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Fielding Fate

Fielding Fate

A young woman steps out of the subway and into the cool New York City air, the smell of wet concrete wafting around her. As she leans back to sip her coffee, the pointed tops of nearby skyscrapers come into view. She walks past endless rows of street vendors, moving toward something new—though she cannot yet see it—beyond her wildest dreams.

It is simply an exercise of the imagination, but my mind conjures this young woman, clear as day, as I sit down with D’Arrigo New York’s Vice President of Marketing and Communications. Nearly ten years have passed since Gabriela D’Arrigo graduated from college with a degree in Advertising and Public Relations and her sights set on a Manhattan-based advertising agency, though that is not exactly where she landed. The family business seemed somewhat of a relic at that time, but fate proved otherwise.

“Initially, I had no intention of ever joining the produce industry,” Gabriela tells me. “Even though my family has been a part of it for a very long time, I personally didn’t have the knowledge and was not aware of how significant my family was in this industry.”

The D’Arrigo family business, now on its fourth generation of leaders, was teeming with opportunity, though Gabriela did not yet know it when she set out on her career path. Growing up, her father did not want to impose any obligation to the company, so Gabriela was not fully aware of D’Arrigo’s influence on fresh produce. In an unexpected turn of events, though, she became one of her generation’s first to join the team.

“My sister and I went out to an event that D’Arrigo California was hosting several years back. Unbeknownst to us, my dad coordinated with one of my cousins to have us both out there to see how our personalities would blend and what we would think of the industry as a whole,” Gabriela says. “We toured the fields, coolers, receiving and distribution operations, and even harvested our own broccoli rabe. At the end of that weekend, my cousin Margaret D’Arrigo-Martin, who was the Vice President of Sales and Marketing at the time, pulled us into her office and said, ‘Hey, we are looking to hire new employees, ideally in the family, and I would love to hire driven women. You have two weeks to make a decision and get back to me.’ Neither one of us really knew what was going on, but, separately, made our decisions to take the job.”

“You’re not promoting your label like a supplier would, but promoting your brand as a service provider.”

Gabriela D’Arrigo, Vice President of Marketing and Communications, D’Arrigo New York

In addition to pursuing an Advertising and Public Relations major, Gabriela was also able to knock out a Marketing degree. Originally set on playing soccer at school, she had blown out her knee just before college, leaving her with a lot of time on her hands. She didn’t know what she wanted to do at that time, but she liked to build relationships, so public relations seemed like the perfect fit. A lot of the classes overlapped with marketing, allowing her to tackle multiple majors at the same time. She spent summers and winters in school and got it all done in four years.

“When I was first hired in California, I joined as a Sales Assistant. Like most produce companies at that time, the marketing department was basically non-existent. Although I really enjoyed being on the sales side, I knew there was a lot missing. Because I had experience with PR, advertising, and marketing, I was a bit of a jack of all trades and brought a new perspective to the company,” Gabriela continues. “To quote my uncle, Matt D’Arrigo, ‘Produce isn’t rocket science.’ It’s a very simple thing when you break it down to its most basic form, and I felt I was the one to do that.”

Gabriela is anything but one-track minded, allowing her to wear a ton of different hats and thrive in her new role. She says her background helped prepare her for produce because it changes from day to day, and this “go, go, go” lifestyle has become her bread and butter. And, because there wasn’t a marketing, advertising, or PR department at either D’Arrigo New York or D’Arrigo California, she quickly recognized the need and developed them herself.

“When I left California, I laid out a bit of a blueprint and handed the department over to the current Marketing Coordinator,” she explains, diving into her journey to D’Arrigo New York and the jump from supply to wholesale. “When I joined the New York company, I realized we had a significant marketing department about 20 years ago that produced some trailblazing content. So, my main goal here has been to revive that. I’ve been here for about five and a half years now, and it’s a slow process to build, especially being a wholesaler. It’s a totally different ball game. You’re not promoting your label like a supplier would, but promoting your brand as a service provider.”

