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Heath & Lejeune relocating to new high-tech facility in Los Angeles

On Aug. 23, David Weinstein, sales manager for Heath & Lejeune Inc. in Los Angeles, told The Produce News that the company is moving to a new, cutting-edge facility over the Labor Day weekend. The new facility is only 10 minutes away from its original location.

"Our old facility is 17,000-square-feet with six loading docks and between 8,000 and 9,000 square feet of cooler space," said Mr. Weinstein. "The new facility is 43,000 square feet, it has 18 loading docks — providing us with an unbroken cold chain — and it has 15,000 square feet of cooler space."

The "new" facility isn't literally new — it's actually a mixture of old and new. Mr. Weinstein explained that it was originally built as a Sears & Roebuck distribution facility in 1958.

"The company has long since moved, and the warehouse has been sitting there — not unused, but not fully utilized — for a long time," he said. "In cooperation with a developer, we rehabilitated the structure to bring it up to modern standards, and we added a brand new cooler on one side of the building."

If you drive up to the building today, you'll see the old red brick warehouse, but it is now framed by the very tall and modern cooler.

"It's a reuse of an urban facility with the addition of a highly technical, modern and energy efficient building in the center of an urban area," added Mr. Weinstein. "This approach of combining modern construction with an historic infrastructure reflects the philosophical mission of Heath & Lejeune, which is to market organic produce."

The company is making the move because it has been growing consistently since it was founded in the early 1980s by Harland Heath and Patrick Lejeune, and it needs more space and better technology to keep pace with the changing market.

Mr. Lejeune's son, Rick Lejeune, is now the chief executive officer. His son, Nick, also now works for the company, bringing it into its third generation of family operation.

Mr. Weinstein said that the people who work at Heath & Lejeune have a "funny" attitude.

"We feel that the creation of good jobs that people can take pride in and feel satisfaction with, and that allow them to support their families and enjoy their lives is very important," he said. "As we've grown we've been able to add staff in ways that have been beneficial to our community and to the people who work here. We're hiring more people at a time when many companies are cutting back, which speaks to the fact that we're doing things in the right way."

Heath & Lejeune handles a full line of organic fruits and vegetables. When an item is in season, the company has it available. The only conventional produce business the company does is by request from some of its customers for their convenience purposes. Nor does it handle other food categories, such as meats and dairy.

Its customers are wide spread across the United States, and it ships offshore to exotic-sounding places like Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia.

"We are particularly committed to our growth in Southern California," said Mr. Weinstein. "We focus on our grower, retailer and foodservice operator partnerships in this region. This growth has a lot to do with the locally grown trend, but the reality of rising fuel prices in the future means that there will be more produce grown in more areas of the country to fill the demand for food that is produced nearby."

That future, in which the youngest generation of Lejeunes will be in charge of the business means, Mr. Weinstein believes, that California will no longer have a monopoly on the produce industry.

"Our thoughts and plans for the future are all about preparing the company for the next generation," he said. "All of our planning today is to assure our commitment to the company operating into the next generation."

In spite of the hot weather in late August, Mr. Weinstein said that the California Bartlett pears were just starting and the eating quality was extremely nice. A number of smaller growers supply the company with pears each year.

"We're also featuring local apples," he said. "We have a very good grower about 45 minutes away who just brought us the first of the Galas, which are outstanding. We'll have five or six other local apple varieties to offer this year, and we encourage people to enjoy this high-quality fruit."