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Wholesalers readjust their place in the market as times change

Ernie Tavilla

“The wholesale side of produce is learning its place in the industry,” Ernie Tavilla, president of P. Tavilla Co. Inc., located on the New England Produce Center in Chelsea, MA, told The Produce News. “The major chain retailers are basically doing the same thing that we do: They buy their produce direct and have their own warehouses that handle it. This customer group used to buy all of their produce from wholesalers like us, but they just don’t need us like they used to.”

But not all of the retail business has dried up for wholesalers, Mr. Tavilla noted. Today, however, they primarily rely on smaller wholesalers and the foodservice industry.

“For a few years, we wondered if retailers would come back, feeling they would decide that it was too difficult to handle their own sourcing, and some did,” he said. “Others come for some items, but they buy much less than they did years ago. That portion of our business will never again be like it was in the past.”

Small independent retailers are a big part of business for P. Tavilla today. Mr. Tavilla said that 15 to 20 years ago, they weren’t paid much attention, but wholesalers now are as dependent on them as they are on foodservice operations.

P. Tavilla Co. is a family business that was started by Paul Tavilla, who had emigrated to the United States from Sicily in the early 1900s. Today, the company is operated by Mr. Tavilla and his cousin Ricky Tavilla, who is his partner and serves as vice president.

The company handles a full line of fresh produce.

“The good thing is that it’s not a bad year,” said Mr. Tavilla. “And compared to the world, we’re doing okay. There have been some corrections in the [New England Produce] market over the years, and today there is a better balance of what’s available here. We don’t compete as much as we did years ago, but instead those of us on the market pretty much complement one another and we work well together.”

Business changes over the years have forced companies like P. Tavilla Co. to alter its business practices. Mr. Tavilla said that the company used to hand out a lot of giveaways, like hats and t-shirts, which it doesn’t do any longer.

“We cut out a lot of the events we used to attend,” he said. “And there are no more company cars. You have to increase your efficiencies today and cut out the waste because the profit margin is much less than what it used to be. You have to live within the means of your business — it’s that simple. It’s a tough business, not so much in the work but in the hours. But it’s what we signed up for, and there would be plenty of people who would be happy to have my job.”

Above all, he added, the care of customers has to come first. The company also is dedicated to its employees, and Mr. Tavilla said that he would prefer to cut back in any other way than to have to chop salaries or health insurance.

“Mother Nature is totally in control of this business,” he said. “My pumpkin business this year, for example, is down by one-fifth of what it normally is, because the pumpkin crops in the country did poorly due to weather conditions and we couldn’t get our hands on product.

“The produce end of the food business is geared toward excess,” he continued. “During difficult economic times, people don’t need as much, and that trickles down to everyone in the supply chain.”

He added that a key to having a successful business is making sure the company stays above water and reserves for the bad months when it has good ones.

“Ups and downs are all a normal part of the business,” he said. “We’ve always believed that your first loss is your best loss; get out of a bad deal as soon as possible and move on. Our goal is to take care of our customers and take care of the people around us. If we can do that and continue to do business, then we’re much better off than a lot of people today.”