Wholesalers and distributors around the New York City region provide crucial advantages.
Originally printed in the July 2023 issue of Produce Business.
The role of a wholesaler/distributor in the supply chain allows for an abundance of opportunity-creation for customers.
“Opportunity — in a produce sense of the word — is any situation that can help evolve or achieve a desired outcome, scenario, knowledge, thought process, perspective or idea,” says Angela Aronica, vice president of sales for Vision Global Group in Wyckoff, NJ.
The service aspect of the business offers particular benefits. “Our main opportunity is that we’re in the service business,” says Anthony Serafino, executive vice president of EXP Group in North Bergen, NJ. “In everything we do, we work to serve our customers. All aspects of our business combine to support the service objective: availability, sourcing, consistency, and logistics.
“More than ever, we are seeing customers looking to their wholesaler to be a comprehensive source and solution.”
“We partner with our customers to explore and provide opportunities for a win for all sides of the business.”— Bruce Klein, Maurice A. Auerbach
Bruce Klein, director of marketing for Maurice A. Auerbach in Secaucus, NJ, believes recent challenges have increased the value and benefit to customers. “We partner with our customers to explore and provide opportunities for a win for all sides of the business,” he says. “Our main goal is to satisfy our customer needs, and I think we’re more crucial than ever in the supply chain. Our job is harder, but we try to make it easier for the customer.”
GETTING MORE WITH FEWER STOPS
Customers increasingly rely on New York wholesalers to provide a wide variety of consistent supply.
“We’re seeing customers looking for their wholesaler to be a one-stop-shop with constant availability,” says Serafino. “They want a fuller line. It’s been the theme of centralizing buying power and vendors — to simplify things and meet the needs of providing excellent merchandise as well as cost considerations. We’re continuing to respond and expand what we offer.”
Floyd Avillo, president of FreshPro Food Distributors in West Caldwell, NJ, agrees one-stop shopping is the name of the game. “Customers are looking for this,” he says. “We offer a full line of conventional and organic produce, as well as provide fresh-cut and repacking — all done in our facility.”
Riviera Produce of Englewood, NJ, found opportunity by widening its ample variety of products. “It’s imperative for us to have more than just produce for our customers,” says Ben Friedman, president. “You can no longer just be one thing. With restaurants facing greater constraints, they need more support. They can no longer take multiple deliveries, so the more they can consolidate what’s coming in the door, the less labor and the more profit they will have.”
“With restaurants facing greater constraints, they need more support. They can no longer take multiple deliveries, so the more they can consolidate what’s coming in the door, the less labor and the more profit they will have.”— Ben Friedman, Riviera Produce
Customers may find opportunity in working with more unique items. “As opposed to doing a romaine baby Caesar salad, customers might find a baby kale Caesar salad interesting,” says Friedman. “We’re helping them find ingredients and opportunities on their menu they may not have thought of before. We enjoy expanding the breadth of products we’re offering and helping expose products to customers that can push their creativity.”
Baldor brings forth a highly curated, hard-to-find product mix, says Scott Crawford, vice president of merchandising for Baldor Specialty Foods in Bronx, NY. “The reason we’re able to do so much specialty business is that we have the demand for it,” he says. “As a result of our customer-centric sales team and our years of resourcing the finest restaurants, we are asked by our chefs to find specialty and unique products. Our secret sauce is the customer demand that pushes us to exceed run-of-the-mill sourcing.”
BDA/Dorot Farms headquartered in Melville, NY, offers increased options by adding rainbow carrots for customers. “Rainbow carrots are very trendy in restaurants right now,” says Ami Ben-Dror, chief executive. “Another opportunity we’re expanding is organic carrots. We started that this past year to retail and for foodservice.”
DIRECT FOOD CHAIN LINK
Wholesalers and distributors offer opportunity to customers by providing a fuller link to the supply chain. “Since EXP is a grower, packer, shipper, importer and wholesaler, we provide a direct line of product to our customers, which gives them the best opportunity for the best product direct from the source,” says Serafino.
“Clients are looking for the most direct line of sourcing. Whether coming from Central or South America or the U.S., it’s about providing the most direct and consistent service and merchandise.”
