Local Leads the Way In Ohio Produce Sales Trends
The Packer (www.thepacker.com), Jim Offner
Ohio continues to be fertile ground for sales of locally grown produce.
“Homegrown in Ohio is alive and well,” said Anthony Arena, owner of Columbus-based Arena Produce Co. Inc., which carries items from Ohio grower Buurma Farms.
“We try to have the products in the stores we service — the same day it comes to us,” Arena said.
A flashpoint for local produce sales is the Mount Hope Produce Auction, which offers fresh fruits and vegetables for 100 or more buyers during the summer and fall.
“A lot of stores are pushing local, and that helps us,” said Jim Mullet, sales director for the auction, which has been operating since 1995.
“A few of the bigger (retailers) know if they want to compete with their neighbors they have to do local-grown.”
Ohio products often are available from early May to early November, Mullet said.
It would sell briskly year-round if it were available, said Tom Sirna, president of Ravenna, Ohio-based distributor Sirna & Sons Produce.
“Every year it increases, and everyone wants it longer,” he said. “Taste is what it is all about.”
Customers typically ask for Ohio-grown product first, said Jim Sanfillipo, partner and sales manager with Columbus-based distributor Sanfillipo Produce Co. Inc.
“Everybody from every state says our local produce is the best, but Ohio does an exceptional job with tomatoes and corn and, later in the season, peaches, pears and apples,” he said.
The local trend has been good for business at Willard, Ohio-based grower-shipper Buurma Produce, said Chadd Buurma, president.
“Obviously, homegrown has gained traction in the last four or five years,” he said.
“More appealing to the people, and our local chains here in Ohio and Michigan have shown great support. It does make you proud when you walk into the local chain store and see your own label on stuff. They’re been very good to work with.”
Local produce is just a part of a healthier consumer buying trend, though, said Brian Kocher, president and CEO of the Castellini Group, a distributor based across the Ohio River from Cincinnati, in Wilder, Ky.
“Macroeconomic trends like healthy eating, organic, locally grown and convenience seem to be driving the category,” Kocher said.
“We have invested heavily in our capabilities to provide our customers with a wide array of offerings from conventional to organic produce to processed product for retail, foodservice, convenience and home delivery channels.”
On the retail front, Kroger still dominates the southern half of the state, while Giant Eagle holds sway in northern Ohio. Walmart holds second place in both regions.
- According to the January Shelby Report, Kroger, with 242 stores, had 42.4% market sharein a region that included Cincinnati, Dayton, Columbus, Toledo and Huntington, W.Va.
- In the same region, Walmart’s 122 stores had 23.1% market share, with Meijer, Giant Eagle, Supervalu, SpartanNash and Whole Foods following in single digits.
- In the Cleveland-Akron-Canton-Youngstown region, Giant Eagle’s 124 stores accounted for a 40.4% market share. Walmart, with 35 stores, was at 17%; and Marc’s, with 56 stores, 11.4%.
Bulk displays and packaged produce are both effective merchandising tools, said Kristin Mullins, president and CEO of the Columbus-based Ohio Grocers Association.
“Walking into a grocery store and seeing all the vibrant colors the produce department allows for sets the tone for a great shopping experience,” she said.
“That being said, every customer has different needs. That’s why you see produce merchandised in different ways.”
Ohio-grown products are fueling sales, Mullins said.
“Supporting local produce is extremely important to today’s retailers,” she said.
“As customers demand more information about where their food comes from and their desire to have it come from close to home, my members respond by providing as much locally sourced products as possible.”
Chains dominate the retail landscape in Ohio, but there’s still room for independent grocers, Mullins said.
“There will always be a place for independent grocers, and Ohio is very blessed with a large population of independently owned stores,” she said.
“That being said, those that are surviving are doing so by meeting the needs of their customers — by way of personal customer service, clean, well-lit stores, a strong produce department (as well as the other perimeter departments) and providing an enjoyable shopping experience.”
Columbus-based fresh-cut processor and distributor DNO Inc. works to serve smaller regional players among its retail customer base, said Alex DiNovo, president and chief operating officer.
“We do find success working with smaller regional players that are willing to try new exciting things,” he said.
“Everybody’s looking at how they can differentiate themselves.”
Organic fruits and vegetables occupy only a niche — but an important one — in Ohio, Mullins said.
“Most grocery stores do offer an organic produce section,” she said. “With today’s emphasis on health and wellness, many customers lean toward organic produce.”
There seems to be some confusion between the organic and homegrown categories, Mullins said.
“In my opinion, the labels of organic and local are becoming a bit slurred,” she said.
“The average customer may consider a local product to be organic — which may indeed be true, but not necessarily.”
Organics’ support has prompted DNO Inc. to start an organic program.
“For our business, it’s all about what’s something new and unique we can offer to the marketplace, whether it’s foodservice or retail — how can we offer something different?” DiNovo said.
DNO now can offer organic items for foodservice applications, as well as retail customers, DiNovo said.
“We’re looking to really lead new product innovations, so organic offers a bit of niche that others might not do,” he said.
In a state that features major cities such as Cleveland, Columbus and Cincinnati, foodservice opportunities abound for produce suppliers, said John Barker, president and CEO of the Columbus-based Ohio Restaurant Association.
“All of the larger and mid-sized markets in Ohio feature a range of restaurant styles and great culinary innovation,” he said.
“It’s fun to see the proliferation of chili in Cincinnati, hamburgers in Columbus — including the veggie burger from White Castle — and outstanding ethnic foods in Cleveland and Toledo. Towns with robust college populations, such as Bowling Green, Athens, Youngstown, Kent and Oxford cater to young consumers with on-trend fast-casual restaurants.”
Young adults are sustaining a vibrant restaurant scene in the cities, and that drives produce sales in foodservice, Sirna said.
“I truly feel the millennials are in the foodie category,” he said.
“Independent restaurants continue to open. People continue to eat healthier which fits right in to driving produce sales. This also increases retail sales for those who buy fresh.”