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Making a Splash

Checking in at the Chicago International Produce Market

A total of 83 stores, put up for sale after parent company Safeway, Inc. was forced into action in 2013 by investor activist Carl Icahn, opened the door for players both large and small to gain prime locations.

Winners included Mariano’s Fresh Market, owned by Milwaukee, WI-based Roundy’s Supermarkets, as well as Chicagoland fixture Jewel-Osco (owned by New Albertsons, Inc.), which has operated stores in the area since the 1930s. Austin, TX-based Whole Foods Market also entered the fray, picking up a few stores, while other locations sprinkled throughout the city and suburbs were purchased by independents like Joe Caputo & Sons Fruit Market and Tony’s Finer Foods.

Other small or regional retailers, such as Angelo Caputo’s Farm Fresh Markets, which opened its first store in Elmwood Park, IL in 1958, and Greensboro, NC-based The Fresh Market, were also opening new stores in Chicago and its suburbs. Both chains were constructing stores in the western suburbs, with Caputo’s seventh opening in Carol Stream, and Fresh Market opening its seventh Illinois location in Glyn Ellyn.

In a twist of procuring truly ‘fresh’ and locally-grown fruits and vegetables for a grocery chain, Roundy’s announced a partnership with New York-based BrightFarms to build a hydroponic greenhouse in Chicago to provide produce for its Mariano’s stores in the region.

Whims of the Windy City
Gonzalez says that while business hasn’t necessarily exploded, it has certainly remained steady. Steady enough for J.L. Gonzalez Produce to expand, taking over additional units at the market. “We’re now the largest Mexican distributor at the CIPM, and we have the largest warehouse.”

In addition to year-round demand for ethnic commodities, as well as specialty fruits and vegetables, Chicago is also in the throes of the nationwide consumer craze for organics. According to the Organic Trade Association, the U.S. organic food sector has experienced double-digit growth for the last decade, with fruit and vegetables claiming a significant slice of the organics pie.

Overall organic food and beverage sales for 2012 topped $26 billion, climbing more than 10 percent from 2011. In fruits and vegetables, though category increases have slowed from the phenomenal 18 percent surge in 2003, growth rates have remained in the teens each year since, with 2011 sales rising nearly 12 percent and 2012 reaching just under 13 percent. Total organic produce sales for 2012 reached $9.7 billion, with fresh fruit and vegetables accounting for over 90 percent of these sales.

“We have seen an increase in organic tomatoes in the marketplace,” remarks Blue Creek’s Riehm. “We added four new organic tomato items under our Blue Creek Produce label that we presented at the Produce Marketing Association show last year in New Orleans. We hope organics will continue to grow and become 25 percent of our business.”