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Maine broccoli now shipping from Fresh from the Start

RIVERHEAD, NY  Fresh from the Start LLC, a division of ADS Management LLC, based here, began shipping its Maine broccoli earlier this month.

"We had our first cut of broccoli on July 16," said Sales Manager Eric Scannelli. We started out a little dry, but we have had very good weather conditions and the outlook for the season is very good.

Now in its 10th year, Fresh from the Start shipped 600 to 700 loads of broccoli last season. We will be shipping 10 to 15 loads of broccoli a day in July and August and that will increase to 15 to 20 loads a day from September until the first hard frost in the middle or end of October, Mr. Scannelli said. Our grower grows exclusively for Fresh from the Start, and all sales are handled out of our Riverhead office.

To maintain the continuity of its broccoli supply, Mr. Scannelli said that the company switches from its grower in Maine to a grower in North Carolina from mid-October through the first week of December. We ship five to 10 loads a day from our grower in North Carolina who we have worked with for over 10 years, he said. This carries us through the Thanksgiving holiday.

Fresh from the Start is packing 14- and 18-count broccoli as well as broccoli crowns, of which 95 percent goes to 10 to 15 major retailers on the East Coast and the Midwest. It also packs a small amount of Asian-cut broccoli crowns, the majority of which goes to terminal markets. In addition, the company flat-packs both nine- and 12-count jacket cauliflower from Quebec, Canada. It shipped about 200 loads of cauliflower last year, the majority of which were nine-count, Mr. Scannelli said.

According to company President Andrew Pollak, until a few years ago, Maine broccoli was only used when supply was short from California. It has changed from exclusively California with some pockets grown elsewhere in the United States to now predominantly Maine, California and Canada, Mr. Pollak said. Back then, [Maine broccoli] was usually only considered in an emergency, where today it is considered legitimate. The retailers want to know when we are going into Maine.

Mr. Pollak said that Maine broccoli's quality has improved 1,000 percent over the past several years, and the cooler growing weather allows for a vegetable with a darker green color. This, along with the advantages in shipping, combine to make it very attractive to grow on the East Coast.

We have a tremendous freight advantage and deliver by the third morning anywhere on the Eastern Seaboard, he said.

Looking forward, Mr. Pollak said that Fresh from the Start is researching the ability to source completely from the East Coast so it can ship both broccoli and cauliflower year-round. He said that the company also plans to have approximately 30 to 40 loads of orange-colored cauliflower  a product that was in great demand last year  available from the last week of September through Halloween.

Produce suppliers carve out small niche at Fancy Food Show in New York

It is little surprise that a trade show named "Fancy Food" would quickly grow into one of the food industry's larger trade shows. It draws so many people that it is now held three times a year in three major U.S. cities: San Francisco, Chicago and New York.

The National Association for the Specialty Food Trade sponsors the Fancy Food Shows. The not-for-profit business trade association was established in 1952 to foster trade, commerce and interest in the specialty food industry. Recent Fancy Food Shows have attracted as many as 32,000 attendees from specialty food, wine, gift and department stores, supermarkets, restaurants, mail order, and other related businesses who come to the shows to see over a thousand exhibitors from around the world presenting over 50,000 specialty foods. NASFT indicated that business booms at the shows. Studies have shown that 87 percent of attendees either authorize or recommend purchasing decisions.

Each year, and as specialty produce continues to grow as a category, increasing numbers of fresh produce producers and distributors set up exhibits to display their "fancier products to the foodservice and retail markets. The recent New York City Fancy Food Show, held at the Javits Center July 9-11, was no exception.

Robert Schueller and other staff members of Melissa's/World Variety Produce in Los Angeles were on hand to display some of the items in the company's specialty produce line. Visitors had the opportunity to view and sample products now in season and currently being shipped from the company's facilities.

