Broad demographic in Baltimore/Washington D.C. region fosters multifaceted produce consumers.
Originally printed in the April 2022 issue of Produce Business.
The linked metropolitan areas of Washington, D.C., and Baltimore, MD, represent a significantly high number of diverse produce consumers. According to World Population Review, the Baltimore-Washington Metropolitan Area has a population of more than 9 million, making it the fourth largest Combined Statistical Area (CSA) in the U.S.
The DC-Baltimore region is unique because it has a wide variety of different customers, says Lara Camille Meehan, sales and marketing manager for District Farms in Frederick, MD, a high-tech environment greenhouse. “Shoppers here tend to be very health- and fitness-conscious, as well as interested in local and sustainable,” she says.
Both cities encompass a diverse demographic of residents, business commuters and tourists. “The area has a blend of tourists and seasonal visitors as well as a concentration of restaurants serving various demographics,” says Bill Hodge, general manager at Baldor DC in Jessup, MD. “DC, northern Virginia and Baltimore all service a mid- to high-level income individual. The area is diverse in ethnicity and also well-traveled clients who understand, appreciate and consume a variety of ingredients.”
Lolo Mengel, chief executive of Coosemans DC in Jessup, MD, explains the region’s diversity comes from housing the nation’s capital and everything supporting the federal government. “Because we have so many diplomates and others who have worked all over the world, these travelers bring a desire to eat foods they’ve experienced in their travels,” she says. “So, our area restaurants and chain stores sell foods to please all ethnic palates.”
International Wholesalers Corp. in Washington caters to restaurants, grocery stores and other warehouses that provide commodities for most cultures, states Matthew Gonzalez, general manager/head produce buyer. “Our city is very assimilated, and our main customer base includes African, Caribbean, Central American and Jamaican,” he says.
The area’s restaurant and retail scenes stand out with high quality and seasonal, hyper-local eating preferences, says Helen Pappas, head of marketing and sustainability at Pete Pappas & Sons, a vertically integrated grower/packer/shipper/distributor in Jessup, MD.
“Our mid-Atlantic local growing season erupts from late spring through early fall, and shoppers’ and restaurant patrons’ palates follow,” she says. “Our region grows it all, and our consumer summertime taste buds match, whether cooking at home or eating in restaurants. Retail and restaurant offerings follow, creating wholesale buying trends.”
BIG AND SMALL SERVE ALL
It takes a variety of retailers to serve such a diverse demographic. “The DC-Baltimore supermarket scene is a very aggressive and competitive environment,” says Bill Santoni, Coosemans’ retail sales director. “There are large national chains, regional independent chains, as well as smaller ethnic independent stores owned by individuals. It is not uncommon to have several stores within a mile or two of each other competing for the same customer. When shopping at any of these markets, fresh produce and diverse offerings are always prominent.”
Meehan reports District Farms offers a variety of products for different retailers, from budget friendly to upscale specialty. “In this region, there really is a store to fit every budget and lifestyle,” she says. “We want to be able to take advantage of the customer base on both ends.”
Major chains in the area include Giant Foods, Safeway, Costco, Wegmans, Harris Teeter, Walmart, Weis Markets and Shoppers Food. Whole Foods, Moms Organic Market and other chains are also prevalent, according to Hodge. “Since COVID-19, we have seen an uptick in smaller, owner-operated retail locations popping up in neighborhoods, as well as concepts new to the area such as Gopuff and Door Dash.”
The DC- Baltimore areas have a variety of high quality restaurant formats. “DC has a great, chef-driven food scene,” says Cassidy Williams, marketing manager for Keany Produce & Gourmet in Landover, MD. “There are a ton of international flavors and diverse restaurants popping up all over town. Up-scale casual is booming.”
Chris J. Keany, chief of staff at Keany, notes Baltimore’s neighborhood pride gives a welcoming, local impression when dining out. “You’ll find historic settings with smaller kitchens and dining in Federal Hill and Fells Point, as well as new restaurants along the water in Harbor East,” he says. “DC’s thriving young population places an importance on health. We’ve seen a number of healthier foodservice options open and thrive in this market, including sweetgreen, RASA, Mezeh, Moby Dick, and Foxtrot.”
High end restaurants are still active, too, according to Baldor’s Hodge. “Cost of goods has impacted plate cost, but even with higher prices on the menus, we still see steady growth in the sector,” he says. “Pick up and delivery is also here to stay.”
Pappas reports increased access to quick service restaurants (QSR) with healthier options, including choices such as create-your-own salads, rice and noodle bowls. “This benefits the consumer and us in produce since some of our sales can be driven by this trend,” she says. “Another important factor is the meal-prep industry, which saw rapid growth throughout the pandemic as restaurants closed and more people cooked at home. For our local buyers who are seeking healthy, quick and easy meal options, this industry has blossomed.”
