Tom Franconi Jr. is a deliberate speaker—not halting, not hesitating, not fearful. His has a cautiousness, it seems, that bears out a simple message: Tom respects you and wants to give you the best information possible.
“We’ve been doing California new crop potatoes since the early seventies. When was it, 1972?” Tom asks.
He’s correct, Tom Sr. affirms. It’s a scrupulousness that I notice at several points in my conversation with Tom Jr., Tom Sr., and John Clerou. They want to tell me the straight stuff, the meat—or in this case grapes—and potatoes.
For more than 45 years, Mazzei Franconi has been serving customers and growers in the San Joaquin Valley—working, Tom tells me, with some of California’s finest growers and most accomplished fresh food sellers to bring fresh and flavorful table grapes and potatoes from the field to the fork.
Founded in 1972 by Livio Mazzei and Tom Franconi Sr., Mazzei Franconi hit its stride as a provider of new crop potatoes—providing a just-harvested product out of the San Joaquin Valley when its neighbors to the north had already entered storage months.
But the company traces its roots even farther—to 1958—when Tom Sr. and Livio Mazzei first began working together at Mazzei Farms. The two men worked together for 60 years, building a business that would stand the test of time.
“It was originally a two-man operation,” Tom Jr. tells me, beginning at the founding of Mazzei Franconi in 1972. “They started out with 800 acres and worked their way to nearly 4,800 acres of potatoes.”
With its signature offerings of California-grown new crop potatoes, Mazzei Franconi has carved out an impressive niche in Edison, California—just 10 miles outside Bakersfield.
As the potato industry evolved, so too did Mazzei Franconi. Realizing the need for new crop red, white, and yellow potatoes packaged under the Get Fresh, Bluejay, and Avalanche brands, the company would grow to gain ground in the premium colored potato space, offering fresh potatoes when others could not. Mazzei Franconi worked with King Pak Potato Company from 1972 to 2014 and Johnston Farms from that point on, supplying fresh product to retailers across North America.
“It’s all about getting into the newest, freshest product. For us, we try to keep everything as direct as possible between the grower and the consumer. As fast as we can pack it, we want to ship and get it straight from the field to the plate.”
—John Clerou, Mazzei Franconi
“With storage potatoes, by the time we get to the cover months—May, June, and July—retailers are looking for a fresh new potato, and California is one of the first few regions that can offer customers that new potato they’re looking for,” John tells me.
And though, John explains, over the years demand for new crop russets may have waned, with consumers largely unable to tell the difference between the utilitarian russet in stored or fresh form, the specialty items packed under Mazzei Franconi’s Get Fresh brand are all about getting great quality peak-fresh product to customers.
“It’s all about getting into the newest, freshest product,” John says. “For us, we try to keep everything as direct as possible between the grower and the consumer. As fast as we can pack it, we want to ship and get it straight from the field to the plate.”
That goes for table grapes, too. Mazzei Franconi first entered into the table grape business in 1995, when prodigal son Tom Jr. returned from a decade away from the family business. Tom had joined a grape shipping operation after college, and his return brought with him a wealth of hard-earned grape knowledge and a willingness to help Kern County growers make the most out of an amazing product.
“There was an opportunity for Mazzei Franconi to grow into the table grape category with Tom coming onboard, and it’s just grown exponentially in the last 20 years,” John notes.
Under the Get Fresh and Fresh Pak labels, Mazzei Franconi and its Kern County grower partners are able to provide some of the earliest California table grapes to market.
“We’ve got some of the earliest grapes where we are here,” Tom Jr. explains. “We’ve got early flames out of Arvin, California, and early Sugarones along with Ivory green grape, with newer varieties like Allison, Krissy, and Timco coming on throughout the calendar year. That’s one of the big niches that we have—being one of the first shippers with California grapes starting.”
With red and black grapes—Flames and Summer Royals—beginning in mid-June, and greens following hot on their heels in Sugraone form, Mazzei Franconi offers a comprehensive selection of table grapes grown with care in the San Joaquin Valley.
“They started out with 800 acres and worked their way to nearly 4,800 acres of potatoes.”
—Tom Franconi Jr., Mazzei Franconi
“We started out in 1995—was it 1995, Tom?” John echoes Tom’s carefulness with his words. “We were at about 300,000 grapes, and this season we’re hoping to be close to two million grapes.”
And with the retirement of Livio on the first of this year, Tom Sr. as Co-Founder and elder statesman—alongside Tom Jr. and John—are ushering in a new era for the company and ensuring that Livio’s legacy of providing for Mazzei Franconi’s grower partners and customers is continued for years to come.
Tom Jr. oversees grape operations, Tom Sr. stewards the potato program, and John serves as a jack-of-all-trades, working on both sides of the operation—potatoes during the majority of the winter and spring and grapes summer and fall.
“He does everything,” Tom Jr. jokes.
John humbly explains the feat in terms of seasonality: “We finish potatoes, this year, somewhere between July 10 and 14, and then new California table grapes from Arvin will start the last week of June. They overlap for a couple of weeks, but we essentially transition entirely into table grapes at this time.”
With programs that take full advantage of the freshest produce possible, the company thrives with an enticing value proposition—the best possible product at times when peak freshness is less than readily available. Mazzei Franconi’s scope extends throughout North America—with product packed under its own labels and various private labels.
But Mazzei Franconi is about more than a value proposition, too. It’s about values.
“We’re family owned. We’re easy to work with; it’s a really hands-on experience. You can call in, and we’re all right here at the office next to each other. It’s very personal. It’s not some big corporate experience. The people you talk to are people you trust. It’s not going to be someone different the next time you call,” John sums up. “This business is a lot about relationships and knowing people you can trust—people like Tom Franconi Sr. and Livio Mazzei who have been doing it since 1958—guys who have been there and are going to be here. One of the things our partners and customers know is that we’re here this year, and we’re going to be here next year, building long-term relationships.“
It’s those values that Tom Jr., Tom Sr., and John hang their hat on—as much as the value the company provides for its partners. It’s what makes Mazzei Franconi the name it is today—a name you can trust. And in the capable hands of these three, I’m confident that retail customers and end consumers alike will be getting their fill of fresh table grapes and potatoes for years to come.