"The Fancy Food Shows gives top chefs, restaurant and other foodservice operators an opportunity to learn about a variety of new and in-season produce items, and to do it at the same time they are looking at other categories of products, said Mr. Schueller. "It creates a good opportunity for them, and at the same time, it exposes Melissa's and its products to a wide variety of customers and potential customers.

Melissa's featured several new and in-season products, including Red Raven plums, a black plum variety with a unique red flesh. Also displayed were its "Melissa's Peeled Garlic, individual bags of whole peeled cloves -- the equivalent of four bulbs -- contained inside a zipper package for added freshness.

On July 12, Chef Sarah Moulton appeared on the CBS "Good Morning America program to feature some of the great products she discovered while meandering the aisles of the Fancy Food Show. She chose both Melissa's plums and garlic items to add to her segment.

Melissa's also displayed Saturn peaches, lychees, peeled baby red beets and many other products. Erwan Landivinec, vice president of IPEX, a division of Baldor Specialty Foods in Bronx, NY, was also on hand at the show. Mr. Landivinec spoke with clients and potential clients about the company's specialty products, including its extensive value-added selection and its growing gourmet line of processed, packaged food products.

Bill Walker, marketing specialist for the New Jersey Department of Agriculture, was at the Fancy Food Show to help promote the "Jersey Fresh name and program to visitors from both the foodservice and retail categories of the food business.

Sid Wainer & Son was also exhibiting at the show. The company is a specialty produce and specialty foods supplier headquartered in New Bedford, MA. Besides a full line of processed, prepared and packaged food products, the company has dealt in fresh produce for over 90 years. It supplies over 23,000 high-level restaurants, hotels, gourmet shops and caterers internationally. The company's fruits and vegetables are stored in over 300,000 square feet of temperature-controlled coolers.

The Growers Union LLC/ERA 2000, headquartered in Guanajuato, Mexico, also made its presence known at the show. Gerardo L?pez Cruz, president of the organization, was on hand to explain its culture and goals. The consortium is dedicated to the commercialization and distribution of fresh vegetables and fruits in the global market.

"Expansion and consolidation in the new markets set the basis for the Growers Union, said Mr. L?pez Cruz. "It was formed as a solution to improve quality in service and logistics, and has established a very efficient channel of distributions in the United States and Canada.

Celso Paganini, president of Paganini Foods, which imports and distributes fresh Italian produce under the "BellaVita label, also exhibited at the Fancy Food Show. Mr. Paganini said that it is an important event because it helps produce companies such as his to stay abreast of trends in the industry. "It is also a good venue for interacting and networking, said Mr. Paganini. "Attending and having a presence at trade shows such as this one is always time and energy well spent.

"BellaVita products were being presented in partnership venues with other product lines, as well as the European Unions EAT exhibition booth.

The Gourmet Gala was held in conjunction with the Fancy Food Show. The July 10 event took place at the Marriott Marquis, and benefited the SOS Share Our Strength organization that combats hunger. Chefs from more than 40 top restaurants, many located in cities far from New York, prepared small plates of their favorite recipes. The fare included rack of lamb with beef risotto and lavender sauce by Paul Nelson of Thalia, Taylor Bay scallops, curry-celery root pur?e and marinated salmon roe by Nils Nor? of Aquavit and cheesecake lollipops by David Burke of David Burke & Donatella. Since 1984, SOS has distributed more than $80 million to more than 1,000 anti-hunger, anti-poverty programs worldwide.

Save Mart touts its worth in meeting with suppliers

Modesto, CA-based Save Mart Supermarkets Inc. has launched a campaign to help its suppliers recognize the size and scope of the chain and advantages the chain may have to offer.

The independently owned chain of 123 stores operates under the banners Save Mart, S-Mart and Food Maxx. All its stores are in California, serving the major markets of Bakersfield, Fresno, Modesto, Stockton, East Bay, Sacramento, Northern California and the coastal region. Yosemite Wholesale, a Save Mart-owned distribution center located in Merced, CA, supplies the chain's stores with fresh produce.

