At the recent Organic Produce Summit in Monterey, CA, a workshop panel consisting of three wholesalers, moderated by a fourth, touted the unique value of that industry sector in helping retailers and foodservice operators economically and efficiently source a wide range of organic produce.
Greg Kurkjian, vice president and general manager of The Crosset Company, a Midwest wholesaler operating from Northern Kentucky in close proximity to the Cincinnati, Ohio marketplace, said the firm can more efficiently source from multiple organic growers to provide its retail customers with a one-stop shopping opportunity. He said it is much more expensive and time consuming for a retailer, especially a larger one, to try to cobble together sufficient organic supplies from multiple sources to stock all their stores. “Our core competency is distribution and logistics,” he said.
From left to right: Mark Munger, 4Earth; Greg Kurkjian, Crosset; Mark Hill, Baldor; Elizabeth Nardi, OGC
The same general point was made by the two other panelists: Elizabeth Nardi, CEO of Organically Grown Company (OGC) out of Portland OR, and Mark Hill, director of organic produce for Baldor, a Northeast foodservice distributor based in the Bronx in New York City. Hill said chefs love to work with unique varieties that would be difficult to find on their own. As a substantial wholesaler, Baldor has created a network of both large and small organic growers that are constantly bringing the wholesaler new items to offer to these innovative chefs. He noted that organic purple okra was a recent purchase that it was able to offer to its customers. A restaurant operator just doesn’t have the time to seek out these specialty products.
Nardi made the same argument for her Pacific Northwest marketplace. “Variety is absolutely key,” she said when discussing the value proposition her company brings to the table. She said the company works with both its customers and suppliers to match their needs. She noted that is especially important in the organic produce sector as you are generally working with smaller growers and smaller volumes.
Nardi called OGC a “supply chain engineer” and pointed to an organic purple broccoli item that it has introduced to many of its suppliers and retailers. Through its work, the company has been able to extend that season for growers and give its customers access to the product for a longer period of time.
Mark Munger, vice president of sales and marketing for 4Earth Farms in Los Angeles, served as the moderator and, through his questions, probed the role that the wholesaler has played in the impressive growth of organic produce in this century.
Each of the wholesalers on the panel are working with local organic growers to help them produce crops that retailers and chefs want. Kurkjian said Crosset specifically works with state departments of agriculture in the Midwest to identify programs that they have to help local growers and then facilitates hooking the local grower into those programs. He said some states offer little assistance, but others, including Kentucky, have robust programs and budgets ready to be utilized.
All of the panelists reported that the organic produce movement still has lots of life and room for growth. OGC has been in business for 40 years and 98 percent of its business is in the organic sector. Nardi said that for many years OGC had to employ a “push to market” strategy to get retailers to handle the products of its organic growers. Today, she said it is much more of a “pull through” approach as retailers are specifically looking for organic items to feature. She said organic produce sales continue to grow across the board as all consumer segments adopt healthier eating habits.
Hill of Baldor said he has built that firm’s organic produce division over the past 14 years and it continues to register impressive growth each year. He expects that to continue as more and more consumers seek greater transparency with regard to the food they eat and how it is grown. He said interest in organic produce in the Northeast can be found everywhere – in the cities, the suburbs and rural areas.
Being in the Midwest, Kurkjian reasoned that the average consumer is not as trendy as those on the coasts, but he said there are hot spots where organic sales are robust. He listed “Detroit, Chicago and Hotlanta” as significant growth markets. In his marketing region, Hill said millennials and Hispanics are driving the organic produce demand. He noted that the oldest millennials turn 35 this year and indicated that they will be a driving force in the economy for years to come.