Reaching Across The BeNeLux:
A First-Hand Look At Brussels Wholesale Markets And An Interview With Powerhouse Group A. De Witte
Stijn Vermoere, Marketing Manager, To Share Insight On Wholesale Panel At The Amsterdam Produce Show And Conference
Jim Prevor’s Perishable Pundit, November 14, 2017
All of our events are located in iconic cities that are fonts of innovation – New York, London and Amsterdam. And we gather together the best and brightest thought- and practice-leaders from across the globe.
This is a contribution, of course, not just to the city where the event is held, but to the country and region in which the event is held. With time, we have found that these events transform the produce ecosystem of the regions. Trade members come to the show, and stay to engage with buyers and sellers in the region. It is a very different experience than meeting a customer or vendor somewhere else.
Here you don’t go to a restaurant, you go to a customer or vendor’s favorite restaurant. You meet their family. Weekends are spent at their country house, and there is a visit to their facilities. We offer some wonderful tours to help this process. And you can look here to see this year’s tours in Amsterdam.
But we thought we would start exploring the broader ecosystem surrounding The Amsterdam event. In the US, this task takes us to cities such as Philadelphia where we offer tours, and we thought we would ask Pundit Investigator and Special Projects Editor Mira Slott to go to nearby Brussels and see what she could learn on the market there:
From Amsterdam Centraal Station, I jump on the fast intercity train, and in less than two hours I arrive in Brussels, filled with anticipation and knowing I had little sleep behind me.
It is pitch dark outside at 4:30 am in Brussels as I maneuver my way in unknown surroundings, yet I feel an elated familiarity beckoning my many experiences covering the Hunts Point Wholesale Market in the Bronx, New York. Here at the expansive open-air Mabru Early Morning Market of Brussels, I’m thrown into the heart of the action, dodging forklifts and breathing in the exciting, diverse profusion of fresh fruits and vegetables imported from around the world and the colorful, hustle and bustle of vendors satisfying orders for a range of restaurants and grocery stores.
Grateful for my knowledgeable Mabru guide Michel Lefever and my French interpreter Jean Wyns, I’ve swung my camera around my neck, furiously jotting down intriguing observations and broken translations amid the market flurry, as product is being loaded on trucks to distribute around Belgium, South of Holland, North of France and Luxembourg.
Daily on-the-spot cash buying and bartering still exists, explains Lefever, although less and less with the evolution to direct sales and redirection of the big chains and big volumes. Those needs are met at the neighboring wholesale market, Centre Europeen de Fruits et Legumes, which works in collaboration with Mabru, and is positioned to accommodate the “big boys”, where the client has to buy by the pallet and respect minimum quantities, he says.
Regardless, the market provides an exhibition for buyers of what’s trending and what’s new and interesting — a range of companies and a gamut of choice; one vendor is selling stores oriented to poorer immigrants, while another caters to top chefs in search of high-end specialty items…
Mabru, a non-profit organization created in 1992 to promote, develop and manage the Early Morning Market of Brussels, which is owned by the City of Brussels, quickly revived its flailing financial health with active input from the traders (which currently include 64 vendors in produce, 24 in horticulture, in addition to meat and fish), according to Lefever. He points to Mabru’s 2016 annual report, which estimates 8,000-10,000 tons of product pass through the market per week, with total sales volume of 450-500 million Euros. (The Market’s history dates back 1,000 years in different iterations, notes Lefever).
Separated by a fence, Lefever knows a short cut to the other side, where I discover the adjacent pristine indoor Centre Europeen de Fruits et Legumes, opening the doors to what becomes a jewel in the crown of my visit: an interview with the principals of Group A. De Witte, a powerhouse on the Market and beyond; the company’s market presence is palpable.
Achiel De Witte, CEO and founder, A. De Witte
I’ve learned A. De Witte is a very important company here. How fortunate and fortuitous with timing to have the opportunity to visit with Achiel De Witte, the CEO and founder, and also Stijn Vermoere, marketing manager, who happens to speak outstanding English. Stijn does the honor of translating the back-and-forth conversation, as we sit around the office table for an intimate chat, thanks to their graciousness. Today’s market action may be winding down, but the company’s multi-faceted business ventures remain in full swing.
Stijn opens the discussion:
Stijn Vermoere, Marketing Manager
A: We’re pleased to give you an image of what the whole company is doing. The name of our company is A. De Witte, named after this person sitting right here! Achiel [speaking in French] explains how he started the company in 1969 with his wife, and now 40 years later, we are with more than 650 employees and 28 companies.
We are active in imports and exports, especially in this building. We also have wholesale in every province of Belgium. We are with a wholesale market in every province to be closer to our clients. We also have two companies responsible for foodservice, going to restaurants, public institutions, and for events, like when Cirque de Solei is in town.
