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A&W marks 25th anniversary, opens new packinghouse in San Quentin

Andrew & Williamson Fresh Produce in San Diego marked its 25th anniversary Aug. 1, according to Mark Munger, vice president of marketing. “It came quietly,” he said. “We really didn’t do anything ... special” to celebrate the occasion, but it “was a nice milestone for us.”

A&W was founded in August 1986 by Fred Andrew and Fred Williamson, Mr. Munger told The Produce News Aug. 5. “Their initial vision for the company was to work with ... growers” in northern Baja California, Mexico, “to provide premium produce.”

Both founders have since “passed on,” he said, “but it has been interesting to see what the company has been able to grow into over the last 25 years.” A&W initially “focused almost entirely on just round tomatoes,” farming just in the San Quentin (pronounced ken-teen) area of northern Baja, just a few miles south of San Diego. Over time, A&W diversified both geographically and the number of commodities grown, packed and shipped.

“When I came aboard with the company 10 years ago,” A&W had “about 27 unique products that they were selling,” Mr. Munger said. “As part of our evolution since then, we have grown into a year-round supplier farming in multiple geographic regions. We have transitioned from contracting with growers to really, for the most part, being our own grower” and “from relying on our contracted growers’ packing facilities to owning and operating packingsheds in all of our geographic growing regions.”

In addition, “We have actually gone down on the number of items that we are growing so we can really focus on quality and consistency on a year-round basis,” he said. Those items are cucumbers, strawberries and tomatoes of various types.

As of early August, the company was in the peak of the season in its San Quentin tomato deal, “and we will continue to have strong volumes out of San Quentin until October, when we will move south again” to the Vizcaino desert in central Baja, he said.

“The big news in the San Quentin deal” for this season is that “we just opened our own company-owned packing facility in San Quentin.” He said. It is called Empaque San Quentin, translated San Quentin Packing.

“For us, it is really the last major strategic piece that we had to put in place to truly be 100 percent functional on our customer-direct programs,” Mr. Munger said.

“San Quentin is our oldest region as a company, where we started initially and where we have the longest relationships with growers that we have been working with,” he said. “Technically, they are independent growers,” but they grow 100 percent of their product for A&W. Until the new packinghouse opened, the growers had packed their products in their own facilities.

During the last several years, A&W has expanded its San Quentin acreage through company-owned farms, but “we were still relying on packingsheds that were owned and operated by our original grower-partners,” Mr. Munger said. In the meantime, the company opened its own packing facilities in two cities in Mexico: Vizcaino and Culiacan.

“We are getting more and more customized to the specific needs of our customers” as the company has increased direct business with retailers, Mr. Munger said. “We really had to have absolute control of the packing.”

The new San Quentin facility consists of a little over 100,000 square feet of packing and warehousing space, with many types of packaging equipment “to give us the ability to customize the pack” to each customer’s needs. After the tomato season, it will serve as a pre-cool facility and shipping point for the company’s winter strawberry program out of San Quentin, he said.

Currently, the new packing facility is packing Roma tomatoes, round tomatoes, grape tomatoes, cherry tomatoes and cucumbers.

“With the addition of Empaque San Quentin ... just about all of our specialized packing is now taking place down in Mexico,” Mr. Munger said. The product is “picked, crated and then custom packed,” and “really never gets touched again before it arrives” at a customer’s warehouse.