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Through it All: Big or Small

In such a robust industry, it’s easy to forget that the produce game is a delicate one—literally. The precious fruit and veg we transport across continents must be treated with the utmost care and concern and deliver the best and freshest produce possible to consumers demanding both quality and availability. Such a complex balancing act would prove difficult even for The Flying Wallendas, but for Crystal Valley Foods, the challenge is a call to action.

If Crystal Valley Foods were a ship, Founder and President Jay Rodriguez would be its stalwart, gung-ho captain. Guiding his company through the sometimes-rough seas of the produce industry, Jay knows a ship is only as good as its crew. With the white whale of success ever on the horizon, he has steered his crew from humble beginnings to being a bicoastal powerhouse celebrating its 25th anniversary.

When I say humble beginnings, I mean it. Jay founded Crystal Valley as a startup in 1994, operating out of a small, leased warehouse with about a dozen employees. And even throughout the company’s substantial growth, it’s been people that form the core of the business.

“From the beginning, I wanted Crystal Valley to be a company where people could thrive and have the opportunity to grow professionally,” Jay tells me. “It is because of the loyal, hard-working, and passionate employees that we have been able to accomplish what we have over the years. Crystal Valley is a place where people can feel happy coming to work every day and where they can feel like they are contributing to the ‘bigger picture.’”

“Crystal Valley has customers on a national level, and several major customers needed to have daily access to a local inventory of Crystal Valley products.”

—Rudy Liau Kang, Director of Sales & Procurement, Crystal Valley Foods

With a staff dedicated to understanding the management of fresh produce, it’s no wonder that the company is able to deliver on its promise of fresh, high-quality fruits and veg. Starting off as a niche marketer of specialty produce items, it was essential for Crystal Valley to provide its customers with the same great produce, year-round, so the company started looking at countries like Peru and Guatemala, which had the right climates to grow its core products all year.

“We started importing fresh asparagus from Peru in 1994, and we were one of the pioneers in the category. At the time, fresh asparagus was a spring crop in North America, available from late March through early June. There was no fresh asparagus in the supermarkets from June through March. Importing from Peru allowed U.S. consumers to enjoy the vegetable all year,” Jay comments. “Other specialty items such as snow peas, sugar snap peas, baby vegetables, and French beans were later added to the offering. We started to develop Guatemala as a sourcing region for these products as the country’s varying mountain regions and microclimates were ideal for growing and allowed us to produce these vegetables, typically only available to the North American market for a limited window, on a year-round basis.”

Crystal Valley is able to deliver on its year-round promise through grower partnerships and importing fresh fruit and vegetables from outside the U.S.

When thinking about Crystal Valley’s operations, I picture an atom (my father is a chemist so cut me some slack). If its staff forms the nucleus, or core, then grower partnerships make up the electrons—ever-present and constantly in action. Some of the company’s grower partners have been with Crystal Valley since its inception in 1994, making true partnerships with transparency a key component in its success. Together with its partners—including the second largest specialty vegetable packing facility in Guatemala—Crystal Valley has been able to grow and provide customers with high-quality, fresh produce on a consistent basis, in a competitive market, no less.

Expanding its import capabilities enabled Crystal Valley to diversify its portfolio of produce, dabbling in tomatoes, berries, pomegranates, papayas, value-added vegetables, and more. Rudy Liau Kang, Director of Sales and Procurement, jumped in to explain why diversification is so important to the company.

“When we acquired Team Produce in 2017, we saw a company whose strength in berries, asparagus, and stonefruit would complement our product line and would further aid us in being that one-stop-specialty-shop for our customers,” he says. “We continue to grow in the berry business and have partnered with growers in the United States in order to make sure that we offer year-round fruit. We are constantly looking at new items, packaging, and sourcing regions that provide synergy to our base product line. We also want to make sure that we are able to offer our partners and customers the latest trends to help them with their own businesses.”

Though initially famous for its asparagus, Crystal Valley has rounded out its portfolio of produce to include berries, tomatoes, pomegranates, papayas, and more

Though the word “trends” evokes thoughts of regrettable fashion choices (I’m lookin’ at you, butterfly clips and JNCO jeans), it does not always mean flash-in-the-pan preferences, but rather, in this case, true retailer and consumer movements. Tracking category trends is essential to staying relevant in the ever-changing produce landscape, and Crystal Valley is determined to keep its finger on the pulse.

