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The Return of the Mango Kings: An Avo-Venture

Whoever came up with the saying “stick with what you know” wasn’t working in produce. And honestly, sticking with what you know—where’s the fun in that? For almost 15 years, Freska Produce International has made a name for itself as a mango provider, but Gary Clevenger and Jesus “Chuy” Loza, ever the jacks of all trades, weren’t satisfied with being known only as the mango kings. With avocados enjoying an almost unrivaled popularity amongst consumers these days, Gary and Chuy were up for tackling a new challenge to expand Freska’s offerings.

“We felt that we needed to be in the two hottest growing categories around right now,” Gary tells me.“Avocados and mangos are enjoying great growth and will continue to grow in the future, and the two just go together, making a great story to talk to customers about.”

Part of this story is Gary and Chuy’s own history with produce, as both of their roots span decades in the industry. From childhood, Gary worked in the warehouse of El Rio, California-based Santa Clara Produce, one of the largest broccoli, celery, cauliflower, and strawberry shippers in that region. While Gary moved on to the restaurant and real estate industries for a few years, his path eventually returned to produce and crossed with Chuy, his now partner.

Avocados and mangos...just go together, making a great story to talk to customers about.

- Gary Clevenger, Managing Member & Co-Founder, Freska Produce International

Chuy’s produce journey began in high school with Limoneira. After college, he joined the Mission Produce team in the early ’90s, which took him as far as Europe, Asia, and South America. Chuy then went on to work for mango shipper El Tropico, before joining a Ventura, California-based produce company, where he met Gary in 1999.

Gary Clevenger (left) and Jesus “Chuy” Loza (right) first met in 1999, before starting Freska Produce International in 2004

By 2004, the two had started their own company. With Chuy’s experience in procuring fruit, tying up the trucks, marketing, expansive sourcing and grower relationships, and growing categories, and Gary’s banking resources and financial background, the two kicked off Freska Produce International to import mangos and differentiate the category like none before them. Since starting Freska, the two have agreed to grow their business organically as demand and resources would allow, something that continues to this day as the company adds avocados to its repertoire.

Gary and Chuy’s latest endeavor—making avocados as synonymous with the Freska name as mangos—may not be an easy task, but they have approached it with the same dedication and hard work as mangos before it. Similar to mangos, avocados weren’t always native to the area. So, while Gary and Chuy are braving the waters of a new category, they’re in the familiar territory of importing fruit to the U.S. and, as always, up for the task of doing it well.

“Our goal for avocados is to continue to grow with our customer base and expand our business in organics and custom packs by tapping into our own creativity to offer different styles,” Chuy shares with me. “We are not looking to be the biggest avocado marketer. In fact, we cherish the role of supplying our customer base with both commodities, as we feel we have a good strategy for marketing both products together. They are both popular fruits, and we don’t want to clutter our marketing efforts with too many commodities. We try to do what we do well, or we don’t get into it. This is how we have run Freska since the beginning, and we hope to provide our customers with good, consistent-quality products for years to come.”

We have always had a mantra to take care of growers, as without them, we would have no programs and, ultimately, no customers to sell to.

- Jesus “Chuy” Loza, Managing Member & Co-Founder, Freska Produce International

While its dive into avocados is still fresh, Freska is not one to put all of its produce into one basket and has more up its sleeve to get excited about. Freska is also tacking organics onto its growing list of operations. Almost on the same level of consumer frenzy as avocados, organics are popping up more and more throughout the produce aisle with high demand in almost every category, and Freska is not one to miss out on the fun.

“We have had requests from a number of our customers over the years, starting as early as 2012, to offer more organic mangos,” Gary shares with me. “We are now shipping 20 percent of all our red and yellow mangos in organic labels. Over the next couple of years, our goal is to continue to grow our organic business and certify more growers at all of our shipping locations in an effort to better support our retail customers. We have also recently begun to offer 100 percent natural organic dried mangos from Mexico. Our volume is growing and, as of now, there is more demand than supply. This is an up-and-coming category for us and we predict it will continue to grow over the next few years as we take on more production. Ripening is also becoming more of a topic of interest for some retailers, so this is another avenue we’re keeping an eye on for possible growth in the future.”

