There’s too much to list that’s bigger in Texas, and SunFed’s operations expansion is one. In fact, if I challenged you to take a bite out of a SunFed Perfect Pepper® every time you read the word “big” in this story alone, a couple of bags might disappear by the time you hit that red end-stop. On one particular day in June, however, Craig Slate, President and CEO, and Gretchen Kreidler Austin, Director of Marketing and Business Development, weren’t joking around about SunFed’s downright massive Texas plans, and I can understand why. For the last 25 years, SunFed has tirelessly worked to build a company worthy of bearing the Perfect Produce® tagline. In the last five years alone, the company has expanded its domain beyond Arizona and its Rio Rico headquarters and well into Texas, proving that, yes, SunFed is all hat and cattle.
“SunFed’s evolution over the last five years has been a layering effect onto the foundation set by Danny Mandel in the beginning. Danny has set a philosophy here to strive toward Perfect Produce. Danny coined this tagline and philosophy that drives SunFed today,” Craig explained to me. “When we mention Perfect Produce, we’re alluding to the supply chain processes, how we go to market, and how we conduct ourselves with our ranches and customers.”
While you may think that a company willing to slap “Perfect Produce” onto its product is too big for its britches, SunFed is only being honest about its passion for providing high-quality, consistent produce to its customers.
“This philosophy has helped us evolve our marketing campaign, expand our customer reach, develop processes that deliver consistent results, expand our breadth of products and services, and broaden our reach with expansions like that of Texas,” added Gretchen.
Since setting up shop in the Lone Star State, 20 percent of SunFed’s business now flows through Texas; and categories like Roma tomatoes, cucumber, squash, and eggplant have hit year-round availability—which is still one of SunFed’s biggest investments.
"We continue to evolve into a supply chain system focused on getting just-cut, fresh produce to our customers, every day, all year, without issues..."
- Craig Slate
“Texas is an advantageous entry port for produce into the United States. We chose to expand into Texas to ensure we are delivering on the SunFed promise: to deliver Perfect Produce,” Craig noted. “Two-thirds of the country’s population is in closer proximity to south Texas versus southern Arizona. Utilizing Central Mexico’s growing areas assures a year-round program and makes sure, logistically, that our 40-plus ranches have the best direct shipping routes into the U.S.”
This expansion has also helped the company launch a green bell pepper program—hitting its one-year mark in 2019—and bolster categories like hot peppers, onions, and avocados, and even operations like transportation and consumer packaging.
“We continue to evolve into a supply chain system focused on getting just-cut, fresh produce to our customers, every day, all year, without issues, and under fun and engaging brands, so our customers can deliver an exceptional experience to the end user,” Craig said. “We’ve seen tremendous growth in our categories now that we offer year-round.”
Gretchen chimed in, “We are especially excited about the hot pepper category. We are working toward building a full hot pepper category that runs all year. It’s a natural fit for our existing portfolio.”
On the topic of natural fits, our conversation then turned to how Craig and Gretchen landed at SunFed.
“I met Craig while working at Rio Queen. He was the Director of Retail Sales for the Central U.S. and decided I needed to come work for him at IFCO, which I eventually did, before becoming the Director myself. I’ve always told anyone who would listen that Craig was the best manager I’ve ever had. When he left IFCO, we always joked about getting the band back together someday, but the timing and opportunity were never right—until now!” Gretchen recalled. “About a year ago, I joined SunFed as the Director of Marketing and Business Development. It is a great company and a great team, and I am happy to be reporting to Craig once again.”
But Gretchen wasn’t always flying our industry’s colors. While today if she crows, the sun is up, especially amongst our industry’s marketers, Gretchen’s initial career path was pointed nowhere near produce. In fact, she studied Earth Science at Texas A&M with an emphasis in Geology. As a back-up plan, she earned two teaching certificates in Secondary Education for Earth Science and Life Science.
“I decided very quickly teaching wasn’t for me. So, I moved to Mexico, lived with a family I’d never met, and went to Spanish school. The day I came home, my dad told me he had a job interview set up for me at TexaSweet Citrus Marketing with Mary McKeever. I was offered the job on the spot, and so began my career in produce!” Gretchen continued. “It was an amazing education for a bright-eyed twenty-four-year-old. I was traveling extensively and meeting with VPs and Directors of produce departments from retail chains all over the U.S. I’ve had the chance to work with amazing companies and people in our industry, and I’m really grateful.”
"We are especially excited about the hot pepper category. We are working toward building a full hot pepper category that runs all year. It’s a natural fit for our existing portfolio."
- Gretchen Kreidler Austin
Craig, on the other hand, has had his hand in different aspects of the industry since graduating college, a true “there and back again” kind of guy.
“Fred Heptinsal is to blame for bringing me to produce,” Craig joked. “After college, I was working on the CPG side of the store when Fred reached out to gauge my interest in moving to Chiquita. In ’92, I joined Chiquita and started my produce journey. That journey has consisted of fourteen years at Chiquita, nine at IFCO, and now four-and-a-half with SunFed.”
When I asked Craig what encouraged him to make the jump back into the fresh side of the industry, he replied, “SunFed believed in thinking differently, being cutting-edge, and pushing the limits. I knew SunFed was the right call.”
And suddenly, we’ve come full circle in our conversation, right back to square one with how unique SunFed’s philosophy is. This philosophy has pushed SunFed and its team to think differently, be cutting edge, and push the limits, just as Craig said, and has culminated in more ways than one—a grocery list of accomplishments, in fact. In July alone, SunFed is hitting milestones for its hot pepper program and green bell pepper offering, with colored bell peppers also returning for the summer; and thanks to a new melon machine, SunFed is piloting a boutique proprietary super-sweet melon program with select retail customers. In addition, SunFed is touting an expanded organic program with more squash and cucumber volume all year long.
“Organics is a category we expect to see growing more for us, specifically with dry veg items like squash, cucumbers, and bell peppers,” Gretchen revealed. “In honor of all this growth, we also wanted to create some fun and excitement at the point of purchase while getting to the end user, so everyone be on the look-out for new consumer packs and displays!”
Beyond the summer, SunFed is, of course, ready and rarin’ to go, both Gretchen and Craig confirmed. And, at this point, do we expect anything less from the company and its team?
“We’re working on a new facility in Texas. We already have ten acres, so now we’re in the process of finalizing the time and plans for construction. We’re also developing a larger truck fleet. And, as always, we’re evolving our business to best service the ranch and our customers in order to keep delivering exceptional produce,” Craig concluded.
How’s your Perfect Pepper bag looking? Mine is darn near empty! As SunFed continues to expand—in Arizona, Texas, and beyond—the rest of us will have to come up with a new system for measuring SunFed’s success because this is one grower definitely hurtling toward bigger and better things.