Produce Distribution In The Expanding South Florida Market

Originally printed in the February 2020 issue of Produce Business.

The region is considered the “california of the east coast.”

South Florida and its unique demographic makeup of the 6.2 million people who live in the Miami-Fort Lauderdale-West Palm Beach, FL, metropolitan statistical area make it one of the most interesting and diverse regions to distribute produce.

The region is considered a gateway for Southern Hemisphere produce imported and distributed throughout the United States.

The people in the region represent a highly diverse demographic. About 39% of the metro area’s residents (2.41 million people) were born outside of the United States, higher than the national average of 13.7 percent, according to information from the American Community Survey cited by Denver-based Data Incorporated. About 45% of the metro area’s population is Hispanic, 30% white and 20 percent black. Of the metro area’s three counties, Hispanics account for 69% of the population of Miami-Dade County, 30% of Broward County (Fort Lauderdale) and 22% of Palm Beach County, slightly higher than previous surveys.

“This area is growing,” says Filipe Silva, general manager of Seabra Foods Supermarket, a Newark, NJ-based chain, which in South Florida operates stores in Deerfield Beach, FL, and Parkland, FL. “We are seeing more ethnic groups, which is good for us and our sales.” [Editor’s Note: See the Rising Retailer article on page 16 for more details on Seabra.]

Newark, NJ-based Seabra Foods Supermarket, a leading ethnic food retailer, expanded to Florida in 2004.

The nation’s seventh largest metropolitan area trails New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Dallas, Houston, and Washington, D.C., but is ahead of Philadelphia (8th), Atlanta (9th) and Boston (10th). South Florida is also experiencing significant population growth. From 2010 to 2016, population increased by 634,000 (larger than the city of Miami), or 11%, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Tourists and snowbirds — those who migrate to the Sunshine State’s warmer temperatures during the winter months — are important to the region, say wholesalers that distribute produce to the region’s many restaurants, lodging, resorts and supermarkets.

Booming Population

“More people are moving into South Florida and living year-round versus seasonally in the winter months,” says Andrew Scott, director of business development at Atlanta’s Nickey Gregory Co., LLC. “That means business was up in the (slow) summer months for us. To be a success here, you must offer outstanding customer service, competitive pricing and experienced produce people who understand the South Florida marketplace.”

Sprouts has gained a following in the Sunshine State.

South Florida is a tourist- and produce- destination. “This is the best place to be in the whole country in February,” says Jack Scalisi, president of West Palm Beach-based Jack Scalisi Wholesale Fruit & Produce, which distributes produce to upscale restaurants, country clubs and hotels throughout the populous region, as well as to the Port St. Lucie-Sebastian-Vero Beach metropolitan areas, which is up the Atlantic Coast north of West Palm Beach.

Scalisi says his company’s business always increases during the November through April season. “This is a real seasonal market here,” he says. “This market goes from being a normal marketplace in the summer to a big focal point in the winter. This area is more of a destination for tourists.”

“More people are moving into South Florida and living year-round versus seasonally in the winter months.”

— Andrew Scott, Nickey Gregory Co.

The Nickey Gregory Co. distributes throughout the entire Southeast. The wholesaler imports, exports and distributes produce from its 25,000-square-foot Miami distribution center. Scott says the warehouse services multiple segments of the industry in South Florida, including retailers, foodservice and other wholesalers.

Whole Foods touts 29 Florida stores.

“In Miami, we have the luxury of buying from our headquarters on the Atlanta State Farmer’s Market,” says Scott. It sends transfer trucks to Miami nightly to replenish out-of -stocks, fill special customer requests and for add-ons. Exporting to the Caribbean is another segment of Nickey Gregory’s business that has grown substantially during the past two years.

Gateway of domestic and imported produce

South Florida residents can easily access the region’s vast bounty of produce, grown in Florida throughout the year. Southern vegetables — including bell peppers, cucumbers and squash, tomatoes, sweet corn, green beans, citrus, blueberries and strawberries — are among the most popular items grown in Florida.

South Florida companies, including Pompano Beach, FL-based Southern Specialties, find marketing and distributing produce to the region vital. The grower, importer, processer and distributor of a wide range of specialty produce is undergoing another expansion of its facility and continues to make investments that help create value for its customers, says Charlie Eagle, vice president business development. “South Florida is an important market and an important part of our Florida business,” he says. “Our business within the state of Florida is robust and continues to grow.”

