Step back three decades and imagine a single, worn pickup truck; the bed laden with produce, serviced through the knowledge and enthusiasm of two brothers. Move slowly through to present day, as that lone truck transforms into Lancaster Foods, LLC, a leading wholesale produce provider fast-approaching its 30th anniversary.
“Lancaster Foods is larger than Dave and I could have imagined 30 years ago,” John Gates, company Co-Founder, tells me as we discuss what brought Lancaster to its current position. “Especially in the breadth of products that we distribute and process, with a customer base that extends the length of the Eastern Seaboard. But what has not changed is our commitment to the core values that we started with.”
Best quality. Fastest service. These company adages have enabled Lancaster Foods to move from its humble beginnings, to the company’s now formidable status as a buyer and shipper with national reach. All throughout, Lancaster has retained focus on procuring the fresh and finest produce, both domestically and internationally, and delivering it with an enviable speed to market.
However, before the now familiar Lancaster promises and refined reputation, the company’s beginnings commenced with a passion for produce and a single pickup driving its foundation.
Born and raised in Altoona, PA, company Founders John and Dave Gates laid a stalwart company foundation from dusting their hands by selling fruit and vegetables with the Hesser Brothers in Altoona, to working high up in the fruit trees of the Heisey Orchards in Mercersburg. Through these rich practices from various facets of the produce industry, the brothers combined their own experiences, knowledge, and drive, to form Lancaster Foods in 1986.
Though the original Lancaster Foods was operated solely out of the back of John’s truck, the brothers’ motivation soon found them in 1992, with a pitch for acquirement by Guest Services, a hospitality management company based in Fairfax, VA; an offer that Lancaster Foods inked into permanence, thus swelling the truck’s immediate fleet and moving Lancaster Foods into its own 125,000-square-foot facility in Jessup, MD.
Over the years, Lancaster Foods would continue to grow and solidify its presence as a leading packaging and distribution company along the East Coast. As it continued to broaden its offered services, the company also swelled its number of employees to upwards of 500 team members, and a trucking line to over 100 sets of wheels. 2005 promised even bigger growth for the company as it became officially registered as Lancaster Foods, LLC.
Nowadays, the company operates out of a 250,000-square-foot distribution and processing center on 22 acres of land in Jessup, MD, where the company took up residence in 2008. From there, Lancaster Foods utilizes a skilled team of buyers to source quality produce into the center, where it then provides a wide selection of value-added and packaging services, before enlisting its sophisticated logistics system and trucking fleets to deliver product throughout the nation.
So how is the company looking to celebrate this landmark achievement, and keep its momentum moving forward? “Well, the challenge is stopping an operation of this size and complexity, even for a minute,” he laughs. “But we have plans in development. As always, we’re constantly looking forward.”
This forward-thinking knowledge and history have culminated to where Lancaster Foods resides today, delivering quality fruits and vegetables, time and again, at consistently quick speeds, and branching into new full-service offerings through its vertically-integrated nature.
“At our facility, we’ve employed rapid response logistics to provide fresh-cut processing to our customers with an extensive variety of packing options.”
Far from sole distribution services, Lancaster Foods provides retailers with value-added, fresh-cut produce, from simple slices, to shredded or ribbon-cut products; tailored to each customer’s specific need. Adding in the company’s overwrap and clamshell packaging services sees Lancaster servicing the consumer needs of large brands such as Mott’s and Glory Foods.
“So much of what we do now is customizable per each customer’s needs. Our broad range of products also extends further than cutting fruit and vegetables for value-added products, to bagging items such as cooking greens or salads, and our wide selection of packaging options,” John says, divulging each facet as an indicator of what sets the company apart. “From our position as a forward distributor for key suppliers on the East Coast, to providing product support in-store with our retail merchandising team, Lancaster is able to create value for our customers in a large number of areas.”
“What differentiates us, beyond just our vision, are the innovative services we offer.”
- John Gates
This go-to-market strategy extends to partnerships with retailers to develop and provide solutions for the fresh produce needs of consumers. All made possible through the combination of the company’s innovative mentality and Lancaster’s experienced staff of professionals that spans all of its departments; from procurement and sales, to transportation and information technology.
John says, however, that the company is not immune to the challenges congruent with its rapid growth, including difficulties experienced as a distributor and processor; such as a limited labor pool of qualified workers. The difference is Lancaster’s ability to stay at the head of the market based on an outlook that has lasted 30 years and will take the company into the next several decades; a dedicated team and continued focus on the customer.
“We focus on buying the best, no matter whether it comes from down the street or across the country. That focus on quality also extends to buying organic and conventional,” John says as he emphasizes the importance of meeting consumer expectations. “A responsiveness to consumer initiatives and demands, is an ability that we’ve honed and pride ourselves on. This enables us to develop solutions specific to each customer and consumer need.”
Lancaster’s dedication to service and the produce industry at large also extends past the line of value-added items on shelves at the local supermarket, even further back to fields with the company’s grower partners. These existing relationships, says John, are ones that Lancaster has spent decades developing, and seeks to cultivate with new partner prospects as well.
But whether you’re looking at the skilled team, efficient operations, or fulfilling relationships at Lancaster, it all comes back to those two company promises, fulfilled by the initial vision of two brothers: best quality, and fastest service.
Although the single pickup truck is now just a small footnote in the company’s history, it’s these commitments which will propel Lancaster Foods, LLC, forward into the next three decades, with an even bigger history in the making.