The line between trade news writer and consumer becomes incredibly blurred as I stand in my dimly lit kitchen on a Sunday morning, peeling back the vibrant layers of a Mandarin orange. With each methodical movement, I feel myself drifting further from the solitude of my apartment in Sacramento, California, and into the fields of Fowler, California, where Bee Sweet Citrus wields an unabating enthusiasm for growing high-quality citrus varieties.
I’ve long been one of those people who opted to keep their work and home life separated, at least for the most part. I believe this is a key element when it comes to not getting bogged down by the day-to-day demands of being a full-time writer, cat mom, and just a human being in general.
This idea becomes increasingly abstract as I consider our industry, in which there are testimonies—like those within the cover of this magazine—that find a place in your heart, giving you no choice but to take them home with you.
Such is the story of Bee Sweet Citrus, a company deeply rooted in family values and an admirable commitment to its community.
When the citrus purveyor first opened its doors in 1987, its focus was centered primarily around oranges. But, like many soon-to-be legacies at the stage of inception, Bee Sweet Citrus’ involvement in the industry continued to grow, building into a fortified operation that provides a multitude of premium citrus varieties.
In fact, less than a decade after the company was founded, its rapid growth already demanded an expansion, allowing Bee Sweet to open a brand-new facility in 1996 to accommodate its evolving product line.
Fast forward to what is now the end of 2021, and Bee Sweet Citrus is an industry force to be reckoned with and an amplified version of the operation its founding family, the Marderosians, drew up nearly four decades ago.
“Bee Sweet Citrus is more than just an agribusiness. We’re a family-owned and operated company, and we strive to implement strong family values in everything we do,” Monique Bienvenue, Director of Communications, tells me, and I smile as her passion for the business radiates through the phone. “At our company, that means growing, packing, and shipping citrus year-round; establishing personal connections with our customers; creating a supportive environment for our employees; and implementing eco-friendly practices on the farm and in the packing house.”
Bee Sweet is a year-round supplier of oranges, Mandarins, and lemons as a result of its summer import program. During the domestic California citrus season, the supplier’s product line also includes Cara Cara Navel oranges, Blood oranges, Valencia oranges, Meyer lemons, grapefruit, Melo Gold grapefruit, Pummelos, and Minneola Tangelos.
“We’re extremely proud of our ability to provide our customers with an assortment of citrus year-round,” Monique continues. “Regardless of the season, our retail partners know they can count on our team for Mandarins, lemons, and oranges, as well as specialty citrus varieties during California’s domestic season. In addition, all of those varieties can be conveniently picked up at one central location, offering a vital advantage to our partners.”
This robust lineup of varieties is a direct result of the company’s continued investments in its state-of-the-art facilities and other operational advancements, which were sparked by growing demand and the need to keep up with its ever-expanding portfolio.
Bee Sweet has pursued these expansions as if crossing off the days on a calendar. Each year the company breaks ground on yet another cutting-edge development, such as a new palletization room in 2016, a wash line and pack line in 2017, a new shipping lounge in 2018, an 18-door shipping facility in 2019, and, most recently, new sizers and graders for its Navel line.
“Over the last decade, we have focused on improving our facility to include state-of-the-art technology, as well as improvements to create a stress-free experience for our customers. Many of Bee Sweet’s projects were done with the customer in mind,” Monique reflects. “As our product line and volume grow, so too does the demand for our fruit. While our expanded shipping facility and lounge ease the pickup process for the drivers that visit our facility daily, our new wash and pack lines ensure that our production team is able to wash, grade, and pack any of our varieties in an efficient manner.”
"We’re a family-owned and operated company, and we strive to implement strong family values in everything we do."
Monique Bienvenue, Director of Communications, Bee Sweet Citrus
With each of these operational expansions implemented at the grower’s main facility in Fowler, Bee Sweet’s sales team has the ability to provide its customers with real-time updates regarding its fruit. These strategic plays also solidify its presence as a one-stop shop by allowing its partners to pick up several premium citrus varieties at one convenient location.
