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Heath & Lejeune increases focus on local Southern California market

“As a CCOF [California Certified Organic Farmers] certified organic wholesaler, we provide distribution, storage, logistics and consolidation services to trading partners throughout the U.S. and Canada. Working with many of the original pioneers of organic farming we’ve been privileged to help bring organics to the doorstep of the mass market,” according to the web site for Los Angeles-based Heath & Lejeune Inc.

Although the company distributes its products nationwide and internationally, that focus is beginning to shift, according to Rick Lejeune, a founder of the company and its chief executive officer. “We are concentrating a greater percentage of our effort in our local market,” he told The Produce News Aug. 24.

“We are trying to shift the balance of our business more towards local,” he continued. “We still have lots of long-distance customers and always will. But we are very active in the local market,” and one reason for that is that “we really feel that Southern California is underserved in terms of its exposure to organic [produce].”

The massive number of people in the Southern California market dwarf most areas of the country, and “we are still scratching the surface, I think,” he continued. “There is a lot more business to be had,” and that is “where a lot of our new growth is.”

That growth, both for the company and for the organic-produce industry in general, has slowed a little “because of the economy,” Mr. Lejeune said. But “I definitely feel that there is continued growth” in the organic business, and Heath & Lejeune definitely continues to experience a share of that growth. “We are picking up new customers weekly. We see that throughout the different levels of the food system.”

Heath & Lejeune services a wide assortment of customers “from the largest to the smallest.” The company deals with some major clients who do a significant volume of business, but “if somebody is willing to buy a box of produce, they can buy it from us,” he said.

“We get some individuals” buying organic produce by the box, he said. “We are starting to get some buying clubs starting up. That is an interesting phenomenon. People are trying to save money by banding together in cooperative groups to buy produce. We encourage that.”

The company sells to retailers and to distributors. In addition, “We will sell to restaurants,” Mr. Lejeune said. “In the past, the foodservice and restaurant side of the business has not been very fertile ground for organics because restaurants are very cost sensitive and they haven’t wanted to pay the premium. It is also hard to service restaurants,” which have generally been “best serviced by specialists.” But now, “in the local market, we are finding ways to service individual restaurants and even small chains. It requires a little more energy and attention to detail, but there is a lot of satisfaction in working those new relationships. And many restaurants now in Southern California are looking for organic produce.”

There are “multiple layers” in the produce business, “and we feel like we are active on all the different layers,” he said. “We do that purposely. We feel like we have something to offer large companies, medium companies and small companies” as well as to “other companies who are middlemen. We just tailor our services to whatever they need. And it helps to keep us diversified, well-rounded and in touch with trends in a number of different areas.”

In general, “we don’t discriminate very much on customers” other than with respect to ability to pay, he said. “If you come to us, we will try to service you. If we don’t think we can service you, then we will point you in the right direction. But if we think we have something to offer, we will try to figure out a way to do it.”