Stewardship of a produce company is made greater by a strong partnership. Craig Casca found that partnership in David Lawrence when the two decided to team up and build their individual companies into the full-fledged berry operation Red Blossom has become.
“When David and I first got together, we were both sellers,” Craig recalls when I ask him about those first days. He initially crossed paths with David in 2005 when he began selling product to him through his first business, ASG Produce.
“I came to California in 1985, and I started ASG Produce in May of 1990,” Craig shares. While he was selling to David at the time, the two retained their separate businesses. It wasn’t until the retail market began to consolidate that the idea of a joint venture was born.
“Kroger bought Ralph’s, Safeway bought Vons and began streamlining, and the number of customers were decreasing. As a result, we combined our two operations in 2008 to address the rising competition amongst produce suppliers,” Craig tells me. But, like anything, a few things had to be re-evaluated. “When we started structuring, we realized someone had to take on production. David, amazingly, decided to expand on all he knows and relearn everything from the production side of things—so he totally gets credit for switching direction mid-stream.”
"We have the infrastructure and the personnel necessary to ensure we have the best opportunity for success..."
-David Lawrence, President & Co-Owner
On the other side, David tells me, “Prior to our partnership, I asked myself who I thought was the best salesperson in the industry, and Craig was the obvious choice. I called him several times, but he was never interested. I was about to give up calling, but I figured I would give it one more try and, surprisingly, he agreed to meet me in Ventura. After a three-hour meeting, we knew we were meant to be partners—the rest is history.”
Everything was rebuilt from the ground up: growing, packaging, marketing, and financing.
“I would never have agreed to tackle the production side of the business if I didn’t have complete trust in Craig’s ability to handle the sales and marketing side,” David recalls of the shift. “I am just glad Craig was patient enough in the beginning to let us work the kinks out of the farming operations. Even after all these years, I can honestly say the strength of our company is still sales and marketing!”
While David was farming from the ground up, Craig marketed, but it takes more than two to grow an operation of Irvine and Oxnard berries into an international operation that spans more than 1,000 acres of premium strawberries currently grown in California.
“Originally we were just a marketing company representing several small- to medium-sized growers throughout California, but in 2008 we had some issues with seven growers in Santa Maria, and overnight we became our own growers,” David says. “Obviously, it wasn’t easy and we definitely didn’t do much of anything right the first couple years. But, we made it through those difficult times and I feel we have a strong team in place to handle our farming operations. We have the infrastructure and the personnel necessary to ensure we have the best opportunity for success, and we have several hard-working employees running our farming operations under the leadership of our District Manager, Adrian Velasco.”
To take such massive strides in broadening the company’s berry volume, I, myself, expected a team with staffing numbers to match. It’s here where Craig stops me to say that quality leap-frogs quantity.
“David and I are very lucky—everyone that works in this company does such an excellent job that we are able to operate with a minimal sales force,” he shares. “Besides myself, Rachelle Dietz and Brandon Canterbury sell all the packages and work all the freight out of our respective growing districts.”
Rachelle has been in the business her whole life, mostly on the buy-side, Craig explains. “She was a buyer at Safeway for fourteen years. Her knowledge and experience regarding retail has been a needed and welcome addition to our team. Her expertise helps us understand the retailer’s needs and anticipate future changes that continue to happen. Brandon is new to our business, but I have known him his whole life. He has learned the “Red Blossom” way of grower and customer service, and his work ethic is second to none. Because of his diligence regarding our delivered sales to our customers, we continue to exceed our customer’s expectations.”
I can count on two hands the team that keeps the wheels of Red Blossom turning over the vast acreage it manages and the customers the company serves.
Back at its home base, Joanne Soto works out of the company’s Camarillo office, and Craig says she is the most loyal of employees. “Joanne comes in at 5:30 AM and stays until 1 o’clock, taking care of anything that needs attention from the previous day or for that morning. She has been with me since 1993 or ’94, and I am lucky to have her.”
