Los Angeles Produce and Its People – As Diverse As It Gets

Los Angeles Cityscape

This city is a gateway to the world and its fruits and vegetables.

The City of Los Angeles has the largest Hispanic population of any city in the country, according to the 2016 U.S. Census estimate, which pegs that number at nearly 2 million residents.

In the greater Los Angeles-Long Beach-Anaheim metropolitan area, 6 million of the nearly 13 million residents is Hispanic, according to a Pugh Research Center analysis of census data, which is more than 10 percent of all the Hispanics in the country.

Southern California’s largest metro area also has nearly 450,000 Asian residents, again the largest in the country, as immigrants from Korea, Taiwan, Thailand, Vietnam, India and Pakistan have recently joined earlier generations of Japanese and Chinese residents. The African-American population, though declining as prohibitive housing costs spur Black flight, is still at 350,000, or roughly 9 percent of the city’s population.

“Los Angeles is the most diverse of all metropolitan areas in the United States,” says Robert Schueller, director of public relations at Melissa’s/World Variety Produce, Los Angeles. “Broken down by subculture, the Latin population includes Mexican, South American, Central American, Cuban and others; the Asian population includes Chinese, Japanese, Thai, Korean and others.”

Melissa’s uses its strategic location, with access to Asia by sea and Latin America by road, rail, or sea, to serve as a distributor of specialty produce from its 280,000-square-foot warehouse. The company’s recent product description includes Aztec and Bhut Jolokia red peppers, Australian truffles, Nopales cactus leaves and Calabaza squash.

Frieda’s Specialty Produce, Los Alamitos, CA, has also built a reputation for specialty items from around the globe, shipped into and out of the company’s facility. “Demand is up for Asian and Latin produce, and it’s not unusual for every grocery store to stock unusual items,” says Alex Jackson Berkley, senior account manager. “In a region that is a melting pot of cultures like Los Angeles, it’s hard to categorize items as ‘ethnic’ anymore. While many other market areas would consider ginger, turmeric, lemongrass, jicama, poblano chilies, Shanghai bok choy and tomatillos exotic, in the LA area that’s just everyday produce.”

The patchwork of immigration that largely defines this metropolis is even more complex than the census numbers for Hispanic and Asians reflect.

“Whether it is the Persians, Hispanics or Armenians, they don’t have their own neighborhoods like they used to; they are all overlapping,” says Alan Pollack, general manager of Coosemans LA, Vernon, CA. “We have a lot of Middle Easterners, Europeans and Asians. Different ethnicities came in and they brought their cuisines with their own produce items like Persian cucumbers, and different varieties and colors of tomatoes. It’s changed quite a bit in the 30 years I’ve been in the business.”

Coosemans has been importing produce since the early 1980s, when Los Angeles natives Pollack and Dale Firman, along with Belgian born entrepreneur Herman Van den Broeck would pick up loads of Belgian endive at the Los Angeles International Airport and load it into Van den Broeck’s Cadillac for local delivery. Not too long after, they were selling bell peppers from Belgium, once considered a luxury. Today, the company sources a wide range of fruits, vegetables and flowers, or what it calls “uncommon produce.”

Not a Cliché

While clichéd media depictions of Los Angeles focus on Tinseltown, the movie industry and the iconic “Hollywood” sign on the side of the Santa Monica Mountains, more than 20 percent of the residents of the City of the Angels live in poverty, of which, 30 percent are children. The greater metropolitan area also has affluent enclaves that include most of the coastal neighborhoods, except for the Long Beach-San Pedro region.

The highly active Port of Los Angeles, which the governing authority calls “America’s Port,” is a big part of the produce story in this metropolis. More than 8 million 20-foot-long cargo containers pass through the facility every year, making it the largest port in the country by volume, as the Port Authority proudly claims to govern the leading gateway for trade between the United States and Asia.

“Los Angeles is one of the main ports in the United States for bringing in produce,” says Broc Bengard, vice president of Bengard Marketing, Dominguez Hills, CA. “With grapes, stone fruit and cherries, there’s a lot more availability of imported produce than almost anywhere else in the country. The breadth of produce is greater.”

