A Productive 5 Years
Upper Valley Produce Triples Sales, Adds 50 Workers Under New Owners
Trevor Jenkins, a purchasing manager at Upper Valley Produce, carries a box of edmame beans at the company’s White River Junction facility. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Purchase photo reprints »
Carl Rouillard looks over peppers at Upper Valley Produce. Rouillard said he tries to look over all the produce that comes into the facility. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Purchase photo reprints »
Nicole White, left, a customer service representative, and Arliene Belock, the customer service manager, work in the office at the Upper Valley Produce facility in White River Junction. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Purchase photo reprints »
“We turn over our entire inventory from 24 to 48 hours,” said Upper Valley Produce co-owner James Gordon. “You have to do that for freshness. We don’t buy a whole trailer loads of one thing from the Boston market and store it.” (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Purchase photo reprints »
GAZETTE FILE PHOTO Purchase photo reprints »
White River Junction — When James Gordon and his partner, Eric Frechette, bought Upper Valley Produce in 2008, they predicted the 23-year-old family-owned business would grow.
At the time, Gordon said he saw no staff cuts in the future and had hopes for adding more jobs and trucks to the company’s fleet.
Last week, Gordon said his statement had been cautious in the face of a down economy. The actual goal, he acknowledged, had been to triple their gross sales by the fifth year of operation.
This month marks that year, and things have gone according to plan, Gordon said — maybe even a little better.
Not only is the company doing more than three times the sales and added more than 800 new customers, but the full-time staff also has grown from 14 to 65 and 17 trucks have been added to the original fleet of six. In addition to providing wholesale produce to 1,100 restaurants, grocery stores and supermarkets in Vermont and parts of New Hampshire, the company also owns and operates the Legare Market, a retail produce store in Barre, Vt.
Shortly after the purchase, it became evident that the cramped building in West Lebanon was far too small, and operations were moved to a 25,000-square-foot facility in White River Junction, a space with massive walk-in coolers able to accommodate the 2,400 cases of produce that move in and out every day.
“We felt from the beginning that we were going to have this kind of growth. It was definitely the plan,” Gordon said.
“We turn over our entire inventory from 24 to 48 hours. You have to do that for freshness. We don’t buy a whole trailer loads of one thing from the Boston market and store it. We take orders from our customers, get it from the market or farmers, and we deliver what they need,” he said.
Because Upper Valley Produce doesn’t store an inventory, prices are more subject to the whims of the market, which are often affected by weather. That’s particularly true this time of year, when most of the produce is not local, said Delle Morse, the director of operations who joined the company four years ago and has a background in food and restaurants.
An example is the cold snap two weeks ago that hit Southern California and Arizona. “We’re going to feel that in a few weeks. It won’t be right away, but things like lettuce, broccoli and cauliflower could be twice as expensive. The growers are still evaluating the damage, but we’ll start feeling it soon,” Morse said.
Buying produce for customers can be an intricate dance requiring the flexibility to move from one producer to the next to find the freshest products at the best prices, said Trevor Jenkins, the company’s purchasing manager. “It can be a lot of fun, and it can be frustrating.”
For as many months as possible, Upper Valley Produce tries to buy and deliver Vermont and New Hampshire products. In fact, the company is part of the Vermont Fresh Network and participates in the state’s Farm to Plate program. Both of those programs have a strong emphasis on buying from local farmers, Morse said.
Recently, the company also created a “farmers hub” that delivers Vermont products to a central location, where it is picked up by trucks from a major grocery chain and distributed to stores, Morse said.
Upper Valley Produce also is the exclusive distributor of vegetables from Frechette’s other business, Taste of the North, a company that operates a 10-acre greenhouse facility in Quebec and has another greenhouse operation in Vermont that grow hydroponic tomatoes and organic vegetables.
Pete’s Greens of Vermont, in Craftsbury, which also has a large greenhouse operation, is another farm that supplies vegetables to Upper Valley Produce throughout the year.
But in the winter months, production of summer vegetables and greens from northern-climate farmers slows down as the light changes and cold temperatures require facilities to be heated.
Those operations won’t get back in full production until the early spring, Jenkins said.
A few years ago, Upper Valley Produce became a distribution partner with the Steve Connolly Seafood Co. of Glouchester, Mass.
The company owns its own fishing boats and processes and ships fish within 24 hours from when its caught, Gordon said. “Their product is really fresh, and the company is well-run and has a good business model.”
In the next five years, Gordon, who started in the wholesale grocery business at a young age, is planning for Upper Valley Produce to continue its expansion at about the same rate, he said.
“We’ve seen a lot of changes in the last five years. But, of course, growth doesn’t come without costs — fuel, insurance, inflation — but we plan to keep growing. We expect to double what we’re doing now in produce, and we expect to expand our fish program with Steve Connolly Seafood. That’s a really good program, and it will become a bigger part of our business,” Gordon said.
Warren Johnston can be reached at email@example.com or 603-727-3216.