BDA/Dorot Farms carrots are vertically integrated as a grower-importer-distributor. “Our philosophy is to be involved in every aspect of our product,” says Ben-Dror. “If a customer has feedback or questions, we know it all the way back along the supply chain. Our philosophy is to be involved from the seed to consumer.”
FreshPro works with customers to give them the opportunity to identify specific sources directly, but have product procured and serviced via FreshPro. “Our customers can make their own deals with grower/shippers, but have it fulfilled through us,” says Joe Granata, director of produce sales. “We warehouse it and deliver it to their stores. This allows them a more ‘direct’ buy, but without the headache of the logistics of direct buying.”
“Our customers demand to see innovation in products, which requires us to have an eye to the global markets. But we’re very conscious to engage only with farmers in other countries that meet our social responsibility criteria…”— Scott Crawford, Baldor Specialty Foods
At Baldor Specialty Foods, customers have provision of the highest quality, short-shelf-life products, many of which aren’t easily found elsewhere, according to Crawford. “No one else is giving you the chance to get those super sweet Harry’s Berries on the East Coast, or going to Florida on Chef Dan Barber’s recommendation to discover King Grove, an organic blueberry farm growing in soil,” he says. “Because of our agility, we can also work with small boutique farms that sell these unique items and help them grow. Our customers are thoughtful about wanting unique products, and we provide them with access to the very best and most interesting produce that’s out there.”
Serafino sees increased opportunity in internationally sourced products for several reasons. “One, we have increased demographics in ethnic groups who want products from their countries of origin,” he says. “And, we’re seeing an increase of foodies interested in different and unique products. Customers are increasingly recognizing the full potential of international trade and maximizing the potential. We’re also seeing a fuller understanding of how merchandise should be handled and even priced from an international sourcing perspective.”
Given customer desire and demand to have seasonal produce all year long, Riviera’s Friedman describes going around the world to find growing regions to support that demand.
“Products don’t grow domestically during certain times of the year, so if we don’t import from Peru, Colombia or Chile, we won’t have the product at all,” he says. “Also, we see increasing demand for new and unique products, which must be sourced internationally — for example, baby mangos from Colombia this season became admissible.”
Importing has been a part of Baldor Specialty Foods’ DNA for many years. “In fact, we’re known for being one of the first to bring shallots, Belgian endive and Cavaillon melons to the U.S.,” says Crawford. “Our customers demand to see innovation in products, which requires us to have an eye to the global markets. But we’re very conscious to engage only with farmers in other countries that meet our social responsibility criteria — we’re also conscious of the environmental impact global sourcing has.”
Serafino notes EXP Group sources internationally because much of what they handle isn’t grown in the U.S. “Importing is more work on the ground level and requires more attentiveness and control because you’re dealing with a longer line of communication and supply chain,” he says. “There is a lot more complexity in the business — dealing with USDA, maritime issues, even geopolitical issues — but it’s imperative, because our buyers want these products and we want to offer them consistently and with the appropriate quality controls and standards.”
The biggest opportunity Auerbach’s international sourcing gives customers is the ability to source products year-round, according to Klein. “Our garlic is grown in Spain, Argentina and California,” he says. “We follow the cycle so we can offer fresh product to customers all year. The same is true for asparagus, which moves from Peru to Mexico to Washington State, and then cycles back to Peru. When ginger isn’t available from Brazil, we bring it from Honduras or Thailand. International sourcing gives us the chance to provide a wider supply.”
Importers play a crucial role in mitigating supply chain issues for customers. “We bridge the gap for customers,” says Klein. “For example, we try to anticipate issues in the supply chain and adjust product orders so it doesn’t affect our customers.”
BDA/Dorot Farm’s Fresh & Sweet brand carrot, exported from Israel to Europe, Asia, North America and Africa, showcases the opportunity provided by a focused product. “We look at our business as a partnership with our customers,” says Ben-Dror. “We are dedicated to providing the best product and service to our customers to ensure their supply.”
BOOSTING SMART, STRATEGIC BUYS
Wholesalers help customers find specific opportunities in the market through a variety of buying strategies. EXP Group serves many clients who reach out at the last minute for merchandise, according to Serafino. “Our customers can find opportunity with our inventory. If they’re short on a certain commodity, they know EXP can help them get the product they need.”