Bengard is a family owned firm that wholesales fruit from apples to Asian pears, and nectarines to mangos, from New Zealand, Chile, Argentina and the United States.

While Los Angeles County agriculture has declined precipitously since orange orchards and wheat fields made it one of the top farming counties in the country after World War II, nearby agriculture still makes California the nation’s leading producer, with crop value of more than $47 billion — roughly equivalent to all the agriculture of Germany.

That extraordinary bounty of nearby fruits and vegetables, coupled with easy access to the harvest from Asia and Latin America, allows this city to serve as an indispensable produce hub.

“It’s close to California growing areas like Salinas, Oxnard and Santa Maria, and Mexico and Nogales, AZ, when that crop comes in,” says Ray Davis, owner of Pacific Sun, Los Angeles. “We ship to a variety of customers around the nation and around the world. We go mostly to foodservice in the United States. Most of our retailers are out of the country; and we also ship some abroad for the U.S. military.”

Davis figures whatever his customers cannot find locally, they can source through him in Los Angeles. “The demand varies from gourmet specialties to mainstream staples,” he says. “We ship whatever is not being grown in their area. There are a few gourmet specialties that are more in demand, and organic has stepped up globally in the past two or three years.”

Many wholesalers view Los Angeles as a hub for shipping produce around the country.

“Probably 85 percent of what we receive gets shipped somewhere else, outside of Southern California,” says Bengard. “We sell to major retailers like Kroger, Safeway and Albertsons. It goes to Washington, Arizona and Texas, and a little bit to the east.”

Many Los Angeles wholesalers, of both commodity and specialty produce, use the city’s strategic location to receive produce from fields near and far, and ship it across the country or around the world.

“We don’t sell that much in Los Angeles. We are a member [of Pro*Act] a network that is a foodservice supplier,” says Robin Osterhues, director of marketing at Harvest Sensations, Los Angeles. “Originally, we sold a majority into that foodservice network. Today, we focus on the network, but we also sell to foodservice outside of it, and to retailers and some home delivery. Kroger and Albertsons are among our customers.”

Harvest Sensations wholesales organic and conventional non-core and specialty items, including dragonfruit, rambutan, Tamarillo grapes, spiny chayote squash and jujubes. “Here in LA, we have so much opportunity for product availability,” says Osterhues. “We have two ports and access via the ground.”

In addition to produce that comes in through “America’s Port,” wholesalers also receive fruits and vegetables from Mexico, 150 miles south on Highway 5, the orchards of the San Joaquin Valley conveniently north on Highway 5 or the Salinas Valley, 250 miles north on Highway 101.

“We’re in the biggest fruit and vegetable growing state,” says Francisco Clouthier, founding owner of Maui-Fresh International, Los Angeles. “We’re also within two hours of the Mexican border and 10 hours from Nogales, AZ. We have access to the ports and are within 20 minutes of Los Angeles International Airport; and we also bring in produce from Western Canada, which is two days away by truck. Los Angeles has become a hub for destinations that don’t have access to the produce we do.”

This strategic location makes the Los Angeles Wholesale Market a convenient place for smaller retailers to source an incredible variety of the world’s produce.

“The small retailers, with from one to 10 stores, buy heavily in the Wholesale Market,” says Clouthier. “Not only do we sell items at the Wholesale Market, we also offer consolidation services. We are able to bring in produce from many different growing areas.”

Some major retailers have also come back to relying more on the Wholesale Market, according to Clouthier. “I’ve been here going on 18 years, and I’ve seen it change and then change back,” he says. “We supply a lot of chain stores that moved to centralize their buying at distribution centers and then changed back to getting more from the Wholesale Market.”

Cal Pacific Growers, a major packer of avocados grown in the San Diego area, does most of its shipping from Escondido, CA, directly to large chains. “We pack for Del Monte and go to Costco,” says Neil Witt, president of Cal Pacific Growers, Los Angeles. “I would say the prices were a little lower this year because of the competition from Peru. We minimize sales to the wholesale market. You give them product and you don’t get your return until after they sell it.”

Because of its proximity to many growing areas, Los Angeles has traditionally served as one of the nation’s major produce centers.

