CHICAGO — “Next year is our 10th year,” Roger Riehm said of the company he owns. “That’s a good milestone for us” at Blue Creek Produce LLC, based in St. Charles, IL.
The longevity reflects “our working relationship with growers in Mexico, and our customer base is growing.” Blue Creek succeeded “from the get-go by providing what the customer wants.”
There is an ongoing need to be creative and serve those evolving needs. What Blue Creek develops to suit demand are tomatoes with customized packs and specialty colors, shapes and sizes.
Pear-shaped tomatoes — also called tear-drop — are a successful seller for high-end markets, such as cruise ships and high-end New York restaurants.
Blue Creek will be showing these and other new fresh tomato products in a re-designed booth at the Produce Marketing Association convention in New Orleans.
“We will continue with different-colored grape tomatoes. That is the tomato of choice on salad bars or in sophisticated chef’s salads. It has replaced the cherry tomato,” especially in upscale foodservice situations.
Blue Creek has tailored its tomato packaging to suit Walmart and other retail chains. This includes cherry tomatoes-on-the-vine or cocktail tomatoes in mesh bags. “We also have different clamshell configurations,” he said.
Retailers want to stand out in their tomato offerings, and packaging is a key means to that end. This certainly includes “cherry tomatoes in different configurations than clamshells. That may be mesh or the poly bag that stands up with air-flow. There is a need to change and be innovative. We have no limitations. We are not stagnant.”
Riehm said his firm’s full organic line “is growing at a slow pace. There is more strength to the organic market.” The demand for organics “may be up to a 20 percent increase” this year. Historically the demand for organic produce has come from high-end customers buying at high-end stores.
“We need to offer organics to the middle and even lower socioeconomic levels,” Riehm said. “So we need more-competitive pricing. We need to look at this as a growing market and look to grow there also.”
Blue Creek provides its customers with private labels, which account for about 40 percent of the firm’s sales. The firm otherwise uses its “Blue Creek” label on packaging and attractive, bright blue shipping boxes.
Blue Creek’s packaging and farming is done in Colima, Mexico. All of the tomatoes are produced year-round in hydroponic greenhouses. Productivity drops in typically rainy periods in June and July. This isn’t a problem as Blue Creek’s tomato demand declines in the summer in the face of local and backyard production.
The keys to Riehm’s success have been treating the growers well, including paying them in seven days and having highly-efficient distribution; the tomatoes are at the border within a day after they’re picked; and Blue Creek distributes to 32 states.
Logistics services are also a key for Blue Creek. Riehm said he will deliver one pallet to a New Jersey customer if necessary. “I find trucks. We go from full loads to almost-UPS deliveries. The smallest guys can handle our products, as well as the big guys.”
Blue Creek recently added two new growers in Colima. All of his growers must pass tests for water safety, labor requirements and adherence to food-safety standards, he said
Meanwhile, the Blue Creek staff works very hard toward a successful team effort, extending from the growers to the customers.