"Sometimes it's the right person that makes progress possible."
Rod Braga shares this with me as he sits in the century-old office on the Braga Home Ranch that his grandfather built nearly 100 years ago.
Talk about “if walls could talk.”
The desk cradles his elbows as the Chief Executive Officer of Braga Fresh leans forward to share with me his family’s origins in Soledad, California.
“In order to have successful growth, you need to find the right partner to help you plan for the future while maintaining the day-to-day business—feet firmly planted but with the capacity to anticipate and plan for far-reaching possibilities and challenges,” Rod tells me. “I always start by surrounding myself with talented people with differing ideas. We have always been primed for growth: an ongoing vision and the organizational ownership needed to allow us to control all aspects of the supply chain.”
So what’s next for Braga Fresh? Rod pauses to take us around the next corner in the conversation.
“My grandfather planned for the long term—for the next generation and the generation after that,” Rod shares. “Bringing Nicholas DaCosta on board—that exact right person—was our way of planning for the next generation and changing the way that we, and then our customers, were able to do business. Moving Braga Fresh products into a multi-brand, value-added program was the next step.”
From the periphery of the conversation, Nicholas enters the story and I immediately sense a kinship between the two leaders. Kori Tuggle, Vice President of Marketing and Product Development, refers to these two like one would an old fable: The Farmer and the Salad Maker. I smile at this reference and listen to the conversation shift to their value-added chapter.
Rod explains Nicholas is a purpose-driven visionary capable of seeing what the value-added landscape can provide. At the same time, executing on those opportunities despite their complicated demands. Since joining the company in 2015 as President of Braga Fresh Foods—the fresh-cut, value-added program now within Braga’s umbrella of companies—Nicholas and his team have raised the operation to new heights.
“We have had the idea to move into processing for quite some time,” Rod reflects. “But it never felt like the right time, and the formula did not quite make sense until we met Nicholas.”
In partnering with Nicholas, the puzzle pieces begin to fall into place, and a story of deliberate choices and dedication starts to come together.
The puzzle has been a work in progress for Braga Fresh. In 2016, the Braga family took stock of their organic acreage, resources, and potential, and decided to move into the value-added sector with Braga Fresh Foods.
Rod tells me that the entire Braga team had to align to make the expansion into a new area of business. Though I can see it as a need to reconcile a paradox that can, at times, pit tradition against innovation, Rod does not see the tension.
“We have always been primed for growth: an ongoing vision and the organizational ownership needed to allow us to control all aspects of the supply chain.”
Rod Braga, Chief Executive Officer, Braga Fresh
“Nicholas and I share the same passion, work ethic, and ideas around what it means to grow in precisely the right way. You could say it comes from our common family backgrounds in dairy farming, which both of our grandparents first did when they came to California,” Rod says. “A big part of that vision is to ensure that the soil on our home ranch today—tilled for the first time more than 90 years ago—will be in an even better condition for our children than when we started farming here. This was something my grandfather believed as well, practicing both ‘sustainable’ and ‘organic’ farming before those two words were used. After all, farmers were the first environmentalists.”
I laugh and nod in deep agreement. I have always loved this sentiment and those that carry it with such intention and honor.
For Braga Fresh, sustainability is more than a growing and harvesting concept. Rod frames sustainability in terms of creating careers that enable the Braga Fresh team to provide for their families and better the communities they live and work in. This mindset resonated with Nicholas.
“I loved the way that Rod and the team spoke about their family farming and intentions for the company when I joined. Only our people can get us to the next 10, 20, and 50 years. Rod and the team deeply believe in this foundation, and it is not something that I took lightly when he and I first started discussing an expansion of the business and me joining the team,” Nicholas says to me.
Rod explains how a big part of building the company’s brand, Josie’s Organics, and a processing arm was recognizing and acknowledging what the team didn’t know.
“And value-added is a very complicated arena to step into,” he adds. “Which is why we partnered with Nicholas.”
Bringing close to 30 years of experience in the processing business with him, Nicholas understood the challenges facing the industry today and what it would take to start a new facility from scratch.
“I saw how building the value-added business could round out an already successful farming operation as a grower, packer, and shipper of core vegetable commodities so we could offer the full line of products which optimizes freshness for the retailer,” Nicholas says.
“We have the freshness, size, and scale to support a large program that could pivot on a dime, if needed. Our inventory is basically right there in Rod’s fields.”
Nicholas DaCosta, President, Braga Fresh Foods
To kick off this undertaking, the team built a state-of-the-art facility with an entire network of stainless steel machinery and fixtures, as well as a hygienically designed, open-channel system. It would allow the team to continue to update the operation as technology and harvest practices evolved. Between chopped salad, cut-veg, and baby leaf lines, Braga Fresh has a diverse product assortment in categories that process a little differently from one another. Braga made a commitment to invest in each unique process, to make each category’s equipment tailored to the product and the needs of its retail partners.
“Even with all of the investments in technology and machinery, one of the most important things in building a processing company is having the right supply. Because the supply is already in-house with the Braga Fresh arm, we can assure the highest quality organic crops will go into the value-added lines,” Nicholas shares. “This also gives us a unique position in California’s Salinas Valley: We have the freshness, size, and scale to support a large program that could pivot on a dime, if needed. Our inventory is basically right there in Rod’s fields.”
Nicholas adds that there is no extra contracting and oversight needed—the company owns the raw materials already.
“Retailers need four things, in my opinion: One is a given in our industry now—food safety. Very, very important. And we knew that the Braga family had that in place and they hold it in the highest regard. The second is a surety of supply. Customers, as they’re growing, need somebody that can consistently supply them,” Nicholas adds. “They also need innovation, and then they need an operation-driven company that can support their growth. When it comes to our vision, we never cut any corners.”
Braga Foods has now been processing for more than four years, but doing so with the prowess of a company that has been doing it much longer.
“Since we turned on the lights at the processing operation, our combined programs are closing in on around 500,000 cases a week,” Nicholas gauged. “Maybe more by the time this article is published. It’s been an exciting run, and it’s great to market yourself as grower-owned and innovation-forward.”
From a full line of conventional and organic chop salads with expanding flavor profiles to organic- and conventional-cut vegetables, the one-stop-shop descriptor is more than just apropos for Braga, it is the company’s vision.
“We are a company built to bring multiple solutions to market. Instead of major retailers having to pick up produce at five different coolers, they can make one stop and get the product to the distribution center (DC) and improve freshness,” Nicholas adds.
In total, Braga Fresh operates three processing facilities, growing product in both California and Arizona. On top of this, the company just launched three Josie’s Organics premium salad kits: Lemon Herb, Spring Blush, and Rustic Tomato, with plans to continue to grow the category.
“These are exciting times. Between new products and strategies for the future, there is a lot still to be done,” Nicholas tells me. “I know that Rod and I make each decision with the possibility in mind that our children may one day stand in our shoes.”
As we finish our conversation, I think of Rod’s grandparents, Josie and Sebastian, their farm, and a dream.
These two partners and the generations before them are not walled in by history, but fortified by it.
And primed for a future that is uniquely theirs.