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Dave's Specialty Imports: A Test of Time

 efore he was a produce pioneer and industry maverick, Dave Bowe was a boy tending the vegetable garden of the orphanage he called home. Together, nature and nurture fostered in him the hard-working, self-reliant, entrepreneurial spirit that is still remembered by the Dave’s Specialty Imports team today, and all who work with it.

“My grandfather had a great sense of how to read people and how to read the market,” Leslie (Bowe) Simmons, third-generation family member and current Vice President, remembers. “People relied on his foresight, and he was incredibly gifted when it came to mathematics.”

That read on the produce world gave Dave the ability to recognize a rising need for year-round berries in the U.S. market, inspiring him to start his own business in 1992. Now, the company celebrates 25 years of living Dave’s dream.

Dave Bowe and his wife, Peg, bring their child, Mike, home from the hospital

“My dad was always so persistent. He wanted the business of a particular customer and he quoted prices, week in and week out with no bites for over a year,” Mike Bowe, Dave’s son and company President, tells me. “One day he finally got a phone call from a buyer asking for 240 cases of raspberries. Knowing that this was the open door, my father made the phone calls necessary to make that order happen and, 20 years later, we are still doing business with that same company.”

The import deal was a different business at the time, as Leslie clarifies for me when she divulges the origin of the company’s name.

“He ended up starting the business at the perfect time. The import berry deal was just starting to ramp up; it was still fairly new and exciting...raspberries from Chile, for example, were truly a specialty,” Leslie explains, and laughingly adds, “That’s why we are ‘Dave’s Specialty Imports.’”

But before he was a crystal ball of market information and a successful business owner, Dave was working his way up multiple sides of the industry, constantly absorbing all anyone had to teach him.

When he was 16, Dave was hired as a grocery bagger for a local A&P, where he was recognized and moved up quickly into produce buying. Dave bought produce for Kmart® predecessor S.S. Kresge, and later became the Perishables Director at Wetterau in St. Louis.

My grandfather had a great sense of how to read people and how to read the market. People relied on his foresight, and he was incredibly gifted when it came to mathematics.

-Leslie Simmons

Eventually, the Bowe family patriarch became an independent grocer for IGA, a twist to the story that Leslie tells me was key not only to Dave’s career, but to her own existence.

“My dad and his brothers worked at that store, and funnily enough, so did my mom and her sister,” Leslie shares, explaining that the store her grandfather owned and trained his sons in was also where her parents met. “I guess produce has really been in my blood all along.”

While Dave had collected a deep understanding of buy-side operations, his eye was on the future, and imports, in particular, captured his interest. He began working with companies such as Xtra Markets (Pueblo International), Central American Produce, and Couture Farms, and focused on imported melons and asparagus.

He had retail and wholesale experience, as well as growing, importing, and shipping, from coast to coast.

“He had rounded out his experience years before he even started his own business, and throughout those ventures he learned that if you don’t take care of both the grower and the customer, you won’t have either one,” Leslie says. And that is the theory that started, fueled, and still leads the company today. “It sounds simple, but that’s what really makes it all work. Too many times we forget this is a business about people, not just produce. My grandfather knew that fairness was key, and that helped him build respect and a reputation for reliability.”

1. Mike Bowe with his father, Dave Bowe 2. Founder Dave Bowe as a young man 3. Dave Bowe with sons Mike and Chris visiting asparagus and sugar snap pea farms in Peru 4. Dave's granddaughter, Erica (Bowe) Smith (left), and Mike's wife, Christine Bowe (right), have also joined the growing family business

He also thrived when someone would pick up the phone with a seemingly impossible request, and he would find a way to move mountains and get the job done, she explained.

Mike echoed this, recalling, “In a time when other sales teams would arrive at an office at 7 to 8 a.m. to start selling, my father ran his business a bit differently,” Mike recalls. “He had driven to the warehouse by 3 a.m., checked inventories, quality, and pending orders. Customer service has always been his number one priority. I remember a winter in Bellefontaine, Ohio, when my father climbed into a delivery truck filled with produce. In the middle of a snow storm he drove this truck and delivered an order to take care of a customer. Fast forward a few years, escaping the winters in the Midwest, he opened his import business in Florida.”

Owner of Doral, Florida-based The Perishable Specialist, Inc. and longtime friend Frank Ramos also looks to Dave as an example to live up to in the industry.

“I met Dave Bowe when I was 19 while doing a clearance at Miami International Airport. Little did I know that this chance meeting would be so important in my life,” Frank remembers. “Dave has been a mentor in the business world, but more importantly a great example of what it is to be a husband, father, and a man. When I grow up I want to be like Dave Bowe.”

Leslie’s sentiment matches Frank’s as she explains his charisma.

“My grandfather was born with the gift of gab, always able to connect and be a friend to anyone. He was always quick with a joke, but he definitely had a ‘no-nonsense’ side. He did what he said he would do, and he didn’t make promises he couldn’t keep. Staying true to his values–the honesty, the integrity, and the quality service he always delivered on–isn’t just what we do, it’s the forefront. We aren’t the only ones marketing berries these days,” Leslie pauses and laughs, “but we definitely know how to have fun doing it! We are bound to face some pretty big ups and downs in a perishable marketplace but if we can’t smile at the end of the day, what’s the point?” 

Leslie Simmons, Vice President (left), and her father, Mike Bowe, President (right)

That resonating, welcome-to-the-family feeling is the stamp of working with Dave’s company; a legacy they are proud to carry on even though life has forced him to step back from the industry he loves in a tragic way.

“Sadly, my grandfather is fighting a battle with Alzheimer’s. Though it’s a bit softened, he still has that resilient spirit. But the stories he told, his great one-liners, his relentless energy to build his business... those are things we will have to carry on for him,” Leslie shares.

Stewarding Dave’s values is something his descendants are doing in spades, trading handshakes for hugs as they keep the family feeling in an expanding business.

“Although we’ve been around for 25 years, some days it feels like working in a start-up. We are experiencing a growth period with so much room for opportunity and change. The company is no longer just run by family, but you will always be able to get a ‘Bowe’ on the phone,” she shares. “We are still family-owned and operated, and the bigger we get the more important it is for us to maintain a connection to our industry partners.”

With several key strategies and initiatives in the crosshairs, not the least of which are increased sustainability, expanded organics, broader foodservice options, and a growing team, Leslie says her job as Vice President of the company is no small task.

“There is a lot on the horizon, and I’m wearing a new hat every day to keep up,” Leslie says. “Where we are now is a tipping point for many businesses that fail, because they think they need to be everything to everyone instead of finding their niche. We have work to do. But we are building the future on the incredible foundation my grandfather laid out for us. We aren’t going to be like our competitors. Instead, we are looking at how we can find our one, true voice—and have it heard.”

So, makers and masters of produce, hear Dave’s Specialty roar.