’Arrigo’s position as a middleman in the market has proven to be a sweet spot for Gabriela as she tackles everything from marketing and organic sales to buying. While some folks narrow down their focus as their career progresses, Gabriela tells me she is just the opposite. It seems the very nature of this family business has swayed her, too, as she notes her time with the company is far from any old wives’ tales we might have heard.

“There’s a lot of talk about how working in the family business is really tough,” she says. “While there are tough points, I have not experienced a lot of what other people have. I’ve been very fortunate because my cousins and uncles have been huge supporters of my progress along the way. It doesn’t mean we don’t bump heads, because we most certainly do. But, they definitely are my allies throughout this journey. I’ve been afforded a lot of opportunities because of that.”

One of Gabriela’s biggest supporters is her older sister, Carmela, who is now the Supervisor of Cross Dock and Consolidation at D’Arrigo California.

“She is the reason I have stuck it out in this industry—no question. She has supported me through all the positive decisions I have made as well as counseled me on the ones that I probably could have made better,” Gabriela tells me. “She has had to work through some difficult challenges as a woman in this industry, but her ability to stand by her convictions, no matter what, has been a driving force for me. I will always have that ‘little sister admiration’ for her, but she is the real deal.”

Gabriela shares a sentiment with me that I think perfectly encapsulates her relationship to the industry: Every event is like a family reunion. Joining a company that fosters such a welcoming environment has been a wildly positive experience for her, revealing a window to both her family’s history and an industry where her heart felt at home.

“It’s a really fun, energetic experience. Working for a company like D’Arrigo, with the longevity that it has, we have the ability to take more risks than other companies do because we have a bigger foundation to fall back on,” Gabriela reflects. “It’s really cool to have people tell me, ‘Oh, I worked with your father,’ or, ‘Hey, your grandfather was a really great guy.’ That stuff never gets old to me. It’s almost like a family reunion at every event, and hearing about your predecessors is nice because you get a better idea of where your company came from.”

I’ve heard a lot of people say that three years makes or breaks you in this industry—you’re either in it for life or you’re done. In Gabriela’s first three years, many things changed. Food safety began to hit its stride, and D’Arrigo New York had to meet many different guidelines and requirements, both on the growing and distribution sides. Gabriela has loved seeing this trend build, and hopes the industry continues utilizing technology to make improvements.

“I’m also a huge advocate for bringing in individuals who have expertise outside the produce industry. I think it’s great that we’ve got so many people who spend their entire lives in produce, and I’m going to end up being one of those,” Gabriela divulges. “Still, I believe you’ve got to bring in an unbiased outside perspective because it makes your company so much more dynamic. The minute you’re all sitting at the table and agreeing on the same things, nobody’s thinking critically. That’s something that I would love to see continue in the industry as a whole.”

Another of her favorite things about working in this industry is having the opportunity to contribute.

“I don’t like to just sit back and hang out. That’s never really been my personality. I like to be involved and work toward either the common goal or the individual goal, whatever is needed to get the needle moving,” Gabriela continues. “Complacency, to me, is death. So, being a part of something that’s bigger than you are is really important to me. I think that this industry will outlast a lot of others simply due to its necessity.”

And with that, I gain a clearer picture of this young industry maven. Similar to the way she tackled D’Arrigo California and New York’s marketing program, Gabriela is not one to settle in and stay stagnant. As time passed, she continued seeking out opportunities for improvement and has since spearheaded efforts to reimagine D’Arrigo California and New York as we know them.

Gabriela divulges to me that the California, New York, and Massachusetts D’Arrigo companies collaborated more often in the past, simply because they were all still considered one entity. Then there was a huge growth spurt for all three between the second and third generations. As each company got larger, and as wholesalers acquired more shippers and growers, it became difficult for all to grow together. They were each growing in different ways. Now that each of the companies has found its niche, Gabriela says it’s time to revisit.