“We continue to see the value-added category grow. Consumers lead busier lives than ever and they are looking for fresh, healthy, and even sometimes unique products that are also easy to make and eat,” Katiana Valdes, Marketing Director, explains to me. “We have recognized these trends and the growing demand for value-added products and we continue to invest in our bagging and repack capabilities. For example, we have redesigned our entire value-added line and the new packaging—including our asparagus tags and one pound and eight ounce tips bags, as well as our sugar snap peas and French beans—is already on the market. The new design is bold, modern, calls out the incredible health benefits of these fruits and vegetables, gives preparation tips, and most importantly, shows the product nicely.”

“We continue to see the value-added category grow. Consumers lead busier lives than ever and they are looking for fresh, healthy, and even sometimes unique products that are also easy to make and eat.”

—Katiana Valdes, Marketing Director, Crystal Valley Foods

All the grower partnerships and trend knowledge in the world would be useless without the proper infrastructure to supply customers and consumers with Crystal Valley’s exceptional range of products. Its facility, located on the L.A. Wholesale Terminal Market, combined with its existing Miami facility, gives Crystal Valley a presence on both coasts.

“In order to truly be bicoastal and to help with our nationwide distribution, we opened Crystal Valley West in 2012, located in California’s Los Angeles Wholesale Terminal Market,” Rudy mentions. “Crystal Valley has customers on a national level, and several major customers needed to have daily access to a local inventory of Crystal Valley products. Not only does our L.A. facility give us that West Coast shipping and cross-docking point in order to service our customers in that part of the country better, it also gives us added storage capacity and allows us to source and receive products from Mexico for distribution on the West Coast and for shipment back east.”

Branching out to new shores doesn’t mean the company is neglecting to invest in the infrastructure it already has. Its Miami warehouse and sales office is currently being redesigned, modernized, and expanded, and Crystal Valley is also installing automated warehouse equipment and adding to its warehouse management team. Doubling the size of its current facility, the expansion will allow the company to increase its production and repack area, which will, in turn, increase its value-added product output and services. With this expansion and additional services offered, Crystal Valley hopes to decrease the time it takes for carriers to load and/or unload product, increasing efficiencies overall—benefitting both customers and suppliers. With facilities on both coasts, plus shipping points in Texas, Arizona, and the Northeast, the company is poised to service the entire continental United States.

Crystal Valley has exceptional employees, growing partners on lock, and distribution covered, but as anyone in the service industry could tell you, the customer is king. The company takes an active role in pleasing its customers, using its knowledge of trends and tailoring services to meet the customers’ needs.

“We are constantly talking to our customers and learning about their needs, the needs of their customers, and their pain points. When we really understand our customers and how they operate, it helps us easily anticipate their needs,” says Katiana. “We also understand that we need to be flexible and adaptable. We can customize our products and packaging according to a customer’s specifications, and we can make changes quickly if needed. The retail market is becoming increasingly competitive, and we know that our customers are looking for ways to stand out and differentiate themselves just as much as we are, so we try to help them achieve that goal.”

“From the beginning, I wanted Crystal Valley to be a company where people could thrive and have the opportunity to grow professionally.”

—Jay Rodriguez, Founder and President, Crystal Valley Foods

Starting way back in 1994 with a tiny facility and fewer employees than there are Marvel movies, and evolving into the bi-coastal juggernaut it is today, Crystal Valley is truly hitting its stride in the new millennium. And, as Jay reminds me, none of it would have been possible without the tireless efforts of the company’s exceptional staff and partners.

“We went from selling our first pallet of asparagus in 1994 to now being one of the largest asparagus importers in the country. It has been a long road, and at times a difficult road, but there have been some incredible people who have helped build Crystal Valley along the way,” Jay concludes. “I have been fortunate but I have also had a great team to help create my vision and get Crystal Valley to where it is today.”

With this level of growth, I have no qualms in saying, you’ve come a long way, baby.