To support Joanne is Delia Galvan, who works from 1:00 PM until work is complete around 10 or 11:00 PM.
“It is because of the excellent job Delia does that I can sleep some nights,” Craig laughs. “She is constantly ensuring that all coolers and customers are posted throughout the night on truck ETAs and potential no shows so we ship fresh product on a daily basis.”
"The entire team is really good at what we do, and because of that no stone goes unturned. This ensures we take excellent care of our customers."
-Craig Casca, CEO & Co-Owner
Craig continues, “Most of our key employees, like Michelle Huber and Alisha Young in accounting, have been with Red Blossom for over twenty years. We succeed because we know we can depend on everyone in the company to go above and beyond normal expectations."
Completing the circle of Red Blossom caretakers is Michelle Deleissegues, the company’s Marketing Director.
“Michelle knows everything because she has worked in sales and is familiar with farming. And, like David and myself, she has been in the produce business her whole life,” Craig sums up. “She has done an amazing job marketing our program, and we could not be happier with her efforts. David and I are very lucky to be associated with such great people.”
Together, this crew ensures that Red Blossom has a seamless supply for customers throughout the U.S. and Canada.
“We are all very busy, but we have a very good system for taking care of customers,” Craig shares with me as I try to comprehend how the team manages such a vast playing field.
“The entire team is really good at what we do, and because of that no stone goes unturned. This ensures we take excellent care of our customers.”
Likewise, David and Craig are both careful to grow at a pace that matches what the company can handle. While it may seem like the odds would be stacked against them, they have never bitten off more than they knew Red Blossom could chew.
“If you try to go too fast it’s not good for the overall company. As a result, we are always looking for the opportunity to grow while still managing to maintain control. Everyone we work with knows what is expected—I don’t ask anyone to do anything I wouldn’t do. We are very lucky to have such a great group of people who work at Red Blossom, and that is what makes us great,” Craig says. “Our main mantra is to do everything possible to make sure growers are posted on markets 100 percent of the time; to ensure their product is moving in a timely manner, and make them aware of the current market situation to enable them to make smart decisions in the field. And our main goal is to ensure our customer service level is exceeded by no one in the industry.”
Crazy, or brilliant? You wouldn’t be the first to ask.
“As an entity, there’s only so much you can do to maintain control—some would say we’re nuts for our approach, but everyone in our company knows what’s going on at all times. And that is what ensures our excellent level of service to our growers and our customers on a daily basis,” Craig comments.
For those who doubt, let the numbers speak for themselves.
In less than ten years, Red Blossom has expanded its reach outside of California and partnered up with growers in Florida and Mexico. 300 acres have ballooned into over 7,500, which includes strawberries, blackberries, and blueberries. Mainland Farms, based in Zamora, Mexico, has been the most effective partner for Red Blossom’s growth over the past five years. Alejandro Sahagun and Jesus Valdes are the owners of Mainland Farms and, together with Red Blossom, currently sell 4.5 million trays of strawberries, 4 million trays of blackberries, and a million trays of blueberries grown in Mexico.
David tells me, “We have strategically positioned ourselves very well over the past few years, and we don’t have any aspirations to be the biggest strawberry company out there anymore. We just want to be the best company we can possibly be year in and year out. If growth opportunities arise that make sense we will definitely take advantage of them, but we don’t feel like we have to chase new business or look for new growers anymore. We have established a solid reputation since the early days when we only had five growers in the Santa Maria region, and as a result, we now have growers reaching out to us to sell their berries...and we still have the original five growers we started with many years ago.”
“This year, we sold 500,000 blueberry trays. This upcoming season we expect to exceed 1 million, and next year we are looking to get to 2 million so that we can start to take care of our customers’ needs on blues at the same time we take care of their needs on straws and blackberries,” Craig explains.
With their team by their side and a can-do attitude against any challenge Mother Nature might dish out, this produce establishment seems destined for greatness.