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Westlake Produce is large enough to pack a punch, small enough to be nimble

by Chip Carter | January 16, 2011
Westlake Produce Co. in Winter Haven, FL, might not be the biggest player in the Florida citrus game, but it is large enough to provide ample volume of standard and specialty product -- and small enough to remain nimble and cater to its clients.

"We're small enough that we can do things more uniquely. Our ability to pack the 'Always Fresh' brand enables us to produce three or four commodities in a single day if need be. That gives us the ability to offer multiple varieties and keep our inventory fresher, too, while being able to pack for specific needs by customer," said Jack Cain, who came on board with the Los Angeles-based company's Florida division in 2009. "You've got to set yourself apart. Our size and versatility is an asset to our trading partners."

After years in his own company as a transactional buying broker, "The production-based opportunity that Westlake Produce has embraced lured me to bring my trading partners on board with Westlake," said Mr. Cain. He believes that having "skin in the game" as growers and shippers solidifies the partnership with its customers.

Westlake's "Always Fresh" production has increased its market share in citrus this year over last year and sees that trend continuing. In addition to citrus, the company grows, packs and markets Florida and California strawberries, domestic and imported blueberries, and southeastern watermelons and cantaloupes, all packed under its "Always Fresh" brand.

The company's size and diversity mean that Westlake can cater to special needs and take the time to promote unique products like the red-fleshed Cara Cara orange, a cross between Washington and Brazilian Bahia navels that first popped up as a mutation 35 years ago in Venezuela and is now growing in popularity.

"What's been a good growth category for us is the special varieties like the Cara Cara, Lee Citrus, temples and tangelos -- items that will differentiate our partners from the mass merchandisers," Mr. Cain said. "We want to offer our customer great eating fruit with unique eating profiles. We look forward to the new varieties that the University of Florida is working on which will open more doors to Florida citrus."

But Westlake of course deals in traditional citrus varieties as well. And despite the worst drought in 15 years and four freeze events over six weeks in December and January, the first half of Westlake's season has been very good.

"This season the sugar content, eating quality, price point and cosmetic appeal of the fruit all have been there," Mr. Cain said. "Milder weather with no hurricanes or heavy tropical storms has given us the prettiest crop appearance in decades. The thing Florida historically has struggled with is external appearance. This is one of the best years I've seen in terms of exterior appearance. And the eating quality is there."

Westlake's first-half of the season success "has given us traction and a nice launching point for promoting Florida citrus moving into mid- and late- season fruit, knowing we may have a shorter season due to a smaller crop volume," Mr. Cain said.

In addition to its own farming operations, Westlake partners with small- to mid-sized growers, many of whom are facing mounting challenges from increased regulation and decreased production. Westlake's goal is to help those farmers succeed, and "we want to grow with them," Mr. Cain said. "Our growth is going to come from doing what we're doing: partnering with small- and mid-sized growers and walking them through those challenges, while fighting to secure sustainable returns for our growers."