The ports at Miami and Fort Lauderdale are key to providing Americans with quality produce. “South Florida is a gateway into the United States for products grown in Central and South America,” says Eagle. “Some people consider South Florida as being the California of the East Coast. There is a huge amount of produce grown offshore that cannot be produced here in the United States due to climate, labor and land or water constraints. Those countries supplying products to the United States have upped their game in regards to good quality assurance and agricultural practices, and South Florida is poised to handle these products in an optimal manner.”

Fan-favorite Costco operates 40 stores in Florida.

A plus for the area’s wholesalers is the significant presence of U.S. Department of Agriculture officials that help expedite customs and inspections so the industry is prominent and a priority when it comes to moving product through the Port of Miami.

The Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services offers services and promotional activities in the South Florida area, says Max Flugrath, press secretary for the Office of Commissioner Nikki Fried.

Local Access

As West Palm Beach is less than an hour’s drive of the Lake Okeechobee growing region, South Florida wholesalers and retailers enjoy easy access to Florida vegetables. The state’s growers have upped their game, observes Scalisi of Jack Scalisi Wholesale Fruit & Produce. “We’ve been here 40 years,” he says. “What they offer now compared to what they use to offer — I just see it getting better and better every year with improved varieties and packages. It has really come along within the past 10 years and is good to see. This time of the year (the winter), we are blessed to have that in our backyard.”

Southern Florida is one of two small subtropical environments in the continental United States. Brooks Tropicals, LLC, which ships from Homestead, FL, grows tropicals throughout the year.

“Consumers are expanding their diets to include Florida avocados, starfruit, red guava, passionfruit and much more.”

— Mary Ostlund, Brooks Tropicals

“For the growing health-conscious consumers, they can expand their eating to domestically grown tropical fruits and vegetables any time of the year,” says Mary Ostlund, marketing director. “Consumers are expanding their diets to include Florida avocados, starfruit, red guava, passionfruit and much more. For our retailers and wholesalers, tropicals from Florida add warmth to the produce aisle in winter months. Many of their consumers equate enjoying a tropical fruit with going on a Caribbean vacation without getting on a plane.”

Half of Bravo Supermarkets’ 92 stores are in Florida — Central Florida and South Florida, including Miami.

Tropicals are a booming category and it continues to increase with consumers across all demographic categories. Brooks Tropicals works to help the consumer understand how the fruit can be enjoyed. Being a success in the segment requires working with all levels of the food chain, says Ostlund.

“It’s about helping retailers and wholesalers expand offerings not only to the healthy eaters but to folks who appreciate tropicals as part of their native cuisines,” she says. “It’s also helping consumers enjoy the tropical bounty of great and exotic tastes. It’s reaching out not only to our business customers, but also reaching to the ultimate consumer. It’s about providing information from ‘how-tos’ to ‘tell if ripe’ to ‘how to enjoy.’”

Strong Foodservice, Retail Demand

In Winter, the snowbirds help substantially increase South Florida’s population. Many of these people are wealthy and eat out often, which increases the restaurant business.

“A lot of places are opening,” says Scalisi. “Many people come from out of town, from New York, Chicago and California, to open here. There are a lot of calls from people looking for high quality product. There are a lot of different people, and it’s not just chain business.” Those restaurants could include small regional chains that operate a half-dozen restaurants.

Consumers have trended toward consuming more fresh items for more than a decade, selecting items spanning eggplant, lettuce, tomatoes and melons, says Fresh from Florida’s Flugrath.

Fresco Y Mas calls itself “Your Hispanic Grocery Store” and operates 26 Florida outlets, with most in Miami.

Retail produce sections routinely carry about 400 commodities. Aside from merchandising the freshest product, retailers have found featuring items from Florida growers can also help give their sales programs a boost, says Flugrath.

“Whether they sample and feature our delicious strawberries in December or our super-sweet sweet corn, Florida marketers are always looking for ways to spice up selections,” he says. “During the summer, more tropical fruits have increased in production. But some of the most significant change has been an increase in shipments for commodities like watermelons, peppers, squash, plum tomatoes and Dragon fruit.”