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City boy finds produce happiness in rural Texas

by Tim Linden | October 18, 2009
When John Pandos packed up his bags and left Boston for the Rio Grande Valley four years ago, it was on the proverbial "wing and a prayer," he admitted.

"My cousins thought I was nuts," he said of the executives at Peter Condakes Co. Inc. in Boston, where he previously worked and has a family connection. "But I was coming down here and buying tomatoes from Texas [for Condakes] during their short two-month deal, and I saw an opportunity."

Mr. Pandos said that in the other tomato deals he worked in California, Nogales, AZ, and Florida, there were plenty of transplants from the Northeast who knew the terminal market business and were able to speak the language of the wholesaler. "There wasn't anybody like that in Texas, so I decided to move down here."

With the support of two partners -- George Salis of the Peter Condakes Co. and Louis Ledlow Jr. of Ledlow & Associates, located in High Springs, FL -- Mr. Pandos came to McAllen, TX, and launched PLS Produce Distributors Inc., which borrows the first initial of each partner's last name for the company moniker.

"It's been four years, and it's the best move I ever made," he said.

Mr. Pandos said that he did some research before coming to Texas, and the business strategy he proposed to his financial partners has materialized. "I came down as a broker to buy tomatoes for those wholesalers in the Northeast, and that worked out," he said. "But I have expanded, and now I am a distributor. I do some brokering on some products such as mangos, but mostly I am a distributor of tomatoes and peppers. I do Romas and rounds and greenhouse tomatoes and grape tomatoes. And on the pepper side, I do Jalape?os, Poblanos and Bell peppers -- a full pepper line."

Virtually all the product PLS sells comes from Mexico because the firm has a number of grower deals in such Mexican states as San Luis Potosi, Michoacan, Culiacan, Jalisco and Puebla. But what Mr. Pandos believes sets him apart is that he is a hands-on guy. "I inspect every load I sell," he said. "I look at it and see the size and quality and determine which market it should go to.

"My niche is I am a Boston guy," he added. "I have been a receiver. No one else down here has been a receiver. I know what it's like to be waiting for those tomatoes in the middle of the night and have the truck be late."

Mr. Pandos readily admits that his family connection to the Peter Condakes Co. helped him when he started his Texas business, as it gave him the potential of a good account. "Obviously I had inroads, but I had to earn the business. Even today, if I'm out of line on price, I'm not selling anybody."

Mr. Pandos said his philosophy is simple: "I am the guy on the ground that makes sure I look at your stuff, I make sure it is the right stuff and I fight for your price."

PLS brings the product it sells across the border into Pharr, TX, and then inspects it and ships it from a commercial cold-storage facility. "I only take product from facilities that have food-safety certification," he said.

The firm lists McAllen as its headquarters, but Mr. Pandos said, "My telephone is my office." He utilizes support staff for the paperwork, but said that he is basically a one-man show. "I see everything I sell."

Mr. Pandos said that he has a good book of business and has begun to expand his client list to all parts of the country. "I started with the Northeast, but now I send a lot of product up the middle of the country, and I am starting to go to the West."

And personally, he could not be happier. "I am a single guy, so it wasn't difficult making the move. I love it down here. Of course I still have family in Boston, but I have made my life here now. The people that are important to me are here."

As far as the weather is concerned, he said, "You can't beat it. The heat doesn't bother me at all.

"You don't have to shovel heat," he quipped.