse markets in the Los Angeles metropolitan area.
“I think what makes Los Angeles unique is that there is an overlap in the ethnic markets,” says Jackson. “Many wholesalers have their specialty, whether it’s Asian, Southeast Asian, Hispanic or Middle Eastern, and many specialize in two areas and service retailers who serve different communities. Regardless of the market you’re serving, every consumer is looking for value, and retailers will partner with wholesalers who give them the opportunity to provide that value.”
The diversity of the population has a profound effect on produce in the region, as wholesalers, retailers, and restaurants frequently cater to ethnic communities.
Daaks International opened in Los Angeles at the turn of the century as a major shipper of okra and other Asian vegetables and fruits. The company grows a large variety of Asian produce varieties in the Western hemisphere and ships them through a convenient Long Beach location near both highways and the port.
“This market has gotten very ethnic,” says Alan Pollack, general manager of Coosemans L.A. Shipping Inc., Vernon, CA. “You have to be aware of your customers and what products they want. We have people coming from all over the Middle East, Europe and South America.”
Coosemans began in the 1970s when diamond importer Herman Van den Broeck expanded his business by flying Belgian endive into Los Angeles International Airport, and peddling this exotic vegetable to high-end restaurants out of the back of his burgundy Cadillac. The endive business was strong enough that he later expanded his line to also include many colors of bell peppers, which were not widely available at the time.
Coosemans has grown to include 23 specialty produce franchises around the world, including 20 in the U.S. The flagship Los Angeles facility still ships Belgian endive, but also offers Asian greens, bitter melon from Mexico, and dragon fruit from Southeast Asia.
“Some of the old timers on the market have moved on and leased their facilities to new, smaller wholesalers,” says Pollack.
There are many newer vendors at the Los Angeles Terminal Market on Seventh Street near downtown.
Fuentes Produce, Morelo’s Produce, Maribel Produce, Perez and Larios Corp., Medina’s Produce, Marquez Produce, Santiago’s Produce, Reyes Produce, Los Potrillos Produce, Cardenas Produce Corp., La Barca produce, and Los Amigos Produce all have stalls at the five-acre, open-air market, where the public and retailers shop six days a week.
Joe and Sharon Hernandez started Melissa’s in a lunchroom and grew the company to seven acres of Latin, Asian and other specialty fruits and vegetables under the motto “Delivering the Global Market.”
“The population density and number of restaurants make the Los Angeles market a good place to start in produce,” says Robert Schueller, director of public relations at Melissa’s/World Variety Produce, Vernon, CA.
Successful service to the Los Angeles market allowed Melissa’s to grow from a lunchroom to a major operation occupying acres of cooler space in Vernon, shipping to retailers throughout the U.S.
“We relied heavily on the Los Angeles market 20 years ago, but we do business with the top 30 retailers all around the country,” says Schueller. “They come to us for quality, competitive pricing and consolidation.”
While supply chain issues have led many wholesalers to reduce their variety, Melissa’s continues to be a source of an incredible number of specialty produce items.
“Our buyers see there is less variety than there was before COVID,” says Schueller. “We’re known for our variety — we carry 1,500 produce items both conventional and organic.”
Los Angeles’ location, closer to California’s Central Valley, Mexico, and Asia than any other major city in the country, has given birth to a hybrid form, as the largest wholesalers deal directly with farmers to also fill the role of grower-shipper.
“While Frieda’s has moved away from the wholesale business and is now a grower-shipper,” says Jackson. “For many years, we were that ‘one-stop shop’ to buy anything that wasn’t a mainstream commodity. During the pandemic, we saw the opportunity to increase the value we bring to our clients by reducing our SKUs and only selling items in the category where we add value to the supply chain, whether that’s in our procurement, marketing or distribution.”
Like Frieda’s, Melissa’s has developed relations with growers who ship to Los Angeles from a wide area of the globe.
“We contract with growers directly. We have the best-growing areas from San Diego to Northern California and the Imperial and Central Valleys,” says Schueller. “We source both nationally and internationally depending on the season. We are near a lot of growing areas and enjoy fuel savings.”
The COVID-19 pandemic enhanced the role of the largest wholesalers, as they helped retailers manage supply chain challenges.
“I have seen a cyclical return to buying off the markets,” says Francisco Clouthier, owner and general manager of Maui Fresh International, Los Angeles, CA. “We have seen demand from some of our old customers.”
The Clouthier family started farming tomatoes and peppers in the Sinaloa Valley over 60 years ago and soon after opened San Rafael Distributing, a sales company in Nogales, AZ. In 2004, Clouthier opened a wholesale company in Los Angeles and in 2007, created Maui Fresh International, wholesaling produce from a network of growers in the U.S., Mexico, Canada, Europe, Asia, Central and South America.
“We are getting back some of the business we lost 10 or 15 years ago,” says Clouthier. “Our supply, quality, and price are more consistent than buying direct from the growers.”
Maui Fresh sells to a variety of customers throughout the Los Angeles Metropolitan area and beyond.
“We sell to independents and foodservice,” says Clouthier. “We’re almost back to pre-pandemic levels in foodservice.”
FOODSERVICE PRODUCE SALES
Los Angeles County is home to one-third of all the restaurants in California, according to the 18,000-member county chapter of the California Restaurant Association.
When the pandemic hit, foodservice produce sales plummeted 15% overnight, according to Technomic principal partner Joe Pawlak, as restaurants were forced to close. The foodservice sector is crawling back, even though many restaurants struggle with labor shortages.
As in many geographic areas, the foodservice sector in Los Angeles has rebounded significantly from the darkest days of the pandemic, but has not recovered to its pre-COVID levels. Still, says Mark Feuerstein, operations director at Nature’s Produce Company, Vernon, CA, “our foodservice sales are going great.”
Nature’s Produce Company is a third-generation family company that traces its origins back to 1946, when Sam Polsky entered the Los Angeles produce business. Sam’s son Rick opened Nature’s Produce in 2000. The company wholesales fresh, dried, frozen and processed fruits, vegetables, and herbs.
Other wholesalers, however, notice their business is still tilted toward retailers.
“The market is more oriented toward retail than foodservice, compared to pre-COVID,” says Schueller from Melissa’s.