A common denominator among the region’s wholesalers is their competitive posture. “This region has such a visible demographic and high caliber of clientele,” says Keany. “This creates a high standard for wholesalers in the market, and, as a result, a lot of competition. The competition here is all large enough to receive direct-loads and stay relevant with technology advancements. These high standards have pushed our company forward.”
Convenience, diversity and a competitive market lead to competitive pricing and options for customers, explains Bill Santoni, Coosemans’ retail sales director. “Coosemans DC has steadily grown to become a major supplier, repacker, and distributor of over 400 ethnic and specialty items in the mid-Atlantic region,” he says. “We run, pack and package our produce to each of our customer’s specifications. In addition to offering bulk items, we also offer value-added packages under our Lucinda’s label — including our new state-of-the-art sustainable fresh herb bag containing 75% less plastic than conventional clamshells.”
Ample product offering yields a competitive edge. “We sell a variety of items from different cultures,” says Matthew Gonzalez, general manger/head produce buyer at International Wholesalers Corp. in Washington. “People from out of state come to purchase our items, which is so rewarding.”
Gonzalez enjoys handling items to satisfy specific customers. “For example, we sell okra, which many businesses don’t sell because it’s a very fickle item and must be sold rapidly,” he says. “You must have the right customer base to sell that product.”
As a full-service supplier, Pete Pappas & Sons in Jessup, MD, stays competitive with a broad scale of services to customers. “We are vertically integrated growers, packers, shippers and distributors with green business practices and certifications,” says Helen Pappas, head of marketing and sustainability. “With the recent additions of compostable packaging options and different commodities, including organic tomato varieties, green and yellow squash, peppers, cucumbers and hard squashes, our brands have grown throughout the years. We also give our retail customers an opportunity for private labeling programs to match their needs.”
DEVISING NEW OPTIONS
Market trends and the pandemic have moved wholesalers to greater innovation. Two big post-COVID trends at retail, according to Pappas, include an uptick in packaged produce and organics. “Consumers seem to be looking for cleanliness and ease of purchase — packages being both quick to grab with clean produce inside and health benefits of eating organic,” she says. “Our packaged products have expanded, and our product list for organics has grown exponentially into multiple types.”
District Farms, a high-tech greenhouse in Frederick, MD, has also experienced demand for packaged product. “We offer retailer-specific packaging in both clam-shell and bagged designs for a range of display options,” says Lara Camille Meehan, sales and marketing manager. “Packaging can be customized to specific needs. We offer a wholesale option for bulk ordering and in collaboration with other brands and growers.”
At the start of the pandemic through the early spring of 2021, Keany Produce operated a fresh produce curbside program for the public. “It was a great success for us in several ways,” says Williams. “We were able to keep people employed or bring people back to work; we connected with our surrounding community in a new way; and we partnered with other local companies to expand our offerings. We are hopeful we can launch it again at some point in the future.”
During the pandemic, Baldor delivered produce and specialty foods direct to consumers. “Home delivery is slowly winding down now due to a combination of factors,” says Hodge. “Customers have been able to access and go the store. The amount of added SKUs has made it challenging as foodservice demand grows. And, we have continued shortage of labor and equipment.”
One trend championed on the retail level by Pappas, a green business leader in Maryland, is sustainable packaging. “As part of our Sustainable Packaging Initiative, we now offer a variety of recyclable and compostable packaging options across both our premium conventional Patricia Brand and Pete’s Garden Organics brand labels,” says Pappas.
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Competition And Innovation Among Washington-Baltimore Suppliers
Wholesalers and suppliers across the Washington-Baltimore region have evolved to serve a dynamic customer base of two similar, yet different, markets.
“The northern suburbs of D.C. are the southern suburbs of Baltimore, so there’s a lot of overlap between the two metro regions in terms of cuisine preference,” says Chris J. Keany, chief of staff at Keany Produce & Gourmet in Landover, MD.
But, he adds, there can be strains on delivery for different reasons. “Baltimore tends to have older infrastructure with historical buildings. On the other hand, many locations we service in D.C. require security clearance or we need to adjust our deliveries due to evolving political or social movements.”
In addition to off-market wholesalers, the region is serviced by the Maryland Wholesale Produce Market (MWPM) in Jessup, MD. Opened in 1976, the MWPM was initially built with 72 units, and then expanded in 1980 to a total of 101 units, according to Gary Decker, director of market operations. The MWPM site sits on 38 acres and is 330,000 square feet with 31 tenants.
Though some large wholesalers have moved off the market, Lolo Mengel, chief executive of Coosemans DC in Jessup, MD, reports seeing more ethnic wholesalers in the market. “These newer Latin and Asian wholesalers have moved inside the market and seem to be thriving there,” she says.
Various factors reinforce the area’s wholesale business. “Seasonality and the broad customer base helps support business,” says Bill Hodge, general manager at Baldor DC in Jessup, MD. “Tourism and government activity help fuel it and we also saw less exodus of people moving out of DC during the pandemic. Consistent delivery, a wide variety of products, online ordering and local are all benefits we offer as a wholesaler.”