David Cook, a fixture in sales of California strawberries, tomatoes and celery, is set to retire in June after 44 years in the produce industry.
"Everybody knows David," Tom Deardorff II, president of Deardorff Family Farms, where Cook spent the last 32 years of his career, said in a press release. "Whenever I am at events for United Fresh, PMA, WGA or other trade groups, people always ask about David. And when the trade press wants information about California produce, they call David."
Cook has been around the produce industry his whole life. His father, Nolan Cook, started in produce sales for lettuce grower Bud Antle Inc. (now Tanimura & Antle). In the 1960s, Nolan Cook started his own lettuce growing and marketing company, Cook Produce, in Phoenix. David Cook began his first job in the produce industry during his high school years, working for his father on weekends and summers with the lettuce harvesting crews.
Cook graduated from Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff with a bachelor's degree in business and returned to work with his father at Cook Produce in 1970, supervising the Iceberg lettuce harvesting crews. During this time he also met his wife, Nancy, and they married in 1973.
"We have been very lucky together and celebrated our 41st anniversary this year," said Cook.
After some time in the field at Cook Produce, he moved to the sales office with his father. There, Cook found his passion and would stay in produce sales the rest of his career. When his father dissolved Cook Produce in 1975, Cook went to work for Pacific Fruit & Produce (now Amerifresh) in Phoenix, where he began working as a buyer and inspector.
"I bought just about everything — this was the great thing about that job — citrus, fruit, grapes, melons, all veg," Cook said in the press release. "I met a ton of great shippers and some other buyers and brokers as well."
Cook worked in offices in Salinas, Indio and Fresno, and eventually transferred to Oxnard in 1978, where he continued as office manager for Pacific Fruit & Produce.
"As a buyer, you get a few job offers, since recruiters are always on the lookout for people who they see some potential in, but I turned down those offers until hearing about the opening at Deardorff," said Cook. "They had been around a long time, were well-known in the industry with an established reputation, offered a diverse range of products, and were looking for someone to join their sales team. When I started at Deardorff, I thought 'this is it'."
As it turns out, he was right. He has spent the last 32 years with Deardorff Family Farms (formerly known as Deardorff-Jackson Co.).
When he joined Deardorff in 1982, Cook worked in sales with Bill Deardorff (a third-generation family member of the business) and Jim Henry. Cook sold mixed vegetable items, berries and tomatoes.
"It was different back then — there were no contracts, we just sold what we had each day, calling our customers up on the phone or waiting for them to call us," he said. "Everything was done by phone at first, then eventually faxing came into play, and now of course there's email and all the other ways to communicate 24/7."
Things changed quickly in 1994, when Bill Deardorff tragically and suddenly died.
"That was a defining moment," said Cook. "Things all came crashing down on my head, but I just had to put one foot in front of the other and keep going."
Cook stepped up to sales manager, taking on more responsibility and quickly playing the lead role.
"We were very fortunate to have David Cook here when Bill passed away," said Tom Deardorff Sr., the retired president of Deardorff Family Farms.
Indeed, the entire Deardorff family credits Cook for not only keeping the business moving in tough times, but also for maintaining the image of the company.
"Our company was founded by W.H. Deardorff with the ideals of honesty, integrity and hard work," said Scott Deardorff, vice president of Deardorff Family Farms. "When my dad suddenly and unexpectedly passed away, David dug in, worked hard, and handled our customers and growers with the type of class, respect and honesty they had come to expect from Deardorff. It was a difficult time for our family and company. We trusted David to carry us forward, and he has done so incredibly well."
Cook is somewhat philosophical about the sales role, saying, "As the years passed, the longer I was in sales, the more I realized that the ebb and flow of the markets — where on good days everyone's your friend and bad days you have to hustle — is a lot like life in that you have to adjust quickly and think fast on your feet. It can be hard to get used to, but sales, and life is full of ups and downs. I came to enjoy the seasonality of the business — the beginnings and ends of the various seasons always made things interesting."
Cook credits his 32 years at Deardorff to a few key factors: "The people. The Deardorffs are a good family and run a good, smart business. They have been loyal to me and have taken care of me. And with such a diverse product offering, I had a chance in many arenas, allowing me to learn and grow quickly."
He has worked with many Deardorffs over the years and credits Tom Deardorff Sr. as having a big influence on his life.
"Tom was one of greatest guys to work for," he said. "He did a great job leading the company and setting an example for healthy eating and exercise habits. A group of us used to go to the gym during lunch a few times a week, and I think that's when I really began pursuing fitness goals and staying in shape. For me, staying in shape and being healthy kept me focused, competitive and ahead of the game, which especially helped when dealing with sales. Running, swimming and yoga have been essential to me, and I'm excited to have more time to continue that after retirement."
Cook has seen and experienced the many changes in this industry.
"It's much faster now, really 24/7, and in a business of dealing with perishables, it's important to be readily available," he said.
In addition, he noted the increase in food-safety regulations just in the past 10 to 15 years, and vast improvements of cooling-storage-shipping facilities. His career has allowed him to travel to many places, from California to Arizona to Colorado, and he recalls fondly the trips up to Toronto, Calgary and Vancouver in Canada.
"Canadians are some of the most hospitable people in the world, and conventions there were always fun," he said.
To those coming up in produce sales, he advised, "Be the first to show up. This business is made of lots of early risers. And for me, being able to start and end my day earlier allowed me to do more with my kids and be involved with all their after-school activities, and that was really important."
He added, "Don't be afraid of any new job or afraid to take a risk, but at the same time don't be afraid to do a job that you may think is 'boring' or 'beneath you.' You have to pay your dues."
"He will be missed immensely for what he does, but will be missed even more for how he does it," said Tom Deardorff II. "David defines how it should be done: honesty, loyalty, integrity and hard work. On behalf of everyone at Deardorff Family Farms, we wish him the best in retirement."
Cook's plans after leaving Deardorff will first include celebrating his son's wedding in mid-June, followed by a few trips with his wife, who is retiring from her job teaching art classes at Channel Islands High School. Cook also will pursue a part-time volunteer job at the Oxnard Public Library literacy program helping English language learners for a few hours per week.