The supplier’s growth extends beyond the physical improvements made to its facilities, however, as last year, the company also made the decisive move to revamp its brand identity.
“The Bee Sweet Citrus brand encompasses more than just a handful of varieties, and we wanted our label to strategically represent the diversity of our citrus line,” Monique explains to me. “From our Mandarins to our Cara Cara Navel oranges, every single one of our varieties got a face-lift in regard to its packaging.”
The new design was applied to the grower’s bags, header cards, standard cartons, and more, refreshing the Bee Sweet Citrus brand with a visual reflection of its versatile varieties and their characteristics. In addition, this innovative new design also laid the groundwork for the development of new in-store POS materials.
“When we initially discussed concepts to pursue, we knew we wanted the artwork to accomplish two things. On a large scale, we wanted the new packaging to reflect the diversity of our product line. And, on a smaller scale, we wanted each design to educate shoppers on the variety inside,” Monique notes. “For example, if you look closely at the design for our Cara Cara Navels, you’ll see that the background is pink, similar to that of the variety’s internal color, as well as the citrus slices displayed on the artwork. This same concept was applied to our grapefruit bags, Meyer lemon bags, and so on.”
While strategically reflecting the unique attributes of the fruit inside, the packaging also maintains a cohesive look, creating familiarity for the consumer to drive repeat purchases and increase basket share.
“This cohesive look is a huge benefit for our retail partners. If a shopper is looking for our Mandarins at their local grocery store but then sees a bag of Cara Caras with similar packaging, the shopper will be more inclined to try the Cara Caras—or any variety they may not be as familiar with—because the shopper recognizes and trusts our label,” Monique points out.
Leaning back into my squeaky desk chair, I silently nod on the other end of the phone call, reflecting on the many times I have confidently picked up an unfamiliar product simply because of my faith in the brand reflected on the label.
This sense of trust is an essential element of the Bee Sweet operation, in addition to a heightened focus on social responsibility. Continuing its growth as a family-owned and operated business, the supplier injects even more faith into the brand by treating all those it interacts with like family, including its employees and the communities it serves.
As Monique divulges the details of the company’s social responsibility efforts, I sit in a moment of revelation, realizing this is just another example of how the notions of “business” and “personal” tend to merge so often in our industry.
“The Marderosian family is actively involved with the day-to-day operations of all departments. Not only do they understand what’s happening on the ground floor, but they’ve also done a beautiful job of cultivating impactful relationships with employees at all levels,” Monique adds.
Knowing all too well that production agriculture can be a hectic line of work, the Marderosian family has made social sustainability one of their highest priorities. Over the past few years, the team has developed a strategic partnership with local United Health Center Clinics to allow all its employees and their dependents to have access to basic medical and dental care throughout California’s Central Valley. With many of its employees living in the rural areas of the region, this alliance grants them healthcare access without having to make the long drive to larger cities.
Further demonstrating its commitment to the health and safety of those who make the company’s legacy possible, Bee Sweet has also hosted numerous on-site health clinics, including becoming one of the first in the industry to provide voluntary mass COVID-19 vaccinations to all of its employees.
“Because Bee Sweet Citrus is a family-owned and operated company, our team recognizes that our employees’ health, family, and education are all critically important,” Monique says. “We will never stop looking for ways to show our support.”
Last year, Bee Sweet amplified its investments in the next generation of produce aficionados with the launch of its first-ever employee scholarship, which celebrates its employees and their dependents in the pursuit of higher education at trade schools, community colleges, and more. The company also backed the next era of experts with new facilities, establishing a citrus packing line for students at Fresno State University and a new wash line in Nipomo, California, where students from California Polytechnic State University can intern.
Looking back on all that Bee Sweet has accomplished in the past few years of upward trajectory, I suddenly realize why the bright orange fruit in my hand that Sunday morning was an inevitable conduit to the fields where Bee Sweet makes its magic.
With each layer I remove, a small globe is uncovered.
A tiny world with a tremendous impact.
A storied history that leaves me with no choice but to collapse the distance between consumer and trade writer, and put pen to page.