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Mastering the Winds: A Q&A with Gary Clevenger, Managing Member, Freska Produce International

Mastering the Winds: A Q&A with Gary Clevenger, Managing Member, Freska Produce International

With every stake that we drove into the earth, the wind changed direction. Another stake would pop out of the ground, leaving us running around our tent, mallets in hand, trying to keep our precious shelter from flying away—imagine a scene á la I Love Lucy or The Three Stooges.

All of this unfolded when a friend and I decided to go camping in the Mojave Desert a few months ago. The first night there, we were met with incredible winds that whipped our hair across our faces while blowing a swirl of fine desert dirt and the smell of thick campfire smoke into the air. As the gusts bowed our tent poles and ripped the stakes out of the ground, we were faced with an intense challenge as night approached.

Eventually, the wind became more predictable, and we were able to come up with a solution for our camping troubles, sheltering us from the frigid nighttime air.


Maybe it’s just my role as a trade writer, but looking back, I can’t help but think of this as a metaphor for anticipating consumer habits—just when you think you have your strategy staked in place, the winds of change blow, knocking everything off-kilter and completely rearranging your approach. However, there are some companies in our industry akin to experienced mountaineers, with a wetted finger in the air as they expertly maneuver the changing gusts to plant their tents firmly on the ground. These are companies like Freska Produce International, who have spent years honing their craft and mastering the metaphorical weather patterns of both shopper and buyer demand.

As the winds of demand have continued to shift toward sustainability, ethics, and healthy eating habits, I got the chance to sit down with Gary Clevenger, Managing Member, as he shared some of Freska’s survival tips for conquering these demanding landscapes.


Jenna Plasterer: Gary, as a consumer myself on top of being a trade writer, I know that the ethics of a company remain top-of-mind for shoppers as they go in search of products. Freska became Fair Trade Certified™ to back its commitment to its principles. How has this affected the company and business?

GC: Fair Trade is Freska’s way of meeting ethical trade standards, along with the advantage of paying a fair wage and other added benefits to workers who pack with us.


The rigorous standards that are required to become Fair Trade Certified give our business credibility by proving to retail buyers that we are serious about ethical standards and that we work together toward the same goals—this not only benefits the workers who produce the product but also helps give credence to the marketers and retailers who sell the product. That is something we are very proud of at Freska.

Through our Fair Trade Certification, we, along with our retail partners, have returned over $984,000 back to our Mexican partners since 2018.

 

JP: Sustainability and social responsibility are also on consumers’ radars nowadays. How does this certification benefit Freska in terms of those aspects?

GC: We are always looking for ways to be better stewards of social, economic, and environmental protections for ourselves and the growers and packers we work with. Empowering the communities is part of the Fair Trade vision, and allowing them to make the decisions that affect their communities is all part of social and economic responsibility.

 

JP: Gaining Fair Trade Certification seems to play a key role in Freska’s commitment to the future. Which of your operations are currently certified, and how do you see it expanding as you look ahead?

GC: Right now, we have all our partners in Mexico Fair Trade Certified, and we are looking to expand this outside of Mexico soon, but it takes cooperation from all levels from farmer to retailer to make this happen effectively.

 

JP: In the same vein of the company’s ethos, Freska has added dried mangos to its portfolio as a way to promote sustainability—another key aspect that shoppers go in search of more often than naught these days. What was the inspiration behind this addition?

GC: We have markets for what we call number 1 fruit and number 2 fruit quality, but the number 3 fruit was being tossed out for cattle feed. We wanted to be able to say we use 100 percent of our growers’ fruit and give them that value back for their mangos.

A few years back, we began experimenting with dried mangos due to the category’s rapid growth and the fact that it directly lined up with our vertical expansion goals. Since then, we have done a lot of tests and trials over the years and have a nice product to offer: All natural, organic, great-tasting dried mangos.

“...the part we are most proud of is that we use 100 percent of our growers’ product, practically eliminating all waste—something that very few of our competitors can claim.”

-Gary Clevenger, Managing Member, Freska Produce International

Now, we are producing upwards of seven million pounds of product and still growing.

But the part we are most proud of is that we use 100 percent of our growers’ product, practically eliminating all waste—something that very few of our competitors can claim.

 

JP: Since introducing this creative new product, Gary, how have you seen consumer demand evolve?

GC: Demand keeps growing, and we are only scratching the surface of our potential in this category. Our dried mangos have also been driving the demand for our fresh mangos as well—when people try dried mangos, they want to try fresh mangos.

We are working hard to meet all of our orders with demand being so high. We only use certain varieties of mangos that create the flavor profile we are looking for in the finished product.

Overall, we see this category as one that will drive growth for Freska while keeping with our “Think Mangos, Think Freska” motto.

 

JP: I know that the search for healthy, delicious snacks is on the majority of shoppers’ radars as they hit the grocery store. How do dried mangos play into this demand?

GC: Mangos pack over a dozen Polyphenols, an antioxidant that shields cells and tissue from damage and disease. Mangos also boost the immune system with vitamin A, which can improve skin and hair health.

One cup of mangos provides 75 percent of daily vitamin C. Studies on people with chronic constipation, funded partly by the National Mango Board*, found vitamin C to be more helpful than fiber, and what better way to take your vitamins than with a delicious mango?


Additionally, while it seems unlikely that such a sweet food like mangos would improve blood sugar, a study by Oklahoma State University** found it to be true.

To top it off, our dried mangos are 100 percent natural, USDA Organic certified, non-GMO, and Kosher. The ingredients on the package say Organic Dried Mangos, and that is exactly what consumers will get.

It’s hard to deny the health benefits, and these dried mangos are even harder to put down.

 

JP: I noticed that while you were discussing Freska’s dried mangos, you touched on organics quite a bit, Gary. As consumers have continued to embrace the category, how have you seen the call for organic products shift?

GC: Organic mangos have been a driving force in our sales growth, and we have seen exponential growth over the last five years across the category.

Most people see organic as better for one’s health, and they like the fact that the products are free of conventional pesticides and fertilizers. Thus, we have seen tremendous growth as more people pay attention to organic, leaving retailers wanting to offer organic products to customers more and more within the last few years.

 

JP: Obviously, Freska likes to stay ahead of the curve on shopper trends. How have you evolved your strategy to match the growing push for organic products?

GC: Organic fruits and vegetable sales in 2020 alone were over $8.5 billion, up more than 14 percent from the year before***. Already representing 12 percent of fresh produce sales, we see this trend continuing with the industry and our growers, so we are urging them to become organically certified as this demand continues to increase.

Consumers are increasingly selecting organically produced food due to health, environmental, and animal welfare reasons. Even though price premiums remain higher for organic than conventional, they are willing to pay the price premium for the benefits and the way the category fits with their lifestyle.


Now, as you continue your journey across the oftentimes challenging territory of consumer habits, take this field guide along to make navigation a little bit easier. And always remember to pay close attention to the change of the winds. That is the key to mastering the landscape.