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Blue Creek prospers with respect for growers, attention to customer needs

ST. CHARLES, IL — Operating from a pretty old home that has been converted to an office on a tree-lined street in this idyllic Midwestern town is Blue Creek Produce LLC. The firm is enjoying great momentum within the North American produce business.

Blue Creek was created seven years ago by Roger Riehm, whose family, he said, has the produce trade flowing in its blood.

Blue Creek’s produce offerings are greenhouse vegetables. Its purpose is to offer customers timely service. Mr. Riehm stresses that if a load is late or otherwise off-order, customers will miss an opportunity to make money.

From the beginning, Blue Creek Produce had a sales focus on high-end specialty customers, such as white-tablecloth restaurants and cruise ships. The firm has maintained the quality focus, with national distribution, including higher-end retailers and two Walmart divisions.

Key Blue Creek products are cherry, grape, pear and other tomato varieties, and red, yellow and orange bell peppers. Products are audited for food safety by PrimusLabs and the Food & Drug Administration.

Blue Creek has a close affiliation with greenhouse growers in Colima, Mexico. This is south of Guadalajara, and less than 50 miles from the Pacific coast, which provides long, ideal growing seasons. Colima is a 21-hour delivery from Blue Creek’s warehouse in Pharr, TX. There, warehouse workers must be diligent, Mr. Riehm said, because “there are so many little pieces to assure the right pallet gets on the right truck with the right color.” He added, “We don’t sit around in Pharr. It’s in and out. Timing is so important.” Mr. Riehm ships to customers on the markets of Philadelphia, New York and Boston. “Seventy-five percent of our business is in the East, where the majority of the population is.”

Blue Creek also has staff in Nogales, AZ, to expedite shipping Mexican product for seven months a year.

Mr. Riehm is seasonally involved in Florida production. Furthermore, he “sells back and forth with Canada. We grow in the winter” for exports to Canada, and then “I get product there in the summer. The Canadians know how to grow.”

With these multiple sources, “I know I will get tomatoes. It is so crucial to me to have the right color, the right size, the way the customer needs it on arrival; on a timely basis! That is what kept me going year-round and growing versus stagnant. Guys rely on me. If we miss an order they miss a dollar.”

Blue Creek provides customers with constant updates on truck delivery progress. “We have done well. We have great growers and a great support system.”

Mr. Riehm’s formula is working, as his greenhouse space is in the process of doubling. Proportionately, he is upgrading to a larger booth at the Produce Marketing Association Fresh Summit this fall. He will be promoting the “Blue Creek” label, which is shipped in distinctive blue cartons.

With Mr. Riehm on St. Charles’ Blue Creek staff are Larry Hunkele, Tom Maszak and Scott Johnson.

Mr. Johnson handles the firm’s accounting and administrative matters. Mr. Riehm noted, “It is important we pay growers on time. We pay in seven to ten days. The Mexicans have been burned in the United States and Canada. Scott’s paying the growers is as important as his collecting accounts receivable.”

Mr. Maszak is Blue Creek’s sales manager and also works with growers.

Mr. Hunkele coordinates trucking, “from one pallet to however many loads,” Mr. Riehm said. He was in produce with SuperValu for 20 years, thus “he understands what the market needs and wants.

Mr. Riehm’s grandfather emigrated from Greece in 1912. He worked on Chicago’s South Water Street Market and to this day, Mr. Riehm’s godfather and cousins work on the Chicago International Produce Market.

His father grew tomatoes and peppers in Westmont, IL. From the time he was 10 or 12 years old, Mr. Riehm went to the Chicago market with his father to buy products to fill the farm stand. “It was part of me, my grandfather and my dad. It was in my blood.”

Mr. Riehm worked in the retail business around the Midwest for several years before starting his own company.

Mr. Riehm has attended 25 PMA conventions. He said thhat the conventions have been critical for his meeting industry contacts, including Mexican growers who are integral to his business.