Freska Produce International grows Hass avocados in Mexico and California

Along with its organic labels and dried mango products, Freska offers conventional Mexico and California Hass avocados, one of the most prevalent varietals available on grocery shelves. And while the company is still in the growing stages of its avocado program, its current plan to keep going forward at a steady pace is all thanks to its excellent sourcing and growing team.

“We employ our own QC team wherever we are packing. This ensures a consistent pack no matter where we are—it’s our eyes and ears on the floor of each facility we pack out of, providing the best returns possible for our growers, which, in turn, ensures we are doing the right thing for our customers,” Gary explains.

It is here that Gary stops to admit that the dive into avocados would have been for naught without the balance the company has achieved with its growers and customers, who have both been integral in the process in more ways than one, including ensuring food safety and Fair Trade were also part of the company’s latest expansion efforts.

“We feel that, without our growers, we would not have fruit to market, whether it’s mangos or avocados. We have the responsibility of doing the right thing for those who put in the effort to grow and make money. We need to support those efforts, and one way we’re doing that is by working toward Fair Trade certification at some of our packing locations and, eventually, certifying all of our sheds for this good cause,” Gary continues. “All of our efforts toward food safety certifications and Fair Trade are part of our overall efforts to bring value not only to our customers, but back to the farm as well.”

Chuy adds, “What sets us apart as the go-to for mangos, as well as delving into avocados, is our grower relationships and the fact that we have worked with them for long periods of time. These relationships ensure quality, consistency, and they push us both to grow." "We have always had a mantra to take care of growers, as without them, we would have no programs and, ultimately, no customers to sell to.”

Grower relationships are just like a marriage; you need to have understanding and flexibility as things are not always going to go your way.

- Gary Clevenger

The produce industry as a whole knows this to be true, with many holding the bonds they’ve made over the years as the seeds that have grown their careers, companies, and stalks to successful heights. With many of these relationships formed over decades, Freska also sees its retail relationships, along with its grower relationships, as crucial to its expansion into avocados, having come up with a system of give-and-take to get to where it is today.

“Balancing our grower relationships with our retail relationships is just like a marriage; you need to have understanding and flexibility as things are not always going to go your way,” Gary explains. “You have to understand market volatility and understand that everyone involved has to come up with solutions and compromises to come to agreements, or, just like a marriage, it won’t last long. It's about finding that balance between our growers' needs and our retail goals, and coming to a happy medium to build a fruitful dynamic that lasts well into the future. We like to think we have both helped each other grow as we need each other to get the product to market, whether it’s mangos or avocados.”

Freska’s focus on its relationships also extends inward to the company’s own team. Teamwork and collaboration are words that both Gary and Chuy emphasize as another aspect that has helped Freska transition into offering not one, but two globally demanded fruits.

Co-Founders Gary Clevenger  (left) and Jesus “Chuy” Loza (right)“We have been fortunate enough to have a great team’s support at our headquarters in Oxnard, California, along the way. We value our employees and their commitment to making it happen ‘between the lines,’ starting with floor personnel all the way to upper management. We all work together to make sure we cover each other’s backs, as consistency and follow-up are very important to any company’s success,” Chuy tells me. “Constantly dotting our i’s and crossing our t’s is what this business is all about, and the way we manage this as a team has been one of the reasons for our success. Collaboration provides our company with equal opportunities for success and allows us to contribute ideas that make us successful, too.”

So much is in the works, and the company is still showing no signs of slowing. I ask Gary and Chuy for a sneak peek of what more is to come as the company continues to grow and expand, and they do not disappoint.

“We will continue to grow our two offerings just as we have over the last 15 years—slow and steady, with the same drive that we had when starting the business in 2004,” Gary tells me. “We anticipate the growth of mangos to be explosive over the next five years, and we are striving to find different varieties and pack styles while keeping our finger close to the pulse of customer requests, wants, and needs.”

Unafraid to dive into new ventures, Freska Produce is keeping operations fresh and current with the times, thanks to the unrelenting hard work of its team. Now the produce industry has a new saying: stick with what you know, unless you’re building a produce empire—then you better avocaDO the most you can to keep up with ever-evolving consumer demand.