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A Passion for Produce with John Corsaro

"Ithink the produce industry is, without a doubt, heading in the right direction. We have no choice but to keep getting better and better.”

As a member of a family deeply-rooted in the produce business—who has came up from painting warehouses to now hold the role of CEO at The Giumarra Companies—there is perhaps nobody as uniquely qualified to critique the state of fresh produce. But instead, John Corsaro is positive in a way that resonates.

“There’s no substitute for fresh produce,” he says. “I have a long track record of seeing how things were, to how they are now, and seeing what amazing things we’re coming up with every day. I think you have to be positive. I’m pumped up; it’s an incredible business.”

And by ‘long track record,’ John means that he’s been working in produce since before he could even drive. In the early 80s, when John’s father, former Giumarra Companies’ President Don Corsaro, first allowed his son to try his hand at the family business, the U.S. produce industry was still very much wholesale and terminal market strong. Learning from the ground up was what was expected of you. For John, this meant a cushy job in the sales office was not going to be handed to him, but, from speaking with him, I don’t think he’d have it any other way.

“I always had a job. That was just me; that’s just what I like to do,” John explains, telling me stories of 4 A.M. catering jobs in high school and summers of sorting plums and delivering for Giumarra’s accounts. “From being a sweeper, warehouseman, truck loader, truck delivery, to then working my up through the departments, organizing the displays and earning the ability to be in the sales and vegetable department...It’s just something that comes from my family. My father would work hard, and we would all try to do the same thing.”

When John mentions his father, I ask him to ruminate on how his position growing up in an iconic produce family has informed his role as CEO today. It’s obvious that Don’s work ethic stuck with John at an early age, but his family’s real contribution to his career comes in more elusive pearls of wisdom.

“The number one thing you learn from being in my position is that you will never know where the people you are working with are going to end up. So, you always need to keep your relationships as strong as possible,” John says. “We’re in this beautiful time in produce where science for the grower and technology for the supply chain are becoming really impactful, but, at the end of the day, it’s still about the people. Our industry is predicated by the desire of people to do a job and create something. To me, that’s super cool.”

And it’s clear that seeing the power of those people’s desire to do quality work still reverberates within him. Beyond his father’s impact, mentorship and the lessons learned from those who came before him have always been hallmarks of John’s career in the produce industry. Two names he mentions without hesitation are Bill Clausen and Taro “Tom” Uchizono.

“I would say growing up, Bill Clausen was very hands-on and impactful for me. I was transferred out to Nogales at one of our distribution points to train under Bill, who was a buyer in the heyday of Safeway on the West Coast. He ended up marketing our Nogales tomato and veg deal and our Reedley stonefruit deal—peaches, plums, and nectarines. He was a truly amazing marketer, so I spent 13 years under him. He was a main influence, perhaps even more than my father.”

As for Tom Uchizono, his father’s late partner, while the moments working with him were often few and far between, John credits him with some key impacts on his life, which I think are best explained in his own words.

“One time in my younger, aggressive Nogales days, I remember being on the phone while he was rushing out to catch a flight. Tom walks over and puts a note on my desk that I still keep in my files to this day. All it said was, ‘patience and humility.’ I’ll just leave the dynamic of our relationship at that,” John says. “It was perfect for the time, and it really hit me. I needed a lot of that; all of us, at times, need a lot of that. This is an industry where you have to earn your way to get respect. But, if you have the respect of someone like Tom, they give you a piece of themselves.”

Today, John has transitioned into that mentor role himself, becoming deeply involved with the Canadian Produce Marketing Association’s (CPMA) talent cultivation program, Passion for Produce, in which industry leaders dedicate their time at the association’s annual convention to mentoring professionals just starting their produce careers. To John, this is all about paying forward the benefits he was awarded to the next generation.

“Because I got the opportunity to have such great mentorship around me—I got kind of the E ticket there in terms of the produce industry—I would say now it’s my chance to give back. Not to mention, young people are a lot of fun,” John admits, laughing. “In this business, it requires quite a bit of collaboration from many people to get that food to somebody’s table in the right way, and Passion for Produce, for me, has been another avenue to collaborate and better know our customers and what they’re going to want in the future. Getting to spend some time with the younger group coming in is a great chance to get a feel for how they’re thinking, what’s important to them, how they view our industry, and what they don’t know about our industry.”

It’s logical that we want to have new growth in our industry to perpetuate what we do, John explains, but having spent the last 30 years traveling in the U.S. and abroad, he says the real problem he’s seeing is that young people just aren’t really aware of the industry.

“You don’t come out of college thinking, ‘I can’t wait to get in the produce industry,’” he says. “So, I think it’s important to really approach this from a grassroots angle. To show young people that feeding the world through produce is an amazing job, and, at the end of the day, a rewarding thing to do. With the scale it will take to tackle these larger accounts, due to consolidation in retail and foodservice, we need youth to help us move through this information- and technology-driven age. It’s going to be something totally different in just the next 10 years.”

So, where do you see this information age taking us? I ask him. Where is the produce industry heading? This is the point in the conversation where John starts speaking so assuredly, I just sit back and soak it all in.

His first point—social responsibility.

“I think this is our immediate buzzword,” John says. “It’s obvious the awareness of labor has been heightened. You’re seeing programs now, especially in Mexico, that I’ve never seen before, where companies are setting up their farms and businesses to ingratiate labor to their businesses. Whether with housing or food, the workers now have a voice and can impact their needs with that voice. For the first time I’m seeing, on a mass scale, companies working to match the needs of the workers and that’s awesome and exciting.”

Next up: consolidation, increasing efficiency, less food waste, more on-time deliveries, better products...all in all, a better produce industry, John tells me confidently. And leading the charge toward that vision, he says, is Giumarra and the company’s push for flavor.

“Whether it’s our golden pineapple, or Giumarra Arra grape varieties, the industry is experimenting in ways that not only result in the aesthetics that a consumer believes is important but also the full flavor profile that makes them want to come back and repurchase. When I say we are targeting flavor, you think, ‘well duh,’ but we work in an industry where our sub-interests don’t always add up to equal the great flavor that consumers are now demanding.”

He explains further: if you’re a grower, you want high production, quality, and output. If you are a retailer, you want the product to look and taste outstanding and hold up on the shelf. And finally, if you’re a consumer, you just want to be able to take it home, know what you’ve got, and be pleased with the flavor. John says that these and even more interests in the past have rarely lined up, but they’re starting to.

“I used to think that you can’t have it all, and that you need to sacrifice something,” John tells me. “But, as we as an industry get better at this, Giumarra is able to produce something that not only cosmetically entices someone to pick up a product off the shelf, but also has the flavor to back it. And now retailers have the ability to analyze if these products are actually getting repurchased. As information becomes easier to access and less expensive to look at, the industry will really start to look at what is getting repurchased and see that can directly translate to flavor.”

So, what can we expect from Giumarra as it continues on the path laid out by John’s experiences and his quest for flavor?

“We’re tired; we’re going to close up shop,” John jokes with a laugh, admitting, “I don’t want to give up our secrets! Bottom line, we’re going to keep growing where we find good people.”

I don’t know about you, but with 30 years jumping from odd jobs at the terminal market, to CEO, to mentor, to flavor pioneer, I’m certainly planning on adding John’s words of wisdom to my personal produce guidebook.