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Strube Celery works for ongoing long-term strength in the trade

CHICAGO — Strube Celery & Vegetable Co., a longtime bastion of Chicago’s produce distribution business, is working toward the future, according to Lisa Strube, the firm’s director of finance and administration.

Ms. Strube said Strube Celery management is now “focusing on fine-tuning Strube. We are focused on service and quality,” while preparing for “a generation transition in a few years. That has been our focus — to move forward strong.”

Ms. Strube said, “It has been a strong year. We are always looking for new opportunities and we are trying to grow. We have a healthy business, even in the recession.” She added that this has been “an interesting year” at the production side of the industry because of many weather-induced crop disasters. Still, she said, “You try to capitalize on the opportunities when you can.”

Ms. Strube said that Chicago is on the upswing economically. Further good news is that the downswing took longer to affect the produce industry than other phases of Chicago’s economy. The produce industry “is on the upswing. We were all hit but relatively lightly.”

Of Strube Celery, Ms. Strube said, “Our strength has always been retail.” Independent retailers make up a large portion of Chicago’s grocery business, which is good for Strube and the market. Strube enjoys retail chain support as well, and has a large retailer operating an office within Strube’s market offices.

Strube Celery makes many direct drops to retail stores, which she said demonstrates retail buyers’ “faith and trust” in Strube salesmen to accept unseen products. She added, “There are still a lot of retail buyers walking the market.” Buyers for the large chains are on the Chicago market every day, even if they place orders electronically.

Meanwhile, “independent grocers are a definite strength in Chicago. That has always been true,” she said.

As Ms. Strube talked with The Produce News in her office on May 11, Paul Stallone, a produce buyer for Alfred Caputo’s Fresh Markets, a six-store local chain, cheerfully stopped by bearing a latte for Ms. Strube. Mr. Stallone is one of two Caputo’s buyers that shop the Chicago market on a daily basis.

The late Robert Strube Sr. has long been appreciated for his decades-long determination to have Chicago’s produce industry move from Chicago’s South Water Street Market to the Chicago International Produce Market. The market was built and operational by in 2002. Mr. Strube died at age 91 on Jan. 14, 2010.

Lisa Strube said of the relatively new market, “We love it. It gave us the opportunity to go after business that we couldn’t before” because food-safety certifications were impossible on South Water Street.

“We pride ourselves in controlling cold temperatures and having food-safety practices all the way through.” The front dock of the market still needs to be enclosed to have a total cold chain closure. She said discussion is underway to enclose the front dock.

Within the market, Ms. Strube said, “We compete and work together. Everyone on the market is a customer and a supplier.”

According to the company web site, Strube Celery & Vegetable is the oldest federally licensed wholesale produce company in the Chicago area. The firm was established in 1913 by Fred Strube.

Strube handles everything “from apples to zucchini,” but Ms. Strube said the firm doesn’t handle bananas and mostly leaves specialty produce sales to other firms.