Wim Karsten has been in the exotics business for about 40 years already. However, 2020 is a year he'll not soon forget. "I'd prefer to delete this year. Turnover skyrocketed, but limited air freight capacity and sky-high purchase prices were very challenging. Take durians; we now sell them for €40/kg. That's almost Japanese prices," explains Firma Karsten's owner. This exotics wholesaler is located at the Amsterdam Food Center in the Netherlands.
Firma Karsten began as a traditional Dutch fruit wholesaler in Amsterdam. But over the years, it's become specialized in exotic foods. They don't only have tropical vegetables, fruit, herbs, and spices. Rice and fish and meat products, both fresh and frozen, are also part of the assortment. "Every week, we receive several airfreight shipments. These come from not only Thailand, Colombia, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Vietnam. They arrive from China, Suriname, Ghana, and the Dominican Republic too."
Plantains are one of Karsten's popular items
Hospitality sector revenue loss amply compensated
"We supply mainly to vegetable specialists, Asian stores, the hospitality industry, vendors, fellow wholesalers, and exporters. The hospitality sector usually accounts for about 15% of our turnover. Much of this has now disappeared. That's due to the anti-corona measures. But, other channels have amply compensated for that. We can also count ourselves lucky that our wholesale market has remained open. That's unlike in, say, Paris and London," says Wim.
"There's limited availability of fresh products. So, frozen exotics have gained considerable ground. Things like frozen cassava and yard long beans have become extremely popular in the last three-quarters of a year. Our ethnic clients are our most important target group. However, more Westerners are beginning to eat exotics. We have clients throughout the Netherlands with most concentrated in the Randstad area."
First mangos and garlic
Nowadays, popular items like sweet potato and ginger have become commonplace in stores. That was, however, not the case a decade ago. "We've offered these products for years," continues Karsten. "But once they appear in supermarkets, we must stop selling them. That's nothing new. I'll never forget how exotic the first mangoes and garlic that my father sold here - via Paris - were. We have to constantly keep finding a niche."
Wim and his sweet potatoes
There are more than 1,100 products in the assortment. There's, therefore, plenty of room for specialization. "Most of our range consists of tropical fruit and vegetables. We sell a lot of plantains, but ginger and cassava also sell well. We're always adding new products," explains Wim. "The world's, however, become much smaller. So, you can already buy most of these. Certain production countries are emerging too. Mexico, for example, is becoming an increasingly important supply country for us. But Spain has also done very well with Asian vegetables this season."
Wim considers himself one of the foremost supports of the wholesale market's restructuring. "We've been discussing this for 15 to 20 years now. But we haven't made much progress. For us, the sooner this starts, the better. It must become the step forward we've been waiting for for years." Moving from the Food Center has never been an option for him. "The concentration of companies draws people in. Clients can contact businesses here for their entire product range. We also serve many fellow wholesalers on site."
Durian for 'Japanese prices'
This exotics trader isn't considering stopping yet either. "This job is my hobby. I'm here at 04:00 every morning. You don't keep doing that if you don't really want to. Sometimes people ask me if I wouldn't rather go to the theatre more often. But, there's a continuous performance here," Wim concludes.