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Shaped by History: Veg-Fresh Farms Celebrates 30 Years

Does knowing your past help to see your future? Fresh produce, and farming as a whole, is no stranger to tying family and business together. Blending the two worlds as one always brings a familiarity, a passion, and a thirst to not only uphold a legacy, but to expand upon it.

These I have come to know as the inevitable truths of family-owned and family-grown businesses. Now, Veg-Fresh Farms has added a new dimension to these concepts that I thought were booked and ready to be put on the shelf until learning of the team’s story.

Dino Cancellieri Jr., Partner, Veg-Fresh Farms“Beyond the direct family members, every single employee at Veg-Fresh is also considered extended family; such that many of the staff members also have direct family now working at Veg-Fresh Farms.” Dino Cancellieri, Jr., Partner at Veg-Fresh Farms, is a living testament to his own words.

As the eldest son of one of the company’s founding members, Dino Cancellieri, Sr., he learned every facet of the company—distribution solutions, new business development, marketing, and more—while growing up in the business firsthand. He became an official employee there when he was a teenager.

Now, cousins and siblings make up the next generation of leadership as well as those that work there—all considered kith and kin. Beyond each employee, every hand involved in ensuring the company’s products are the freshest for consumers is a part of the family tree as well. As a result, Veg-Fresh has a tight-knit network of partners that help ensure minimal to no gaps in its business.

Randy Cancellieri and Dino Cancellieri, Jr. discuss business matters“Long-term relationships with regional partners allow us to ship out of produce facilities that are closer to the end user. The result is a fresher product and on-time delivery,” Dino, Jr. shares. “We have built a network of professionals that services 50 distribution centers in 36 states for over a dozen national quick-service concepts, regional and national retail distributers, across the United States, and we have vertically aligned partnerships with our growers.”

Sourcing globally has allowed Veg-Fresh to offer consistent year-round supply when crops are short or gapping, standing by a proven track record of not just the superior customer service and on-time deliveries that come with the relationships Dino, Jr. speaks of, but also consistent high quality in fresh produce offerings.

It’s this sort of rooted reach that makes me assume Dino, Jr.’s family started the business a century ago. But while his family has been producing for around that length of time, Veg-Fresh itself is actually only celebrating its 30th birthday this year.

Veg-Fresh Farms Baby Heirloom Tomatoes“My dad first started in the produce industry in the late 1960s, working for his father’s wholesale produce company, Potato Sales, on the Los Angeles Terminal Market. Eventually, he became the General Manager,” Dino, Jr. explains, adding that his father’s cousin, Mark Widder, began working in the produce industry alongside him as a teenager—just as Dino, Jr. himself did a generation later, past and future running side by side.

“Mark spent his first ten years learning the business as a salesman at Potato Sales and, in 1989, the two cousins, along with Mark Resnikoff, opened Veg-Fresh Farms in Covina, California,” he shares.

Starting off as a tomato and onion repacking and distribution business with a modest 30 employees, it seems impossible that this was all a few decades ago—the blink of an eye in this industry.

Mark Widder, General Partner, began Veg-Fresh Farms alongside Dino Cancellieri, Sr.Yet, over the next 30 years, the company grew in every way possible. Dino, Sr.’s three sons joined the business—Dino, Jr., Randy, and Adam—before ultimately becoming partners themselves. In the last 10 years, Mark’s son, daughter, and son-in-law joined the family business, adding on to the growing family legacy.

That legacy, and the extended family Dino, Jr. and I previously touched on, now encompasses over 300 employees, not to mention its growing network, retail partners, and the community it serves.

The company is now in Corona, California, with a 189,000-square-foot facility that endeavors to serve its neighbors in every way possible, from what it produces to what it uses.

“Sharing healthy fresh fruits and vegetables with community organizations that help feed those in need is a top priority for us,” Monique McLaws, Marketing, says. “Veg-Fresh Farms donates over 40,000 pounds of fresh produce to our local charities each month because we believe fresh fruits and vegetables are vital for delivering all the vitamins and nutrients for a healthy body.”

Additionally, the team reduced its daily dependency on electricity by 50 percent by installing over 4,300 solar panels—enough to power 325 houses in Southern California. Within 25 years it will reduce CO2 emissions (the leading greenhouse gas) by 42,000 tons.

Group shot of the Veg-Fresh Farms team

As solar continues to become more of a necessity than a perk in our industry, it can be hard to remember the power of what it is and its effects. Sitting down with the Veg-Fresh team helped revitalize my viewpoint of this technology that so many of us take advantage of. It is, quite literally, harnessing the power of the sun.

“Over half of Veg-Fresh Farms’ fleet is powered by clean-burning natural gas, thus reducing our carbon emissions,” Monique shares. “Protecting and using resources responsibly helps us achieve our goals of less energy consumption, reducing carbon emissions and producing less landfill waste.”

Veg-Fresh Farms' strawberries add sweetness to any boring saladNow, the team is in the process of becoming SQF Level 2 certified, taking it beyond the fundamentals of food safety to what is also known as the Certified HACCP-Based Food Safety Plan and adding Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) risk assessment and implementation.

It’s hard to imagine, with so much growth in so little time, that there weren’t challenges or roadblocks to overcome. When I wonder this aloud, Dino, Jr. assures me that the growth spurts themselves were something to overcome in all the best ways.

“Rapid expansion is a blessing, but always comes with its own challenges. One of the challenges that Veg-Fresh had to overcome was adapting to its rapidly growing production,” he says, explaining the decision-making for moves such as expanding from its original Covina warehouse into a 94,000-square-foot facility in Anaheim, California, just eight years after opening.

“We have built a network of professionals that services 50 distribution centers in 36 states for over a dozen national quick-service concepts, regional and national retail distributers, across the United States, and we have vertically aligned partnerships with our growers.”

-Dino Cancellieri, Jr.

It was a crossroads in which the team let its commitment to customers guide it by embracing growth that, in produce terms, may as well have taken place overnight.

Another challenge Veg-Fresh had to face was the ever-present demand to innovate.

Clay Widder of National Sales is hard at work at his desk“We had to have an innovative operations team to continue providing our customers with the best service and packaging options with trending technology changes,” Dino, Jr. recalls, adding it continues to this day. “On the organics side, it can be challenging to establish consistent year-round programs, but thanks to our great relationships with our growers and partners, we have been able to excel in the organic category.”

And it continues to evolve in every capacity, both in what it offers and in its physical presence.

“We can see continued growth in the organic commodity sector, as well as the conventional, through our brands Veg-Fresh Farms, Good-Life Organic™, and Crystal Cove Berries,” Monique adds. “Our team has also grown tremendously, and will continue to do so. We are always looking to reinforce our sales and marketing teams with key players who specialize in commodity knowledge.”

The beauty in the practices, the facilities, and the output of Veg-Fresh Farms brings me back to that burning question of past and future. These components aren’t just a reflection of the company—they are a foretelling of its next generation. And as they move into the roles their parents and predecessors have prepared them for, I’m sure the next 30 years, too, will pass in the blink of an eye.