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International Fruit sets up shop on familiar turf

CHARLOTTE, NC — The room held three desks and three chairs, and little else. No windows. No fancy plaques on the walls. In fact, nothing on the walls. This is, after all, a start-up operation only a little more than 90 days old.

In another sense, as David Espinoza, president of International Fruit Co., pointed out, “We’re a new business, and we’re an ongoing business.” To turn the phrase around, “everything new is old again” at International Fruit Co.DAVID-ESPINOZADavid Espinoza

When Chiquita Brands International announced in October that it would jettison its deciduous fruit line (growing on trees, vines and shrubs that shed their leaves) in order to concentrate on its core business of bananas, pineapples, salads and snacks, Mr. Espinoza, a 17-year veteran with the company, who was then senior manager for business development, saw not a loss but an opportunity.

Mr. Espinoza decided he would set up an independent company licensed by Chiquita to handle deciduous fruits using the “Chiquita” brand through a licensing agreement.

“All my career has been preparation for this,” he explained.

A native of Chile, Mr. Espinoza began his career as a grower and exporter and worked his way up the supply chain until reaching senior management at Chiquita.

“I’ve dug holes in the ground and planted trees,” he said. “I’ve worked in export, import, wholesale and retail at supermarkets. I know my growers and I know my retailers.”

He also knew whom he wanted with him in the new venture: Keith Leichty and Alex Bryant.

Mr. Leichty is a nine-year Chiquita veteran who was Chilean sales manager for Chiquita. He managed retail and wholesale accounts for Chilean import business for the last 15 years, working with North American retailers. He became vice president of sales. Mr. Bryant, another Chiquita manager who worked with Mr. Espinoza, had previously worked at Little River Vineyards & Winery in Mt. Gilead, NC. In March, a fourth team member — Roberto Othon  — was added as sourcing manager for Mexico. Mr. Espinoza has known him for three years.

With his team assembled and investors behind him, IFC opened its doors Jan. 1, 2013, in Charlotte. The trio set up shop in the no-frills room, answering their own phones and seamlessly continuing to sell fruit.

“Things are going according to our plan,” Mr. Espinoza told The Produce News. “We are on track to handle about 1 million boxes of fruit this year. Our plans call for expansion to 5 million boxes a year in five years.”

U.S. supermarkets are critical to this growth, he pointed out. “Supermarkets make up 70 percent of our sales,” he added.

Grapes for the domestic market imported primarily from Chile and Mexico were the first main focus for the new business.

“Grapes are one of the top five commodities in the United States,” Mr. Espinoza said. “They are in high demand.

“We will provide high-quality products 12 months a year to high-end retailers,” Mr. Espinoza added. “We are selective about the growers we work with, our quality teams check arriving shipments, and we build personal relationships with our customers and offer them a high level of service. We plan to expand our operations here and in Southeast Asia and Latin America.”