In addition, we have logistics and transportation possibilities, and we have refrigerated warehousing to keep goods for a certain date, and packaging facilities too.
Q: You do everything!
A; Everything in fruits and vegetables except the harvesting… Every aspect… we also have a seventh area, the fresh-cut processing.
Q: In terms of percentage of your business on the market?
A: It’s hard to tell. There’s no company like us that has every activity. Companies import and for some, it stops there.
Q: I had the chance to meet Mark Bollaerts of Bollaerts Primeurs NV, earlier in the Mabru Market.
Mark Bollaerts of Bollaerts Primeurs NV
A: Yes, he’s a wholesaler and one of our companies.
Q: How important is this market?
A: It’s rather big because our company starts with fruits and vegetables. It’s possible to have the other activities without the market, but that would be more difficult for us.
[Stijn gets a phone call. The company is in the midst of planning for a Madrid trade show, an executive has missed his plane, and everyone is brainstorming solutions… Different cultures, different companies, same issues.]
The Market is the start. Doing our own imports and exports gives us a big advantage over our rivals to do the other activities, and it gives us a little bit of flexibility.
We have certain clients that want Asian products. If we do our own imports, we’re the master of the products; we can choose which producer, the amount of goods we’re bringing in and how we do the imports. If we don’t have control over these decisions, we are really depending on other people. Like oranges… you can buy them everywhere, every market has them, but we import our own oranges, and have our own brand CIBEL for oranges and Clementines.
Only products that comply with the high-quality standards can be sold under the CIBEL brand. We work closely with carefully selected producers and inspection organizations in Spain and South Africa, and all suppliers are visited and evaluated regularly. We can do this the whole year. So we have the Spanish season, which runs from the first of October to the end of May, and then we can change to South Africa. A lot of people over here are not big enough to order oranges from overseas, so they have three or four months where they have no oranges.
Q: You need to be able to handle the quantities and you have to fill the transportation...
A: For Spain you can order one truck, like 20 pallets — maybe for every trader over here, that’s one week or two weeks of selling. But one container is one month, and for some traders over here that’s too big. We can handle it because we have four traders and four branches, so we can divide one container by four traders.
Q: That gives you a big competitive advantage. Are you unique on this market in your ability to deal in those container shipments?
A: For the overseas season, maybe three or four traders here are big enough to do it. That’s one of the reasons why the little ones are going away. In the landscape of fruits and vegetables, the little ones are being eaten up by the big fishes. And we’re one of the biggest fishes.
Q: And you deal with the big fishes?
A: This building has been built for only imported goods. So you won’t find any Belgium or even Dutch products here. The main objective was to have the big retailers here. But we see that less and less. And also, the little stores around Brussels are coming here, because the wholesale markets are buying their produce over here. If a little shop on the coast has to buy his goods at Bruges but he can also go to Brussels, if he buys in Bruges, he knows it is a day older than if he buys in Brussels. Especially the elderly generation that is more focused on quality than on price and quantity, the quality is coming to Brussels.
Q: Has this always been the case? And what would you say are the biggest changes going forward?
[Jean Wyns, my French interpreter interjects: My parents had a business in fruits and vegetables before Mabru existed… The fruits and vegetables were separated in a famous square, not far away from the Belgian stock exchange. Then everything changed. The big supermarkets came in. At the time, they didn’t exist. This was 50 years ago. My parents didn’t want us to go into the business. It was hard labor, and with the supermarkets, nothing would be the same anymore…]
A: Early on, every trader specialized, one had only Spanish products, another only Asian, and another only South American, but now if you walk through the market, everyone has every product. Now you see they buy with two or three traders. That’s the main change.
Everyone has every product now, and in the early days people specialized in product groups or in countries.
Q: Is part of the reason Centre Europeen de Fruits et Legumes is indoors related to food safety?
A: It’s important here. The things you see displayed here in the refrigerators are just a little selection of the fruits and vegetables we have, only a small part. The main refrigeration is in the warehouse building on site here. Every week we have a control action by the federal government for safety regulations and food safety, monitoring how we do our refrigeration. That’s also why we have our safety control, and we are responsible for the four different import companies.
Q: We’ve been doing our New York Produce Show for eight years now and the Hunts Point Wholesale Market is a major participant. We’ve developed warm relationships with the vendors over many years. We thought it would be wonderful to start such a tradition at the Amsterdam Produce Show with the Brussels wholesale market operations and give attention to your company since it plays such an important role. And, of course, we hope to develop long term relationship with you in the same way… The Amsterdam Produce Show focuses on leading companies and innovative players, and we’d love to have you there.
A: That sounds perfect… and the dates of the Show fit well with our calendar.
I have to be at an auction for vegetables in Mechelen in the middle of Flanders, half way between Antwerp and Brussels. It’s like a trade market for Belgian products.
