For Jimmy and Diane Bassetti, it was love at first sight.
It feels like a fairy tale to start off a story with such light. However, as writers, we let the story take us where it leads. Both hailing from produce families in Vineland, New Jersey, love was only a stone’s throw away. Jimmy was from R&B Produce and Diane from Ralph Dauito and Sons. Even before they made family the centerpiece of what would become J&D Produce, the values of blood, kinship, and relationships were evident in their bones. How could they not be drawn toward each other?
Jimmy’s father, Jim Bassetti, was well-known as ‘The Bear’ amongst the industry, revered for his quality, service, and integrity while running R&B Produce. His customers came to expect an exceptional relationship at R&B Produce, and it was from that example Jimmy set out to fulfill his American Dream. Learning the tricks of the trade early on, Jimmy and Diane began their story when they crossed paths in high school, and that tale built toward the horizon in the most unlikely of ways.
In 1984, the two newlyweds faced a simple twist of fate, as Jimmy would say, when they ventured to South Texas on a mission that would inevitably impact everyone’s lives.
“My father’s customers were looking for a 12-month supply of produce, and the closest area that could provide this was in South Texas. We flew down to scout the area in the late fall of 1984, and while we were there, a strong Nor’easter blew in through New Jersey that left my father scrambling for product. We found great quality in Texas—we shipped back two trailers’ worth of produce to New Jersey, and my father’s customers loved them!” Jimmy, now President and Chief Executive Officer of J&D Produce, recounted.
Following that successful trip to Texas, he and Diane, Vice President of J&D Produce, returned home to Jersey to pack up their little bit of belongings and head back south, dedicating themselves as buying brokers and making South Texas their home.
“We spread our wings and began to live our version of the American Dream as J&D Produce,” Jimmy said.
In the summer of 1986, Jimmy and Diane bought a packing shed in Edinburg, Texas, and started running the business as a grower/packer/shipper. The Bassettis had found a life in South Texas and were creating a family of their own. Jimmy and Diane’s first child, James, was born in 1987. With a new baby on top of starting a business, the high school sweethearts continued to expand J&D Produce’s operations.
“...I can’t help but marvel at what they were able to achieve.”
James Bassetti, Chief Operating Officer, J&D Produce
Jimmy and Diane decided a label was needed to market their product, which was representative of who they were and what they stood for: quality, service, and, above all else, integrity. So, the two fittingly named it Little Bear Produce, an homage to The Bear himself and the legacy that was already being formed. Soon after, bear cubs Stephen and Danielle followed to make the Bassettis a family of five.
When I asked what it was like to raise their three children while building a business, I was met with a resounding answer from Jimmy and Diane—challenging.
“Both Diane and I love the produce business. There were a lot of long hours most days, but it was all worth it. Now, there is a lot of gratification, appreciation, and great rewards. We were both over 2,000 miles away from our family, so having a newborn was tough in the beginning. There were a lot of sacrifices. But, it was a great reward having a family of our own,” Jimmy continued. “Wherever we went, our three kids were with us.”
Hearing Jimmy narrate the struggles and challenges of running a new company reminded me of how I grew up. My parents would often bring me to their restaurant because I was born right before their business opened, and I viewed the workers around me as if they were my own family. When James, Jimmy’s oldest child, tells me his family and the company would all frequently spend engaging moments gathered at the lunch table, I caught myself smiling because that was how it was in my family, too.
“When I think about what my parents started 36 years ago, I can’t help but marvel at what they were able to achieve. I think about being in my mid-twenties, packing up my life, and moving away from everything and everyone that I’d ever known to start something from scratch—that’s a pretty scary thought,” reflected James, now Chief Operating Officer. “Those humble beginnings, a relentless work ethic, and a belief in what their own parents had instilled in them were the pillars on which my parents built their version of the American Dream. And when you think of it like that, what child wouldn’t be proud of what their parents accomplished?”
For the past ten years, James has been learning the ins and outs of the family business. From toiling out in the fields to managing human resources, leading the production floor, and engaging with customers, he is the embodiment of the work ethic and passion that Jimmy and Diane have instilled in their children. James and his grandfather were the inspirations behind the Little Bear Produce brand, and now James will pick up the mantle to ensure his parents’ vision lives on.
