Chicago diversity leads to success in specialties

Chicagoland’s population is also a major boon for the Chicago International Produce Market and its merchants, as well as receivers in the surrounding suburbs.

“Chicago is a really diverse city, so there are so many groups to cater to,” Tom Durante, salesman for Panama Banana BB #:101999. “It’s a big advantage versus working in a city that doesn’t have this kind of diversity—you lose whole sectors of customers.”

As the Hispanic population continues to expand throughout Chicago, the Midwest, and the nation, demand is skyrocketing. “Latin items are growing, including poblanos, serranos, jalapenos, habaneros, cilantro, and avocados,” he said.

For Raquel Espinoza, director of sales and marketing for Produce House, BB #:300387 hot peppers have become a popular seller. “Hot peppers have proven to be a another of our top commodities, and we’ll start our spring crop in April and go through June.”

The region’s Asian population is also expanding in the city and suburbs.

“There are many more Asians and Hispanics moving into Chicago. We still carry all the same apples, oranges, and pears we always have, but we’re expanding our lines to [cater to] other ethnic groups,” Durante said, adding that Asian pears, gold kiwi, and large Fuji apples have also been added to the product line.

Since Panama Banana absorbed United Produce last year, the company now carries a full line of Mexican produce. “It’s a massive amount of product,” Durante said, “probably 100 or more, with a huge learning curve.

“Everything from aloe vera to banana leaves—it’s a lot to learn, especially when it comes to understanding the different varieties. For example,” Durante said, “with a tomatillo, there’s a large one, a small one, and a tiny one; some are peeled, some are still in the skin. Trying to cater to what everybody wants is a little tricky.”

This is an excerpt from the most recent Produce Blueprints quarterly journal. Click here to read the full version.