Q: Yes, I’ve been to a Belgian auction, where the trading clock starts the product bidding at the highest price and it goes down from there… How necessary is the auction for your business?
A: Pretty important for the typical products, such as tomatoes, salads, asparagus, and when it’s time, Belgian endive, celeriac…
[Editor’s note: I touched base with Leen Guffens of VLAM, who kindly provided an updated report on Belgian fresh produce production. Please see the report here.
Q: What percentage of your business is Belgian product compared to what comes from other countries.
A: I guess 50 percent, but it could be 60 percent or 40 percent. It’s difficult for us to make such numbers because it passes three or four times between different companies. For example, we import bananas, sell to wholesale, sell to maybe our foodservice, or bring to the packaging company to make in different sized bags, so it’s passing our company several times.
Q: And if you’re talking about Delhaize or some of these big supermarket chains you’re supplying?
A: Delhaize does most of its Belgian products with growers or through the auction. But Delhaize is one of our big customers.
Q: When I was talking with the Michiel van Zanten about the Ahold Delhaize merger, he said that joining forces provides the ability to capitalize on the strengths of both chains and maximize business opportunities to bring consumers the best quality and value. How does the merger affect you?
A: Delhaize is one of our biggest clients, so the merger could be good or it could be bad. It is pragmatic, but if the Dutch guy in charge of fruits and vegetables has more influence, then the buying could change. At the same time, a Delhaize customer is different than an Albert Heijn customer, and the buying won’t come from just one guy.
Produce is the highest standard in Belgium. It won’t work to buy larger quantity at better prices. Food is very important in Belgium. I have a good example: If you think of Belgium, you think of French fries. Americans heard our generals speaking French, and that’s why they thought the origin of French fries came from Belgium. Every corner of our country is like a Starbucks of fries, but they have to be fresh, and you have to see them being made fresh, but in Holland, fries are baked early morning or night in an oven you can take out of a wall. There’s not one place in Belgium where you can get fries out of the wall. They are always making them fresh.
Same with fruit or vegetables…in Belgium you have to search for strawberries in a package because strawberries when harvested have to be eaten right away.
Q: In the U.S, retailers try to extend product shelf life, which can sometimes sacrifice taste…
A: What you say about prolonging the products, I think 95 percent of our customers are ordering every day. They want fresh, they don’t order one pallet every day, but 20 units, and then afterwards another 20 units.
Q: A company like Delhaize is buying every day?
A: Every day, three times a day.
Q In some of these bigger supermarkets in the U.S., they can’t do that, especially if they need to project for big promotions.
A: Delhaize does big promotions with us. Delhaize may want to push out avocados next week, a one-plus-one promotion, things like that we know. It could be they reserved 10 units a day but at noon they need 5 units extra. The system of Delhaize, in particular, is unique… There are Delhaize company stores, but also franchises stores, with people responsible for their own stores. So Delhaize has its central purchasing, but also little stores that can order immediately from us. But for central purchases of Delhaize, they order and we deliver three times a day.
Q: You really are accommodating and malleable…
A: You have three attributes that make you unique, and make you better than the other companies. One is price… really important price, because if you are too expensive, they will not buy with you. The second is quality. Delhaize is quality. There are other stores like Aldi, for example, that are satisfied with a little less quality.
Q: Would you satisfy their needs too? Do you have different tiers and levels of product?
A: Yes, different brands and different quality levels. The third attribute is service and flexibility. Retailers especially are searching for a company that is very flexible because they are not.
We have three companies here all selling citrus — oranges. Over here, they have two brands, over there, three or four brands, and Delhaize has one or two brands, then different sizes, and different packaging, layers, bulk in big bags, or little wooden boxes. We have the same product in different varieties or other products in other varieties.
Q: I must let you go to the Belgian auction now. Is there anything else you’d like to add before we say goodbye?
A: The Brussel’s government and board of directors are here in the building. They could tell you more about why they are doing this, and why the Brussel’s government is paying for this….
Q: Great idea. (Alas, with governmental bureaucracy at play, I was told I’d need to schedule a meeting several weeks in advance. An excuse to come back, I figure.) As I leave the market, now uncannily quiet, void of the early-morning commotion, I happily cross paths with Stijn, and a chance to say thank you again, but not for long. He is rushing off to the Belgian auction for more action.
Stijn Vermoere of Achiel de Witte will be part of a discussion at Amsterdam on wholesaling and terminal markets that also features luminaries such as Myra Gordon, executive director at New York’s Hunts Point Produce Market and Andreas Schindler, CEO of Don Limon and principal at Pilz Schindler, a firm on the Hamburg market.
Come and learn about the region beyond Amsterdam and the role wholesaling is playing and will play around the world.
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We are looking forward to seeing you in Amsterdam!