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Kori Tuggle: Bring It On Home

“It’s time to come home.”

After a ten-year hiatus from working at Church Brothers Farms, that’s what CEO Steve Church told Kori Tuggle as he anticipated changes for the Salinas-based grower/shipper/processor, and for Kori.

“Working for Tom [Church] and Steve, I always admired the opportunities they offered their family of employees and felt that they truly believed in me. I’m not the only one that thinks that way. What they taught me in the beginning of my career has been invaluable,” Kori tells me. “When the opportunity came up, I wanted to come back and be a part of that attitude of relentless entrepreneurial vision “I that drives their businesses forward.” Kori made the decision to leave Church Brothers Farms in 2005 when she was Director of Marketing, to take a position at another family-owned company, Ocean Mist Farms. Fast forward ten years to a call from Steve Church that led her to taking a tour of the modern-day Church Brothers Farms and True Leaf Farms operations, and what Kori saw, she said, was stunning. She calls the company’s metamorphosis into a large in-house farming program and processing plant an entirely different company than when she left—based now on the combined family farming programs of Church Brothers and Rio Farms. 

Coming “home” for Kori meant getting a front row seat into a Church Brothers Farms that has evolved into a vertically integrated grower-owned processor with a focus on innovation from field-toplant processing. A part of the transition are the men who gave Kori her first opportunity on the supply-side after leaving a position with Safeway in 2005: Steve and his brother, Tom Church.

“These two set a great example of how to operate a family-owned agribusiness. Two brothers working successfully with each other is a rare balance in our industry,” Kori says as she tries to explain the magic behind the dynamic duo. “Tom is the innovator, while Steve is the people manager. And now, it’s rewarding to watch them prepare to pass along their torch to the next set of Church Brothers: Tom’s sons, Jeff and Brian Church.”

Family has always been an important factor for Kori, not only personally but professionally. Her father, Tom Tuggle, is the reason she got into produce, she tells me. Being a part of the produce industry from the 1970s to the early 2000s, her father started on the sales side of the industry at Ralston Purina in the 1970s when Purina was in the fresh mushroom business.

“I had no idea of the gift he gave me in guiding me into the fresh produce industry until years later. That will forever influence not only my career, but the personal side of my life story,” she says— referring to her husband who she met while working at Church Brothers the first time.

When Kori did decide that a produce career would be her path, she went to Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo for an agribusiness degree, where she was able to intern under produce industry veterans such as Jan DeLyser at FPFC and Connie Stukenburg, then at Citrus Connection. But her true entry into the fresh produce industry was through a position in procurement for Safeway.

“Joining a large retailer like Safeway right out of college gave me the rare opportunity to instantly work with a large number of produce companies, growers, and different commodities,” Kori says. “I did that for five years before I transplanted myself into the salad bowl of the world—the Salinas Valley.”

After five years at Safeway, Kori returned to those values she’s held close, choosing to join two family-owned fresh produce companies, Church and Ocean Mist. 

“Both companies are multi-family owned which I’ve found I thrive on—I love telling that family story as well as having that direct connection to who makes the company tick day-in and day-out,” Kori adds. 

Kori has always been adept at keeping her respective company at the head of the pack. Whether it was her role as an early adopter of online, social marketing, commodity category management, or attempting to create a brand for a bulk commodity, she has always looked ahead and accepted new challenges.

“My current challenges are continuing to grow, but give me that much more satisfaction,” she said. 

The new personal challenges include shifting from commodity to valueadded marketing and product development, and shifting focus from retail to the foodservice channel like that of Church Brothers.

Left to right: Chuck Church, Steve Church, Tom Church, Kori Tuggle, Jeff Church, and Jesse Martinez

“Nearly 80 percent of our business at Church Brothers is foodservice,” Kori says. “It has been a learning curve for me—but I’ve also enjoyed understanding the similarities between the two channels.”

While Kori is inspired by her new challenges, it’s working with the growers and the people at the processing plant, and feeding off their shared passion for the business that really defines the satisfaction she derives from the work.

“I love working with the talented team at our salad processing plant, True Leaf Farms,” Kori said. “Working at a large scale processing plant is something entirely new for me and I’m amazed every day I interact with them, of the amount of talent it takes to successfully run the plant on a daily basis. My favorite new line is ‘all this to make a salad!’” 

And gleaning insight from the “front lines,” has helped her make marketing decisions around messaging and new product development.

“Interacting with produce managers, learning from chefs, supporting a store opening, or going for a ride-along with a foodservice sales rep—I don’t do those enough,” Kori says. “But when I’m able to, it’s priceless first-hand knowledge—that you can’t buy.”

When Kori isn’t busy gleaning insight, she is inspiring college students by showing them that the fresh produce industry is a great career opportunity. She speaks several times a year to Agribusiness students at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo.

So, what is next for Church Brothers?

The short long of it: Smart Growth. It is no secret that Church Brothers Farms has grown exponentially over the last ten years. That growth will continue as demand for value-add products continues to increase. It is an exciting time for Kori to return and support the team and the constant ingenuity. Innovation is a strategic priority for Church Brothers Farms at all levels of the business: Varietal programs, farming, harvesting, processing, product innovation. 

This spring the company moved into organics. As a leading grower/ processor/shipper of a full line of fresh vegetable SKUs, the company now offers organically-grown produce as part of its overall productoffering.

“The move into organics is something our customers have continued to ask for,” Kori said. Church Brothers Farms has started shipping organic spring mix, baby kales, wild arugula, and baby spinach, with more items to come. These items are marketed under the True Leaf Farms label. 

The company is also expanding further into the kale category. “Our grower-owners are kale experts, and not all kale is created equally,” Kori said. “Since starting back, I’ve enjoyed learning more about the different varieties of baby kales and mature curly kales. We will continue to be creative with this commodity as the consumer at home, or eating out, shows us with their dollars that their preference for healthy-heartier vegetable blends is here to stay. It’s up to us to cater to that growing demand for creative kale products that so far, we have been able to keep up with.”

Supporting that kale trend is the company’s recent product innovations, like the Kale Color Crunch which debuted last fall and offers a six component, multiuse vegetable blend that includes Rainbow kale, Brussels sprouts, Napa and red cabbage, Radicchio, and carrots.

As the tide changes and the next set of Church Brothers look to take the helm of the company, Kori said that she couldn’t be more satisfied for, and appreciative of, the path that has brought her back here.

“My job is to tell their story: The family—the products—and the people behind it all. I get the privilege to tell their story for a living,” she said.

“And the story yet to come,” she smiles.