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The Boston Globe

Business

On the Hot seat

In produce industry, demand for local is growing

Manny Costa, chief executive of Costa Fruit and Produce.

Kayana Szymczak for the Globe

Manny Costa, chief executive of Costa Fruit and Produce.

Manny Costa, chief executive of Costa Fruit and Produce, joined the family produce distribution business after graduating from Boston University in 1974 at the urging of his father. He took over as chief executive and president in 1981 and oversaw the growth of the company from $2 million in sales to more than $120 million with 3,000 clients today. Globe reporter Taryn Luna spoke with Costa about growth and challenges in the industry.

Why did Costa Fruit and Produce take off?

I have to give a lot of credit to my father because he established the business. That first $2 million was probably harder than the rest of it has been. In growing it from there, we added innovation to the values and culture that the company already had.

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We innovated in our fresh cut division and were able to make customized products for customers, such as a certain salad blend or stir-fried blend. I had the vision of what if I brought together a few produce companies and set up our own buying offer right in Salinas [Calif., a US agriculture hub]. This gave us a purchasing advantage directly from the source.

How much of your produce is local?

During the season, every item that we can buy local, we buy local. In-season, 75 to 100 percent of what we buy is local. I always said it was the sleeping giant of the industry and the sleeping giant has awoken. Local demand exceeds supply.

How has the decision to seek more local food products affected your business?

Take tomatoes, for example. A tomato grown locally has a whole different flavor profile. It doesn’t have to go through the rigors of a product that comes across the country. From a quality standpoint, it’s better, it’s more flavorful, and it’s worth more money.

What is the most interesting food trend going on right now?

Local. If you’re not in the game on this thing, it’s suddenly going to be too late. The whole system of food distribution is going to change and change vastly. There’s not a segment I can think of that is not demanding local. It’s gigantic in retail. That’s the most sweeping trend in the industry.

There is a shortage of local produce to meet the demand. Have you considered starting your own farm to secure local products for your clients?

I’ve thought about it and toyed with it, but we’re leaving local farming to local farmers. We are getting involved in a way that allows our customers to order directly from farms. We’re developing an online platform where they can go look at what every farm is featuring and see what they have to offer. The products will go to the food hub, then to us, and then to the clients. It will bring down the costs. We’re not there, yet, we’re months away, but we’re working on it.

How have you seen the demand for local products change over the years?

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It was really first driven 15 or 20 years ago by the universities. It was coming from a younger generation. Ivy League colleges, well-known colleges, their students were demanding it.

Name one aspect of the produce industry that you wish you could change. Why?

It’s an industry where the prices are always changing and quality is fluctuating. You have all these dynamics that are always going on at the same time. It’s sometimes really challenging to have a standard measure to which you can create value in a brand.

We like to consider ourselves as more than a commodity handler. Our goal is to take produce out of the commodity process, to explain different grades of every product and to be able to represent the value from a quality standpoint.

Taryn Luna can be reached at taryn.luna@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @tarynluna.

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