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Taste Of Chicago

This year's market trends and hot commodities

Vega of La Hacienda Brands, which specializes in all types of Mexican fruit and vegetables, says he continues to see climbing demand for cilantro, jalapeños, Roma tomatoes, and white onions. When it comes to truly ethnic produce, however, there’s one clear frontrunner in Chicago-land for the distributor: “My biggest specialty is papaya,” he asserts, and yes, demand has been climbing the last few years.


The majority of produce pro-fessionals use two simple words to describe the current retail scene in Chicago: highly competitive. And although Dominick’s departed the market several years ago, there are still plenty of viable players remaining in the Chicagoland retail game.

These contenders run the gamut from big box stores and specialty chains to deep discounters and niche ethnic markets. “Chicago is such a diverse retail scene with more chains and produce commodities to offer consumers,” remarks Mark Pappas, president of Coosemans Chicago, Inc.

Ryan Sugrue, general manager of sourcing in Chicago for Robinson Fresh, says large retailers like Aldi, Walmart, Target, Jewel, Costco, Sam’s Club, and Meijer maintain a significant presence in Chicago.

“Even with these giants,” Sugrue observes, “there are a ton of local independently-owned stores, which makes for a really healthy marketplace.” There is, however, one nontraditional retail chain that has also made its presence quite known this year: Amazon. In October 2016, the online retail titan expanded its AmazonFresh grocery delivery service to Chicago, and continues to build distribution and fulfillment centers in the region. At last count, six facilities were either already built or planned, with the megaretailer bringing more than 7,000 jobs to Illinois.

Sugrue says Kroger is also a major player. “Kroger has also grown its footprint in the area through acquisitions of other retailers,” he explains, adding that he’s also seen emerging retailers like Fresh Thyme popping up in Chicago and the surrounding suburbs.

Pappas says there are also some mom-and-pop stores. About 10 years ago, he says, these neighborhood stores were the norm, but now the pendulum seems to be swinging the other way. “We’re seeing a slight push in the other direction, especially now that we have Mariano’s [part of Roundy’s, which was acquired by Kroger Company at the end of 2015] in Chicago,” Pappas says. “Some of the smaller chains have also done very well, like Pete’s Fresh Market and Garden Fresh Market, but the bigger stores like Mariano’s are having a major impact.”

“Honestly, I see an oversaturation of supermarkets in Chicago,” comments Adolfo Vega, Jr., produce manager for La Hacienda Brands, Inc. “There aren’t many spots where you find just one supermarket nowadays. Each town has at least three, four, or five different retailers, so there’s a lot of competition. I don’t want to wish bad luck on anyone, but I could see some going out of business.”

Scott Weber, vice president of Ruby Robinson Company, Inc., agrees, predicting there will likely be a “thinning of the herd situation” in the near future. “There are only so many produce dollars to go around, and the stores that try to be everything to all people are in for a sobering reality,” he asserts. In such a cutthroat environment, Weber emphasizes that specialization, to a neighborhood and its community, can be key to a market’s survival.