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Chicago Spotlight: Something for everyone

PBP Chicago Spotlight

Chicago, the Windy City, is located on Lake Michigan and is known for such landmarks as the Willis Tower (formerly the Sears Tower), Wrigley Field, deep dish pizza, hot dogs—and, increasingly, jalapeño peppers.

It’s not that they’re grown in Chicago, but a number of produce distributors report that hot peppers are very popular in “Chi-Town.”

For those who buy and sell produce in Chicagoland, spring ushers in the promise of locals crops, which begin hitting shelves before summer.

Before then, domestic supply comes in from California and states in the South, as well as imports to keep wholesale and retail shelves well stocked.

Jose “Pepe” Vega Jr., co-owner of La Galera Produce, LLC, BB #:172041 an importer, packer, and receiver in Chicago, is ready for what’s ahead. “Last year brought about so much insight into what we can expect to see in 2024,” he says.

“Our biggest projection in 2024,” Vega continues, “has to do with both wholesalers and customers looking for niche products, similar to the ‘pink pineapple’ trend or Cotton Candy grapes. Every market is looking for varieties and trying to find the hot items that will make them stand out from their competitors.”

He adds that La Galera Produce is fortunate to be partnered with what he considers “the best growers, and consequently is able to minimize any negative foreseeable impacts when possible.”

Specialty connoisseurs

Many suppliers favor specialty items to serve the diversity of the region’s population.

There’s a continually evolving and expanding market for ethnic fruits and vegetables, with fusion cooking and dishes often being more the norm than the exception across the city and suburbs.

As a result, demand is gaining momentum at grocery stores, restaurants, and other foodservice institutions for produce items formerly regarded as “exotic” and now considered mainstream.

These items include a variety of imported tropical fruits and vegetables.

Rob Strube III, president of longtime Chicago-based receiver and distributor Strube Celery & Vegetable Company BB #:102030, mentions climbing demand for tropicals with “increasing sales of papaya, limes, avocados, and mangos, which are becoming staple items.”

For Mark Pappas, president of distributor and importer Coosemans Chicago, Inc., BB #:152984 the exotics are actually a bit more exotic. He’s found that the rising popularity of seasonal items such as dragon fruit are helping to make them become year-round commodities.

He notes two more fruits, blood oranges and Hidden Rose apples, have become in-season staples for the company.

In the produce business for more than 40 years, Coosemans Chicago got its start in specialty produce. These items that were often referred to as “weird stuff” back then, and the company remains largely focused on specialties.

Niche and not so niche

First Cut Produce, Inc. BB #:166921 is a distributor and importer located north of Chicago in the suburb of Evanston, specializing in procurement for foodservice and retail customers.

Rick Herrick, president, says the fresh berry category is growing, as are frozen berries, which First Cut Produce also handles.

On the vegetable side, Herrick mentions broccoli crowns are also a big item for the company, a staple vegetable for its Asian customers.

Another area receiver is Chicago Basil BB #:333146. As its name implies, the company is based in the Windy City and handles basil, as well as a variety of other herbs, mushrooms, and onions.

Chicago Basil is looking to grow its operations with the addition of cantaloupe, berries, and other fruit varieties by the end of 2024, according to managing member Harry Grewal.

In business since 2016, Chicago Basil started with basil imports from Hawaii. Over time the company has built up its offerings to include 60 items, and Grewal is strongly committed to expansion.

“Our goal is to get strong in fruit and to add garlic,” he comments, which has been requested by his clients. Currently, 80 percent of Chicago Basil’s customers are Asian grocery stores, wholesalers, and foodservice operators—and garlic is in high demand.

Grewal is also looking to further expand into direct sales to retailers, which means building out his sales team and working on contract pricing, which some distributors are asking for.

Located adjacent to the wholesale market, Chicago Basil also operates two related businesses, STL Express, Inc. and GNG Logistics. Grewal has expansion in mind for both of these transportation companies, and plans to add a couple more trucks to his fleet in 2024.

Weather and economics are constant variables. This year began on the heels of a 2023 that started out strong and softened in the second half, leaving Chicago-area produce purveyors a bit cautious about predicting the year’s outcome.

But ultimately, they are largely optimistic.

Herrick sees a positive road ahead this year, especially if interest rates drop. Near the end of last year, some of his customers were expanding, which he took as a positive sign. Others, he notes, are more averse to change, and it takes time for them to adapt.

This is an excerpt from the Chicago Spotlight story from the March/April 2024 issue of Produce Blueprints Magazine.