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General Produce Sales Manager Andrew Scott does his homework in a Florida orange grove. (Photo by Chip Carter)

Over the past half-century, General Produce Inc. in Atlanta has grown from a small purveyor of bananas to one of the Southeast’s larger produce distributors, serving retail, wholesale and foodservice clients in 11 states with overnight delivery.

With the Produce Marketing Association’s Fresh Summit convention taking place practically in its backyard, the management team is excited about the opportunity to show the industry how General has grown and continues to evolve.

“Fresh Summit is a great venue for us regardless of where it’s held, but to have it in our own hometown will provide a chance for a lot of our vendor-partners to come see us, see our warehouse and operations and how we work down here, and see where their product goes,” said Sales Manager Andrew Scott. “We’ve had a lot of vendors call ahead for just that purpose, and we’re going to be giving tours all week it seems. We’ll be hosting customers as well. They can see the nuts and bolts of who we are and also see the Atlanta Farmers Market, which is one of the largest in the country, and it’s all literally 15 minutes from Fresh Summit.”

“It’s going to be fun. It’s going to a party,” added General Manager Randy Lineberger.

General Produce’s Fresh Summit Booth 3335 in the Georgia Grown pavilion aims to be one of the show’s more popular. There will be no product and no pressure. But there will be football.

General’s booth will feature several high-top tables and chairs and a pair of television screens, one showing a brand-new promotional video on the “ins and outs of General Produce, and then the other side’s going to be football, baby, college on Saturday and professional on Sunday, all day long,” Mr. Scott said. “We basically have a booth there to meet and greet our vendor-partners and some of our customers. We’re very diversified so we have a huge customer base. We’re mainly just going to be out there supporting Georgia Grown. We’ve got a lot of Georgia-grown produce and we feel being in that section we’ll have some of our vendor-partners there. And we’re in a really good location which will provide good foot traffic for us as well.”

The booth will also give General a chance to talk about its growing business. The company now has four cross-dock facilities in the Southeast — including one just opened in Starke, FL — that facilitates overnight delivery to 11 states.

“If you call us by noon, we can get to you that night or the next morning in 11 states,” Mr. Scott said.

A large part of General’s growth in recent years has come in the retail sector, and with direct-store drops and just-in-time delivery.

Said Mr. Lineberger, “When I came to work here, we didn’t really have a retail support division, but I have some supermarket background and understand that end of it. That’s where all my focus was for my first 15 years at General Produce, and it’s 30 percent of the business now. We are the produce department for chains like Supervalu out of Quincy, FL, Nash Finch Company’s Southeastern distribution, and Ira Higdon out of Cairo, GA. We’re proud of that and of the fact that we also serve as a DSD ‘ambulance service’ for the Atlanta division of a major retailer — 250 stores — with same-day delivery. They call us and we’re out there within a four-hour window in the metro Atlanta area, and we can get product to their stores as far away as Knoxville, TN, within 10 hours.”

Other clients are taking advantage of that “ambulance service” just-in-time delivery as well — all part of General’s onward-and-upward growth pattern of the last few years, which has defied a sluggish economy.

General Produce has expanded several times in its history and has long been the largest operation on the Atlanta market. Now there is a need for further expansion, and the company is looking at options.

“We can’t complain — it’s steady as she goes,” Mr. Lineberger said. “In these troubled times, we continually make adjustments. We look for a need and find a way to service that need. For example, we’re concentrating more on the organic end of the industry now more than we ever have. A year ago, we brought on a full-time food-safety director to head up that department. We have our own fleet of more than 100 trucks. And all of our cross-dock facilities serve us well. We’re trying to make sure we identify ourselves as being a leader in the industry in this part of the country.”

And now General is ready for Fresh Summit in Atlanta, its moment in the spotlight.

“We’re excited,” Mr. Scott said. “This is such a great city and such a great chance to meet our vendors and customers — and to make some new connections as well. The weather’s perfect here this time of year, so the combination of that with some Southern hospitality and that Southern vibe is going to make for a great show.”