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Peter Condakes Co. maintains strength by evolving with industry

Peter Condakes, president of Peter Condakes Co., which was founded by his grandfather after emigrating from Greece around 1900.

Peter Condakes Co. Inc. has locations on the New England Produce Center in Chelsea, MA, and on the Boston Market Terminal in Everett, MA.

Peter Condakes, company president, told The Produce News that it handles all major conventional commodities except potatoes, onions and watermelons. It specializes in berry varieties, western fruit, stone fruit and Florida citrus.

“Commodity items like peppers and squashes are big programs for us,” said Mr. Condakes. “Our tomato business is so large that we have a separate division dedicated specifically to it. We also have a strong tropical division.”

Peter Condakes Co. got its start when Mr. Condakes’ grandfather, Peter John Condakes, emigrated from Greece around 1900 and began pushing a produce cart. The company grew over the decades, increasing its line and developing a trucking fleet.

“In the 1950s, we relocated to the terminal market in South Boston and got involved in truckload and railcar-load distributors,” said Mr. Condakes. “Since those days, we’ve changed a lot more.”

The 1970s and 1980s brought big business from the retail chain stores that were growing and expanding. But in the 1990s, business once again was changing as the major chain retailers began opening their own warehouses and buying direct.

“Now, our customers are wholesalers and foodservice operators,” said Mr. Condakes. “We still have retail customers, but not in the volume that we had back then. We do our share of business with smaller chain retailers, but the majors use us primarily for fill-ins.”

Mr. Condakes said that he feels the recession has taken its toll at the restaurant level in New England as it has elsewhere.

“There is definitely discretionary spending going on,” he said. “While we don’t service the quick-serve restaurants like McDonald’s and Wendy’s — although our products do end up at these restaurants through the wholesalers we service — we are seeing changes in the way the casual-restaurant sector is doing business. Some of the chains are now opening their own warehouses and buying direct in an effort to save money by eliminating the middlemen.

“Business,” he continued, “is very lumpy-bumpy today, and very Friday-centric. People buy heavy on Friday to get them through the weekend; then, they buy again on Monday to replenish. It’s pretty quiet during the week, and on Friday the frenzy starts again.”

Peter Condakes’ business is good, but Mr. Condakes said that it’s because the price per package is higher, which is a result of a weak U.S. dollar.

Now, tremendous amounts of fresh produce come from Canada, Mexico and Europe. The cost of farming is higher than ever, and freight is up by 30 to 40 percent in just the past few years.

“Tomatoes used to cost $4 a case to ship from California,” he noted. “Today, they run $5 and even higher.”

Despite the radical business changes over the years, Mr. Condakes said that the company has been very fortunate.

“We’ve managed to keep a good customer base,” he said. “We are [American Institute of Baking] certified with a superior rating, and we are progressing in our [Produce Traceability Initiative]. You have to change as the industry changes, and our company is proof that changing with the times is a successful method.”

Mr. Condakes’ brother, Stephen, is the vice president of the company and oversees its tropical division.

“The Hispanic population in New England is strong and growing,” said Stephen Condakes. “This customer is often a recent immigrant that doesn’t have a lot of discretionary money, so business is a little slack today. Many of these products are more expensive because they’re imported. We also see growth in the Asian population. Everyone has to eat, but they don’t have to have robust spending habits.”

Mr. Condakes said that 15 years ago, plantains were $16 to $17 a case at the high side. Today, that would be an extremely cheap price.

“You can go right down the line of imported tropical items and see the same changes,” he said. “Those bargain-basement prices are no longer.”

But retailers are holding on and even increasing their tropical lines today because “they want to show the public that they carry the products that the community wants,” Mr. Condakes said.