“Something unique I feel for those of us with parents in the produce industry is that we were always served a healthy dose of vegetables at the dinner table. They believed that ‘food is medicine.’ My parents wanted to ensure we were all sitting together around the table, sharing a healthy meal and the experiences of our day,” James continued. “That is something that we are striving to accomplish now as a company—how do we educate our consumers on the health benefits of fruits and vegetables? How do we pass on simple and tasty recipes they can then share with their families so we can unify more families at the dinner table?”
A few answers to that challenge lie in current technological advancements and partnering with like-minded and passionate collaborators. A critical foundation Jimmy and Diane built J&D Produce upon centered around showcasing how produce can be the frontline defense for a healthy lifestyle. Diabetes and obesity are ongoing concerns in our society, and Jimmy and Diane believed J&D Produce could serve as a catalyst, spreading fresh produce awareness alongside industry allies at Texas A&M University.
“The love we shared for each other and that we shared for produce made our dream a reality.”
Diane Bassetti, Vice President, J&D Produce
For over 30 years, J&D Produce has collaborated with some of Texas A&M University’s leading professors from the Vegetable and Fruit Improvement Center (VFIC). Some of the fruit and veg that have come out of the center— thanks to innovators like Dr. Leonard M. Pike, Director Dr. Bhimu Patil, and Vice Chancellor and Dean of Agriculture Dr. Patrick J. Stover—were Texas 1015 Sweet Onions, Beta-Sweet maroon carrots, and various tomato varieties. In fact, Jimmy hired Dr. Carlos Lazcano, a student of Dr. Pike, to head up Research and Development at J&D. It is through this incredible work that Jimmy and Diane are able to arm families with the freshest and most nutritious produce possible, all while carving out precious quality time.
“Growing up, my mom and dad instilled in me and my siblings that family stays together, and Diane and I are carrying that message on,” Jimmy elaborated. “It’s essential to be together. Time is a precious commodity; if we don’t take time to build family, love, and security, we’ll lose it. That’s another reason why I feel so good about being in the business we’re in—we have the ammunition to allow families to sit around the table and enjoy themselves together.”
As the business grew and expanded, Jimmy and Diane have always made time for their three children, regardless of the demands of running a business. This effort and message was not lost on them either, passing on to not just James, but Stephen and Danielle Bassetti as well.
“I’ll never forget this one day in middle school, my teacher asked how many of us eat dinner with our family all together, and I was shocked when I was the only one who raised my hand,” Stephen shared. “Even though my mom and dad worked a tremendous amount of hours, they still made sure that we all ate dinner together every night. Things like that showed me the importance of having a loving family at home and the success that might come of it.”
Fresh produce may be at the heart of bringing a loving family together, but it’s the time spent together that serves as a life source, continually beating to provide the necessary values to enrich a lifetime with memories.
“My parents are the two most wonderful people I know. They’ve taught me to live fully, love deeply, and give more than you take. My mom and dad instilled this in my brothers and me not simply through teachings but by example,” Danielle recalled as she shared her memories with me. “What separates my parents then and now is their passion. My parents always told us they ‘didn’t want to be the biggest, just the best.’ Since J&D’s conception, they’ve done just that. The company was built around the shared passion of my parents and continues to thrive because of it. I couldn’t be more proud of everything they’ve achieved and continue to achieve.”
“We spread our wings and began to live our version of the American Dream as J&D Produce.”
Jimmy Bassetti, President and Chief Executive Officer, J&D Produce
With ample growing regions, sturdy foundations, and boundless love, Jimmy and Diane cultivated their own world of fresh produce—one in which family was at the core—allowing consumers all over to come together around the table and nurture relationships.
“It was challenging most times, however, having Jimmy as my partner at work and at home made it possible. We knew the long hours and hard work it entailed, but we were blessed to grow up in the produce business,” Diane conveyed to me. “The love we shared for each other and that we shared for produce made our dream a reality.”
Whether it’s the one that we were born into or the one we made along the way, family is what drives most people’s day-to-day life. Family is who you fall back on during times of need or the ones you turn to to celebrate victories, big or small. They’re also the ones that cheer you on, giving you a reason to help the world be that much better than you found it. The love, support, and foundation one relies on can easily be found in a family dynamic, and we look for that familiarity when we’re out in the world forging our own path, our own family to take care of. For without family, J&D Produce and the Little Bear Produce brand wouldn’t have been born.
As J&D Produce spreads its love for family and fresh produce, I’ll look forward to seeing what the future holds for a stronger and healthier industry with Jimmy and Diane at the wheel.