Since 1995, the Save Mart chain has acquired 46 stores, built 16 new stores, remodeled 24 stores and closed 24 stores.

On July 13, executives of the chain held a meeting with key suppliers to kick off a new supplier planning initiative that is an integral part of its ongoing implementation of category management business principles. The meeting focused on planning for Save Mart and Food Maxx in 2006 and set in motion a formal process for how Save Mart will manage its business with suppliers going forward.

One of Save Mart's goals from the meeting was to communicate to its supplier partners the size and importance of the Save Mart and Food Maxx banners to Central Valley consumers.

Rick Smith, Save Mart's director of procurement and floral, said that the produce vendors on hand included Fresh Express, Grimmway Farms, CDS Distributing (apples, pears and cherries) and both Sun Maid and Sun Sweet for dried fruits. There also was local brokerage representation on hand in addition to the nationwide brokerage Advantage.

According to Randy Slentz, senior director of merchandising for Save Mart, the chain was concerned it might be perceived as a small regional operation based on its multi-faceted distribution sources rather than what it is -- the 24th largest grocery retailer in the country with over $2.5 billion in annual sales.

Privately held Save Mart does not publish its sales numbers and the forum allowed the company to re-emphasize to its suppliers the chain's position in the industry. The chain's growth has been with its Food Maxx stores, at a pace of which some suppliers may be unaware, Mr. Slentz said.

"Food Maxx has grown from 15 stores to 44 [box] stores in less than three years," Mr. Slentz said. Save Mart has had 79 conventional grocery stores for several years, but two new Save Mart stores are coming on-line this year.

Mr. Slentz said that the chain distinguishes itself from some of its competition in that it is nimble enough to make changes in a timely fashion and with relative ease. He said that when the company "makes a commitment to a manufacturer, it's going to happen.

Major suppliers such as Kraft, General Mills, Unilever, Procter & Gamble and Kellogg's attended the meeting. The 400-plus attendees heard senior management of Save Mart and Food Maxx give presentations that detailed company financial and growth plans, key promotional events, promotional opportunities and other partnership marketing opportunities for its suppliers' brands.

A key goal of the meeting was to create a partnership that will leverage the resources of Save Mart and its suppliers in order to create a synergy that will build sales, grow profits and reinforce brand image, Mr. Slentz said.

Working together on a detailed annual calendar will help move product through stores, Mr. Slentz said. "Suppliers need to tell us when national programs are in place to help us allocate resources, he said.

Partnering with each other, Save Mart and its suppliers will align strategies, systems, processes and people to reduce the cost of conducting business -- a "win-win for everyone, especially the consumer, Mr. Slentz said.

Save Mart handed out CD-ROMs to participating suppliers and will follow up with workshops with them in upcoming weeks. In late July or early August, Save Mart will sit in with category managers of its suppliers. Save Mart plans to utilize the same planning mechanism in future years, Mr. Slentz said.

"The concept is to get suppliers to lay out plans so they become our plans, Mr. Slentz said. "In June, July and August of 2006, we'll work on 2007.

The forum was a chance for Save Mart to re-emphasize its market presentation and growth. "We've had a ton of positive feedback, Mr. Slentz said.

Rainbow of Flavors seedless grape clamshells now available from Sun World

Sun World International LLC in Bakersfield, CA, is releasing a new, custom-packed clamshell this season called Rainbow of Flavors.

It features either two or three Sun World seedless grape varieties and is packaged in a two- or four-pound clamshell, which can include any combination of red, green or black seedless grapes.

Mike Aiton, Sun World's senior vice president of sales and marketing, believes that the Rainbow of Flavor clamshell is a great addition to the many types of packaging Sun World currently offers. "Because we were a leader in the introduction of the clamshell package for grapes, our customers have been asking us to take the next step and provide them with more than one color in a clamshell. Realistically, the only way to do this is to establish a central packing station where quality can be assured and weight accuracy can be guaranteed. The response to the initial introduction has been overwhelming, and we are already struggling to meet the demand."

