NIXA, MO — Potato and onion branding was “one of the first things I thought that we would use to hit the ground running” Steve Phipps said of when he launched Market Fresh Produce LLC in 2005.
Phipps, who is CEO of the firm located near Springfield in southwest Missouri, had several reasons for this expectation.
His rationale was that potatoes and onions are extremely competitive and they are products that are available in large enough volumes that one supplier can provide adequate volumes of branded product to singlehandedly suit retailer promotions.
“We as an industry are at fault as to why there is so much private labeling today. People packed any standard they wanted and put it in a bag.”
Phipps noted: “The entire landscape for the potato and onion category is under-performing. We want to help retailers to grow,” he said.
Some retailers, such as Reasor’s Foods in Tulsa, OK, have been steadfast in demanding consistent and high-quality standards for bagged potatoes and onions, Phipps said. “As an industry, we are starting to listen” to the need to pack to such specifications.
This is especially important for the potato industry, which has suffered blows in recent years from a series of events such as the Atkins Diet, which discouraged potato consumption. There were also “false perceptions that potatoes are not healthy.”
Market Fresh countered trends with not only consistent quality but also a full line of consumer “Specialty Potato” packs and a variety of onion packaging for retail customers. Market Fresh poly-mesh bags have a light-blocking film to reduce shrink on the retail shelf.
The potato packages include microwavable “steam and eat” 12-ounce baby red, baby gold and petite sweet potatoes. This is by no means a comprehensive list. Market Fresh offers a wide range of options for potatoes and sweet, yellow and red onions.
Speaking more broadly of Market Fresh, Phipps indicated that the firm has set new records for growth for the last seven years. “We expect to move ahead at a greater pace than in the past. We have explosive growth ahead of us.”
The core commodities for Market Fresh are potatoes, onions, tomatoes, sweet potatoes, avocados and kiwifruit. The firm’s growth will involve branding and service within those commodities.
A big step toward that growth took place on Aug. 11 when Market Fresh Produce acquired West Central Florida Produce LLC, a Tampa, FL, tomato repacker and distributor.
The facility is being upgraded and Market Fresh officials plan to expand West Central Florida’s product line. In a Nov. 18 interview with The Produce News in Nixa, Phipps indicated that the Florida facility employs 30 people. Fifteen people currently work in the comfortable Missouri head office.
“I still think we’re an unknown company,” he said. “We’re the little steam engine that keeps rolling along.” Persistence and perseverance are long-term virtues that will lead to continued success, he noted.
Phipps said the Florida facility is a significant step in his goal for the Market Fresh brand to be “tied to the ground.” Among other benefits, being close to production allows seed variety selection within search of the best taste profiles.
He said his grandfather in Springfield, MO, entered his tomatoes in the state fair five times and took first place every time. Phipps is using that intuition “to find ways to create a product that pulls through the supply chain.”
Phipps said he personally enjoys meeting with growers and developing strategies to help them succeed.
Such choices are key to succeeding in building consumer demand for repeat sales of a private label, Phipps said.
He added that Market Fresh has been focused on retail customers. Now the firm has the infrastructure and volume in place to make products available for the national foodservice industry. Offering the right flavor profiles is a critical key to serving chefs. “We are excited about that market.”
Market Fresh works 52 weeks a year with sweet onion growers in Peru, Washington state, Texas and Vidalia, Georgia. All of these growers packing the Market Fresh brand meet strict qualifications for quality, third-party food-safety audits, Good Manufacturing Practices and traceability.
The growers are also producing sweet onions meeting only the right taste profiles. Otherwise, “it’s a good way to destroy your brand and your consumers’ confidence.”
In the tomato category, it’s important to have tomatoes in January and February that make outstanding bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwiches, Phipps added.
While admitting “my mind doesn’t sit idle,” Phipps credits his staff with having the ability “to learn what the customers need and going to get it done.”
Phipps’ hiring requisites don’t necessarily include a long produce history. Among several staff additions have been two recent marketing personnel.
On Oct.14, Mark Stratton was hired to work in business development. For years Stratton has been a marketing consultant to Market Fresh, but finally joined the staff full-time.
Stratton was a teacher and baseball coach for 25 years. From 2007 until 2012, he was the head baseball coach of Drury University in Springfield, MO.
In his first season at Drury, the school hadn’t had a baseball team since 1971, but immediately won the conference title. His overall record of 176-134 accounted for most of the school’s baseball history, which was overall: 215-151.
All of his baseball players graduated and earned jobs in the field of their major, Stratton said.
Hannah Hughes is a recent finance graduate from the University of Arkansas. She received praise from Phipps for her thorough work as marketing manager.