A year ago, Brent Erenwert, vice president of Brothers Produce in Houston, had a problem. A customer wanted blueberries “and for the life of me I couldn’t figure out where to find them. I thought, ‘What if there was a place where people could go that had the interface of Facebook but was able to be used like Craigslist or a posting wall? ‘I need blueberries: call me.’“
Mr. Erenwert’s original idea led to the launch of a new industry web site, Produce Universe, which went live in late June and recorded its one millionth hit Nov. 9. Mr. Erenwert first brainstormed the idea with partner Chris Jones; a third partner, Mike Dardin, representing the trucking side of the industry, came aboard soon after.
“I wanted to build a web site and social media place where thousands of produce professionals could visit to interact, buy, sell and promote various products in real time,” Mr. Erenwert said. “There are always challenges we all face in the industry each week. My feelings were maybe a place like this could help others find hard-to-get products and also growers-distributors could reach other potential customers in other parts of the country. Our industry is not very advanced in technology. That’s kind of where the basis came from and the goal was that people all over the country would communicate with one another and eventually spill over and we’d have 10,000 people and make the whole industry more knowledgeable.”
Produce Universe membership, like Facebook, is free. By the end of October, more than 600 people had signed up, and more join every day.
“There will never be a charge for this service, I don’t see a need for that — our niche is that we’re free,” Mr. Erenwert said. “Everybody wants to charge a fee; my idea was to try and change the game, even the old-timers that aren’t real tech-savvy can use it and figure out how to navigate around.”
Mr. Erenwert benefits from Produce Universe the same way other members do: via increased business from the on-line interaction.
“I encourage my buyers to get on there, but I myself have made several new connections on there [with] people I never knew. When things are tight, that’s when you go on and find new vendors. Then you go back and return favors,” Mr. Erenwert said.
One thing Produce Universe does is help level the playing field for smaller companies.
“It actually allows smaller brokers to sell a company like Brothers; that’s a $100 million company that he would never have been able to get to,” Mr. Erenwert said. “If he had called me out of the blue, I’d have never had the time. But if I go on and post that I’m looking for oranges, he makes that connection being some small broker in some small city. It does allow the small company that’s running five trucks to go grab some lettuce deal they normally wouldn’t have any access to. It does level the playing field and kind of bring the smaller guys up with the big boys. The bigger it gets, obviously the more opportunity for everybody.”
It is too soon to know if Mr. Erenwert will turn out to be the Mark Zuckerberg (founder of Facebook) of the produce industry, but at least he has people talking and interacting on-line.