In her eyes, the D’Arrigo companies are still young, and each division brings a whole new set of skills and knowledge to the table. With the right talent in place, these three powerhouses will be able to achieve more than they may have ever imagined.

“I would love to see more collaboration between the D’Arrigo California, Massachusetts, and New York companies,” she says. “We collaborate now, but it’s been on a small scale, and there’s a huge opportunity for that to increase. We come from a lineage of farmers, so we know what they’re going through. When you can relate to the farmer and help communicate to the consumer, you become the intermediary that outlines the barriers and successes between both sides. When you’re in that position as a company, which I think is what wholesalers are, ultimately, you’re able to be the translator. That is something D’Arrigo companies as a whole should absolutely take more advantage of.”

It’s a point not to be taken lightly, as D’Arrigo has leveraged its unique position in the market while working to support New York City throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. Like many others, these unprecedented circumstances have revealed new opportunities, and we have all gained a better understanding of what it means to collaborate.

“Working for a company like D’Arrigo, with the longevity that it has, we have the ability to take more risks than other companies do because we have a bigger foundation to fall back on.”

Gabriela D’Arrigo

“Once COVID hit, the sanitation initiatives we’d been discussing went into overdrive, especially in terms of food safety. A lot of those plans came to fruition in a matter of five days, and it was a huge collaborative effort for the New York terminal market,” Gabriela tells me. “It can be difficult to have several different companies collaborate quickly. It was really cool to see all these companies, some of which are considered competitors, put their own agendas aside to make sure we could feed New York City and the surrounding areas. We were all unexpectedly called to the front lines, so to speak, and everybody’s attitude about it was amazing. Nobody thought twice about it. We just showed up.”

D’Arrigo New York had a lot of plans to expand its logistics operations and acquire more trucks, stops, and drivers. But, as Gabriela explains, as soon as COVID happened, D’Arrigo suddenly had to put all of its plans into action. Its operations were reaching and delivering to places that the team had never even thought of, and it was happening very quickly.

“Philanthropically, we have gone above and beyond. Prior to the pandemic, we were more meticulous in terms of collecting 501 (c)(3) documentation and such. Once we went into lockdown, all of that was out the window. We had to trust everyone in the supply chain and get food to wherever it was needed most. We’ve begun working closely with our city officials throughout New York to assess where our services are most needed. Anyone who reaches out, we say yes to, and that has been something really cool to see,” says Gabriela. “It taught me a huge lesson to see my uncle, without any hesitation whatsoever, say, ‘We’re here to feed people, so we’re going to feed people.’”

Although we can obviously expect some long-term changes, Gabriela assures me that many of the things D’Arrigo New York has put into place during this time will stick around. The sanitation, efficiencies, and logistics will remain top of mind because, now, the company is more aware of its abilities.

“The unpredictability of all this is really going to impact businesses as a whole because we’re not sure what we’re preparing for. We just have to go with our best-educated guess and listen to our customers who are coming in every day,” Gabriela continues. “The need for communication has been through the roof. This is an industry where we talk about constant communication and relationship building, and that’s holding very true at this time. I think a lot of companies would not have made it without partnerships, long-term or otherwise.”

She draws an interesting parallel between the produce industry itself and her own journey to it. The simple principle of providing food is what guides us to where we stand, every day. Because, as we’ve all said a thousand times over, fresh produce is truly unlike any other industry out there.

“Food is one of the most uniting mediums you can possibly have between people, from whatever background,” Gabriela concludes. “People will always come together for food. I think that’s really important, and we as an industry need to keep coming back to our purpose.”

A freightliner engine starts up in the background as Gabriela steps out of her office. She turns to face the golden horizon, a flock of birds fluttering above the trees. Closing a tote full of fresh broccoli and lettuce, she ruminates on the day’s treasured triumphs—remembering that the working day may be done, but fate is never off the clock.