The company will be packing the clamshells with Red Flame, Thompson and Crimson grapes in addition to its proprietary Midnight Beauty, Superior seedless, Sable seedless and Sophia seedless branded grapes. Rainbow of Flavors will be available throughout the fall.

Dole claims Ready Pac stole its employees

Dole Fresh Vegetables Inc. has sued its competitor Ready Pac Produce Inc. for engaging in "unfair competition" because three top Dole employees have joined former Dole COO Larry Kern at Ready Pac in the last few months.

The suit was filed in Monterey Superior Court June 18 and alleges that Ready Pac has engaged and continues to engage in unfair competition. The suit names three employees that left Dole between March and June and now work for Ready Pac.

Steve Dickstein, vice president of marketing for Ready Pac, acknowledged that the three associates in question have joined Ready Pac since leaving Dole, but he said the suit is completely without merit.

He added that many employees have left Dole over the past year and have joined many different produce companies. He indicated that three of them joining Ready Pac is not significant, but rather understandable given Ready Pac's history of innovation and its standing as a good employer.

These are high-caliber employees, Mr. Dickstein told The Produce News July 20. It makes perfect sense they were attracted to a company of Ready Pacs stature. Ready Pac has a history of innovation and is the fastest-growing company in the [bagged salad] category.

Mr. Dickstein made it clear that these employees sought out Ready Pac rather than Ready Pac recruiting these employees.

Fresh Express and Dole are the clear leaders in the category nationwide, ahead of third-place Ready Pac by a significant margin, Mr. Dickstein acknowledged. On the West Coast, however, sales among the three leaders in the category are much more comparable, and the Ready Pac executive reiterated that his firm is outdistancing the others in terms of sales gains.

The three employees named in the lawsuit are Allan Sabatier, Brian Rogers and David Williams. At Dole, Mr. Sabatier was vice president of value-added product sales, while the other two were sales managers of national accounts. Each resigned from Dole between March and June to work for Ready Pac, according to the lawsuit.

According to the lawsuit, Ready Pac CEO Larry Kern supervised each of those employees while all four were at Dole. The lawsuit also claims that the three associates had signed employment agreements in 2003 stating they would not interfere with Doles business or its relationships with clients while they were employed at the company or for one year thereafter. Mr. Dickstein said that these three employees represent only a small portion of the Ready Pac sales staff, about 5 percent, he said.

Two attorneys familiar with labor law and California agricultural, who asked not to be identified, discussed the general principles of the case, but not the actual merits, as neither had seen this specific lawsuit. Under California labor law, they both said independently that non-compete contracts are generally unenforceable. According to one of the attorneys, California courts have held that employees should be free to move from one company to the next with minimal restrictions. He said that non-compete contracts are typically held up by the courts only when an owner is involved who has received significant consideration for selling the company.

In this case, Dole has not chosen to sue the employees themselves but rather the company that has hired them. The attorneys who discussed the case with The Produce News indicated that this type of lawsuit has a much better chance in California courts.

Under California law, this is considered a tort, specifically a breach of contract, said one of the attorneys. This is a different principle of law than a non-compete contract. As policy, California courts have determined that they are not going to allow one company to target the employees of another in an effort to do that company harm.

While the law is clear, this attorney said that it is a difficult case to prove. If the employees themselves made the initial contact with Ready Pac, it would be virtually impossible to prove that Ready Pac targeted these employees.

As a regular course of action in such lawsuits, Ready Pac is now required to respond to the suit in some manner. The outside attorney said that Ready Pac would probably ask for the case to be dismissed. Failing that, each side will go into the discovery phase of the suit and then a settlement or a trial will result.

It wont happen quickly, said the attorney. It should last at least a year. The wheels of justice tend to move quite slowly.

Dole did not respond to phone inquiries for comment on the lawsuit by The Produce News press time.