I’ve never quite understood the common negative connotation behind lemons. If anything, the citrus variety adds zip to life, not sourness. When Bee Sweet Citrus erupted into the citrus category in 1987, it began as an independent packer and shipper of California oranges. As its business continued to grow, it took an “if life gives you lemons” approach to its expanding portfolio and turned a small operation into one of California’s leading citrus companies.
But what does it take to become a year-round operation with finely-tuned outfits of packing, growing, and shipping departments? As a trade news writer, sometimes I have to take a boots-to-the-ground approach in my research and turn to the true experts within the field. The expert I found this time? Thomas Marderosian, Industrial Technology Manager, and son of Founder and President Jim Marderosian.
“From the very beginning, Bee Sweet’s mission has always been to provide premium citrus to our customers,” Thomas begins, painting me the picture of how the company looked at lush California orchards and saw the true potential to provide both consumers and retailers with sweet varietal options. “We’re dedicated to providing maximum return to the growers we work with, in addition to being an excellent citrus supplier to all major retailers, wholesalers, and foodservice distributors.”
Ever since its doors opened, Bee Sweet has been looking for new ways to innovate. As with most companies in our industry, the need for advancement isn’t just a business tactic to keep up with others; it’s a deep-in-the-bones desire to push the boundaries and press the produce needle forward.
“Since 1987, technological advancements and our excellent workforce have always been at the forefront of our success. Ever since the beginning, technology has played a big role in what we do. For example, in the past, sizing was all done mechanically. Now, it’s all done optically through high-speed cameras and other means. The operation that’s involved in everything from the wash process to the sizing and grading process, has been automated. It’s truly incredible,” he explains.
Industry-wide, challenges present themselves. It’s impossible to direct Mother Nature—and harnessing that sort of power has yet to be developed—and volumes will fluctuate no matter the circumstances. But steps can be made to ensure the best quality fruit gets out to those who love it most.
That’s where Bee Sweet’s technology comes into play, the kind of state-of-the-art innovation that Thomas hinted at earlier in our conversation.
“Automatic palletizing was definitely a very big project for our team. Not only have we been able to increase our throughput with the same amount of people, but we’ve also been able to increase our efficiency by packing and palletizing more cases in less time,” he relates. “Structurally, our pallets are also stacked properly, which gives us the confidence to be sure that our pallets aren’t going to tip over once they leave our facility. Everything also looks more uniform, which allows us to present a better-quality product to our customers.”
From a distance, I know what efficiency means in our industry, but to have someone who lives it day-to-day relay it to me truly puts it into perspective.
“We’re dedicated to providing maximum return to the growers we work with, in addition to being an excellent citrus supplier to all major retailers, wholesalers, and foodservice distributors.”
In the midst of Thomas breaking down the particulars for me, I realize that I’ve been swept up in the day-to-day operations aspect of the story without hearing the vision behind the change.
“Lemons have always been a huge market for us, and we harvest lemons from all three districts: the San Joaquin Valley, which encompasses Fowler all the way down toward Bakersfield and McFarland; the Pacific Coast, which stretches from Monterey and Salinas to Ventura; and the Imperial Valley,” he notes. “The reason why this project came to be is that we’ve increased our production of lemons. Our old lemon line, which could handle about a load an hour, just wasn’t fast enough to handle the volume that our team needed it to.”
While math isn’t my strong suit, even I know that double the capacity is a win-win in any produce company’s book.
“Our team also upgraded our lemon bagging line. In the past, we just had a single weigher and a single bagger,” Thomas states. “With the machines that we have in place now, we can bag significantly more per minute. With our old line, our bagging abilities were limited, and we knew that it was an area we needed to improve. Now, we have the capacity to handle a lot more, which allows us to process more orders and better serve our customers.”
Alongside its new packing and bagging lines, the citrus grower has also utilized a bin wash system—a testimony to its commitment to sustainability and food safety.
“Our motivation behind the bin wash system was to elevate our standards in food safety. We wanted to use a system that would get our bins as clean as possible. In the past, our bins would go out into the field and then come back into the packing house. While they’d go through a sanitizer, we wanted something to get them exceptionally clean and free from debris. For these reasons, we decided to implement the new system. Our other lines have adopted the system as well,” he recalls.
As our conversation begins to wind down, and I keep dreamily staring at the citrus packing lines, Thomas drives the point home for me. It’s not simply about keeping up with the latest trends: It’s about providing a future for its employees and a delicious product for retailers and consumers for years to come.
“Overall, these advancements allow our team to be more consistent about providing premium product to our consumers,” he concludes. “Our new optical grading capabilities can pick out a lot of different defects that old systems couldn’t. Not only can we grade product more accurately, but the customer can rely on us for high-quality product every time they turn to our brand.”
Perhaps the saying should read: If life gives you lemons, start a citrus company.