If the state of the industry is any indication, Steven Gilfenbain has a date with destiny.
With significant experience in California's table grape industry, Gilfenbain has thrown his energy behind a new company, Double Date Packing Inc., located in Coachella, CA.
His visionary approach is focused. "Our thrust is quality," he told The Produce News. "Our goal is to provide a more uniform product than our competitors."
The company constructed a state-of-the-art facility, which includes secure and clean packing areas, freezers and cold storage. The machinery was built in Italy, and software was developed in Israel.
"It's extremely sophisticated," Gilfenbain said.
This is Double Date's first season packing product, and the company has been moving 5,000 pounds of Medjool dates through the lines per hour. With trees taking 10-12 years to come into production, Gilfenbain said plans are already in the works to expand growing operations beginning in 2016. Down the road, he expects Double Date will begin growing and marketing organic product.
"It's not for the faint of heart," he said about overall operations, adding that the industry is, for the most part, made up of small growers.
Double Date performs pre-grading through fumigation or freezing to kill bacteria. The fruit is then hand-sorted prior to entering the line for final sorting and packing.
What makes the date industry so appealing to Gilfenbain is its relatively low profile in the domestic marketplace, and he intends to fill the void with premium dates.
"Only 1 percent of the U.S. population eats dates," he said. "The export business is pretty strong. But no one is putting the super fruit thrust out there about dates being such a great product."
Nutritionally speaking, Medjool dates are gaining increased culinary visibility. The fruit is a great source of iron, protein, fiber and contains vitamins A, B, C and D. Dates, which have a low glycemic index, are also low in sodium and are cholesterol- and fat-free.
Gilfenbain said he hopes the California Date Administrative Committee will take a page from the playbook of the California Table Grape Commission to promote dates. He said this model has been highly successful in developing global markets for domestic producers.
Tony Somohano, part of the sales team at Double Date, said attention to detail and commitment to exceptional quality make their product stand out.
The domestic industry started with 11 base trees sent to the United States. The Medjool plantings by Double Date are the newest in Coachella in the past 30 years, Somohano added.
While the company's export base is strong, Somohano said, "The market is anywhere someone wants to consume a Medjool date."
The company has trademarked its catchphrase — "Had a date lately?"
Somohano said five grades of dates are offered: colossal, jumbo No. 1, large No. 2, extra fancy and fancy-confection grade. A variety of packing options are available, including 11-pound bulk and one- and two-pound clamshells.
The new bulk box designed by Double Date is an example of its commitment to high-quality fruit. Somohano said traditional boxes have dividers, which can damage the dates. "We strengthened the box corners. So there is no divider," he told The Produce News.
In early December, Double Date hired Chris Denning as part of its sales team. Denning is an industry veteran with 20 years experience and is working with the company's customer base to provide support and promote customer sales.