In honor of International Women’s Day on March 8, I decided to interview Janice Honigberg, president of Sun Belle, Inc., BB #:126047 an international berry marketing and distribution company she founded in 1986.
“We represent growers of high-quality berries and market directly to supermarkets and some foodservice,” says Honigberg. Headquartered in Schiller Park, IL, Sun Belle also has distribution centers in Jessup, MD; Miami, FL; Laredo, TX; and Oxnard, CA.
“We work with blueberries, blackberries, strawberries, raspberries, cranberries, red currants, and goldenberries,” Honigberg explains. Sun Belle also does some business in pomegranate arils, as well as handling some greenhouse vegetable items.
The Sun Belle line deals with conventionally grown products and the Green Belle line with organics. “In 2022 about 20 percent of our revenue was organic (16 percent of pounds moved),” says Honigberg.
“About 15 percent of our total sales are of domestic product,” she continues. “While we move a lot of domestic blueberries and blackberries, the import season is longer, with larger volumes.” Supplies come from Mexico, Peru, Chile, Colombia, Guatemala, the United States, and Canada.
When Honigberg started Sun Belle in 1986, there were “almost no other woman-owned companies,” she says. “Now of course there are women in every area of the produce business: owners, managers, salespeople. It’s a far more open and egalitarian situation.”
At the outset, she recalls, “some buyers were just incredulous that I was presenting myself in front of them. One buyer said, ‘Why are you here?’ Another said, ‘What do you want?’ You just go on. I was able to prove myself in both cases with quality and consistent delivery,” she points out.
“I would like to add that our general managers in Miami and Laredo are both women,” says Honigberg. “Both are true professionals, deftly managing complex operations. We have employed women throughout our organization. Our operations are also multicultural.”
Sun Belle is certified as a woman-owned business by the Women’s Business Enterprise National Council. In order to be certified, Honigberg says, “we show pretty much everything about the company.”
The overall berry situation, Honigberg notes,is “volatile. Each of the berries has its own dynamics, changing week to week, day to day.”
The pandemic was “a period of some chaos. Retailers didn’t know how they were going to maintain their labor. There were some weeks when some of the berries were dropped. As the pandemic proceeded, the demand for berries exploded. It was a tremendous period — people were eating at home, enjoying good food, and enjoying berries.
“This last year’s been a little more difficult,” Honigberg continues. “Inflation really started to affect produce sales and berry sales. Some consumers made tradeoffs in terms of what they might or might not buy, starting early last fall. In some cases, there was deflation in berry pricing. People were either buying other things or just tightening their belts.” Nevertheless, “from the middle of December on, particularly from January on, it’s been great again—more consumption than ever.”
One shift has been the increasing role of Peru in blueberries. “Peru is the largest exporting country at this point. It just emerged this season, just in the last month or two.”
Although the nation has been convulsed by domestic unrest in recent months, Honigberg says it really hasn’t disrupted blueberry supplies.
Domestically, Honigberg observes, “what’s affecting us right now is rains and snows. It has greatly affected the strawberry crop and may affect blueberries later. We see the impact now, and we anticipate additional impact.”
As for its larger objectives, “Sun Belle is dedicated to complete customer satisfaction,” says the company’s website. “Attention to freshness and quality, expert handling from grower to customer, innovative packaging, high standards of service and safety and a focus on our customers’ growth are keys to our success.”