Given the recent economic situation, thinking strategically about how to access the power of the wholesaler can yield return.
“Every expense that can’t be controlled is going up at a higher percentage than it ever went up before,” says Riviera’s Friedman. “So, looking at any type of ‘smart buying’ is crucial. If we’re not working on those smart opportunities, we’re leaving dollars on the table that will eventually turn into red ink.”
Customers of local and regional wholesalers can find opportunity in smart buying by taking advantage of seasonality trends per country of origin, says Vision Global’s Aronica. “First and foremost, this requires participation, as well as understanding when and why to transition to the next growing region,” she says.
Wholesalers can also help customers find volume or contract buying advantages. “The more a customer buying a high quantity of volume partners with their distributor to talk about how we can together lower their cost, the more they can substantially increase profit,” says Friedman.
“Everyone in the last three years has faced challenges they’ve never had to face before. It’s important to address the cost and supply issues so we can keep driving healthy, tasty foods to consumers.”
“We provide thorough and accurate communication regarding market updates, seasonality trends, and crop forecasts on a routine basis to better equip customers with the necessary information needed to make the best purchasing decisions for their operation.”— Angela Aronica, Vision Global Group
Riviera services multiple HMR companies where the volume is tremendous, according to Friedman. “When they have a certain recipe or menu item, then we reach out to our suppliers for deals or contract pricing. We get a better ROI for the company as a whole and we benefit our customers through it. It allows us to keep our customer’s food costs at a more reasonable level.”
FreshPro offers customers the ability to pre-book certain items and commodities. “This is important around holiday times for key items that tighten up,” says Avillo. “We also have the history for what they purchased prior years.”
ACCESS TO INFORMATION
Direct links to information is another area of opportunity for customers. “Wholesalers stay smart by watching and seeing trends begin and happen and then reaching out to their suppliers,” says Friedman. “I’m constantly reading and searching out items people talk about. By finding the right growers of the product and forming relationships, then we get preference for a new product item.”
The produce industry is changing swiftly, asserts Aronica. “The old way of the produce industry does not yield the same opportunities as today,” she says. “Inflation, mergers and acquisitions, climate change, remote work culture, technological advancements, etc. — there are variable factors that impact how success is now cultivated. Excel and prosper or float and sink.”
According to Aronica, Vision Global Group offers consistent access to accurate information to properly market/promote the company’s products. “We have cultivated strong and unique relationships with our grower partners,” she says. “We provide thorough and accurate communication regarding market updates, seasonality trends, and crop forecasts on a routine basis to better equip customers with the necessary information needed to make the best purchasing decisions for their operation.”
Customers can access store-level assistance as well. “We provide anything a retailer needs to run a successful produce department,” says FreshPro’s Avillo. “In addition to our line of products, we provide merchandising support and use of our retail information system for managing margins and measuring tonnage and movement.”
FreshPro’s merchandising specialists visit stores and assist with resets and merchandising ideas to help drive sales, explains Granata. “Our inside sales representatives speak with and provide product updates on a daily basis, as well as take orders over the phone instead of just on a computer — it gives the customer a chance to ask questions about products.”
CUSTOMIZATION AND COMMITMENT
Flexible wholesalers react to customer needs, resulting in customized opportunity. “We pride ourselves on meeting customers’ needs,” says Auerbach’s Klein. “If it can be done, we’ll do it. For example, we have a bagging machine that can pretty much make any size bag the customer wants, and we can react quickly to customer requests.”
Vision has developed mutually beneficial relationships, including a joint venture with William H. Kopke Jr., headquartered in Great Neck, NY. With this new partnership, says Aronica, “VGG and Kopke will continue to evolve our commodity portfolio, resources and network that will greatly expand our opportunities, as well as the opportunities of our customers.”
In the end, opportunity comes down to relationships, explains Ben-Dror of Dorot/BDA. “We are committed to our customers. For example, even though the European market was higher this year, we kept our commitments to our customers in North America. We don’t ship based on price, we ship based on commitment.
“The opportunity of having relationships such as ours for a buyer is that their shelf will always have the product and quality.”