After a summer excursion backpacking across Europe, followed by a brief experimentation with East Coast winters, 24-year-old Sam Barthel realized that home is indeed where the heart is, and her heart was back in Florida with her family.
“I had money saved up and decided to get out of Florida and see some of the world on my own,” Barthel told The Produce News. “I went through Eastern Europe — Russia, Finland, Sweden and Poland — just areas I hadn’t been to, to experience it, see some art, eat some good food and learn some life lessons.”
But once her adventure came to an end and it was time to start a career, she instinctively knew where she was meant to be and what she was meant to do.
“And that’s how I ended up in produce,” she joked.
For the past two years, Barthel has been working in sales and logistics for Pompano Beach, FL-based HLB Specialities, a grower and distributor of exotic fruits.
Coming from a long line of agriculture and produce workers, Barthel spent much of her life around the industry. As a matter of fact, her first job was modeling snow peas for her mother’s company at the ripe old age of three.
Now her mother, Shannon Barthel, is the director of marketing for Central American Produce in the Miami-Fort Lauderdale area.
“It’s good, especially whenever I need help with something, I can turn to my mother for advice because she used to work in sales and she had her own company, so she really knows a lot about imported produce and business in this region,” Sam said.
In addition to her mother, Barthel’s uncle, Joel Barthel, president and co-owner of International Cold Storage, is a veteran of the produce industry, as is her aunt Maureen Barthel and grandfather Mike Matras, who are also co-owners in the company.
“It’s a family business,” Sam said. “My cousins even work there in the shipping office.”
Barthel’s boyfriend, Juan Weidmann, is also involved in the industry and recently opened his own quality control company called DLT Inspections. She credits their relationship to a certain produce company and one clever cantaloupe.
“I met my boyfriend Juan while I was working at International Cold Storage,” she said. “He was there doing melon inspections and I never spoke to him because he didn’t speak English at the time and I didn’t speak much Spanish. But one day I went to my desk and found a cut melon and a Post-It with a smiley face on it from him. Juan spent the next day trying to ask me out on a date, but I had absolutely no idea what he was saying. I kept getting flustered and walking away. At one point, he got a piece of paper and tried to draw out what he was saying. I had to take a pocket Spanish dictionary with me on our first few dates — and that’s how I learned Spanish.”
Being able to work with and around the people she cares most about is one of the main perks of being in the produce industry, Barthel said.
“I’m involved with my family a lot,” she said of her working relationship with her family members. “We store overflow products in my uncle’s warehouse, or sometimes I run over there to look at products. Every now and then, we purchase or sell items to Central, so I talk to my mother that way. My boyfriend, Juan, just opened up a quality-control company, so he does our inspections.”
As for her day-to-day duties at HLB, Barthel said her job definitely keeps her on her toes.
“The first thing I do is check all our shipments and make sure everything is on time to the West Coast,” she said. “I make sure everything is on time for our customers, set up orders, call customers, whatever the day throws at me — there’s always something!”
And growing up around the industry has certainly helped prepare her for any obstacle that may arise. At the age of 17, Barthel started working for her uncle at International Cold Storage in repack, stacking boxes in the onion room.
“That was quite an experience,” she laughed. “For the entire day, you smell like onions — it was rough! After that, I was like, ‘OK, I have to get out of this, can I do something else?’ And that was how I started working in the shipping office.”
Although working with onions was not her cup of tea, Barthel did say it helped her better understand the cold chain process.
“I got to see it from the repack level, to when it comes in, to how it goes out,” she said. “It helps me prepare now for when I have an order because I understand what might go wrong, what to look for and how to be more proactive about things.”
And though she acknowledges her job can be difficult at times, the challenges are well worth the rewards, especially since she gets to work with a product she enjoys, in an industry she respects, with the people she loves.
“I enjoy the fact that I work with a product that I actually and sincerely like,” Barthel said. “We work with a lot of tropical fruits, and the papaya is an amazing fruit. It’s just great working with a product that’s good for people.”
As for the future, “as long as I keep learning, growing and continuing to be happy, I would love to stay in this career,” she concluded.