“There’s a long history of a lot of produce coming out of Southern California,” says David Weinstein, director of sales at Heath & Lejeune, Commerce, CA. “We sell to national food outlets, both retail and foodservice. We sell to higher-end retailers and wholesalers.” Heath & Lejeune is a California-certified organic farmer wholesaler offering distribution, storage and consolidation services.

The growing complexity of Los Angeles’ ethnic web is reflected in the larger number of organic and conventional specialty produce items shipped in and out of Melissa’s as well.

“We have increased our produce listing up 200 items in the last 10 years, extending the season in most cases to year-round availability due to consumer demand, especially within the diverse cultures,” says Melissa’s Schueller. “Melissa’s Produce is the largest variety supplier of produce in the United States, conventional and organic, with a produce line of more than 1,500 items.”

Because Melissa’s fills a unique niche, offering specialty produce items not found elsewhere, the company has relative immunity from changes in the distribution chain.

“Retail consolidation has not limited our outlets because Melissa’s is a one-stop shop for everything produce,” says Schueller. “We specialize in ethnic produce, Latin, Asian and other subcultures.”

Farm to Fork to Cocktails

Many Los Angeles-area restaurants capitalize on being in the largest city and in the nation’s most productive agricultural state.

“The restaurants pride themselves more than ever before on using locally grown produce,” says Sharokina Shams, vice president of public affairs at the California Restaurant Association, Sacramento, CA. “The restaurants even pride themselves on using locally grown ingredients in some of their drinks. Some restaurants even list on the menu the name of the farm where the produce was grown. More and more consumers are interested in what’s on their plate and where it came from.”

Los Angeles wholesalers who ship to the local foodservice sector sense a general trend toward higher quality, or more interesting produce items.

“I think everyone has come up a notch or two in the ingredients they want to use,” says Coosemans’ Pollack. “Everybody has — restaurants and consumers. Even McDonald’s is serving kale salad these days.”

Coosemans finds interest, in particular, in produce from the many corners of the globe that send immigrants to this city. “Los Angeles is a good place to do our business because of the variety of the produce, and the variety of the customers we serve,” says Pollack. “They’re asking us to find produce items from their homeland. It’s fun. We mainly do foodservice, but also some Mom-and-Pop retailers.”

The restaurant trade is spread throughout three adjacent counties, with only a small share within the City of Los Angeles proper. “There are 6,140 restaurants in the City of Los Angeles, but there are 44,488 restaurants in the greater LA-Orange-Riverside County area.” says Shams. “Statewide, California boasts more than 95,000 restaurants that employ 1.7 million people. That number grows every year.”

Diverse Retailers

The giants of the produce retail world are in the midst of a battle for control of the enormous Los Angeles area market.

Cincinnati-based Kroger is the area leader, capturing more than 20 percent of produce sales at 198 stores, most of them Food 4 Less and Ralph’s, according to the 2017 Chain Store Guide.

Top 10 retailer Aldi’s moved into California in 2016 and plans to open at least 45 stores featuring its economy format in the Southern California area in a short period.

Costco is already Number Two in the metro area, with better than 12 percent of the dollar volume produce sales. Wal-Mart and Sam’s Club weigh in at 10 percent of the dollar sales, and Target has 81 produce outlets in the metropolitan area.

Reflecting the area’s demographics, independent or small chain stores catering mostly to a Hispanic clientele, also flourish throughout the Los Angeles metropolitan area. Some of those retailers include El Super with 30 stores, Vallarta with 27 and Numero Uno with 13 units, which combine to account for nearly 5 percent of the dollar value in produce sales, according to the 2017 Chain Store Guide.

“We sell to distributors in the Los Angeles Market who sell to the chains; and we sell to retailers, too, like Cardenas Markets and Northgate Gonzalez Markets,” says Alamo Produce’s Lopez. “I sell three or four products and they don’t ask me for what I don’t have.”

Cardenas Markets, the result of a 2016 merger of Mi Pueblo Food Centers and Cardenas Markets, could be a real sleeper. The Ontario, CA-based company has 47 stores in the Southwest, but also an ambitious growth plan that’s based on an appeal to Hispanics in the perimeter of the store, including produce. The company aims to go nationwide and become the largest Hispanic retailer in the country.