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The Making of Fresh Produce's Jekyll and Hyde: A Q&A With John Pandol, Director of Special Projects, Pandol Brothers

The Making of Fresh Produce's Jekyll and Hyde: A Q&A With John Pandol, Director of Special Projects, Pandol Brothers

"Could we do a Jekyll and Hyde version?”


This was John Pandol’s first suggestion for our piece.

Am I the Dr. Jekyll to his Mr. Hyde, coaxing out information that the latter would otherwise keep hidden from the former? Hardly. For those of you who know John, his punches aren’t pulled—he no more needs a Jekyll than I need a hit over the head.

Just as Robert Louis Stevenson’s novella outlines, John is his own Jekyll and his own Hyde. He reveals more than he conceals, brandishing this duality of self with an aplomb that would make any Victorian-era antagonist proud.

But perhaps the most salient similarity between our eponymous Jekyll-Hyde and the Director of Special Projects for Pandol Brothers is the fact that none of them can be properly represented through text. To represent John here is to offer you as much of his personality as I can through a medium that begs for color and sound.

John and I covered a lot of ground on our call, from the issues of scalability to “the tyranny of the clueless,” a phrase that will soon become a standard in my verbal repertoire.

So let’s dig in—and you can decide for yourself whether John is more Jekyll than Hyde.


Anne Allen: Right out the gate, we’ve got quite a phrase to unpack. “Tyranny of the clueless.” What does that mean to you? And how does it tie into a mentality that you’ve described as young-enough-to-change-but-old-enough-to-know-better?

John Pandol: Not every new thing that comes down the pike is worth adopting. We’re always looking at new stuff, but it’s tempered by the history of having our fingers burned by going too hard, too fast and things didn’t pan out. Every time some “best thing since sliced bread” or “if you’re not using this technology, you’re going to be outside the economy,” idea comes around, I go, “Yeah, right. Here we go again.”

In this business, we’re catering to consumers who are swayed by anything from new technology to their own emotions. They want pure food, but they want it without any insect damage or disease and with absolutely no chemical use. It’s an impossibility. So, we start chasing attributes and practices based on the perceptions of a consumer that really doesn’t know what we do and doesn’t know how we do it.


AA: That old-enough-to-know-better mentality must also connect with your understanding of scalability and not growing too big for your britches. How do you balance growth without outstripping your business?

JP: I know that economies maximize typically at a point that is much smaller than the engineers or the market advisors estimate. And, of course, you wonder, “If I controlled a big part of a certain market, surely that would be good.” Not necessarily. Of the grocery consolidations in the ’90s, how many of those organizations still exist? Not the banners, but the organizations. We’re seeing the same thing in produce—not operations that are too big to fail, but that are too big to succeed.


AA: Sometimes our perception of what is good as a business practice doesn’t match up with reality. I know we stumble into that line of thinking when discussing the difference between being family-owned and family-operated. When taking this into account, how do you position Pandol Brothers?

JP: Pandol Brothers is family-owned but not family-managed. We went through a significant period of growth in the ’70s, and we needed different levels of expertise to fill in the gaps, so we brought on sales managers and operational people outside of the family to flesh out the ranks.

It’s kind of an Americana myth, the idea that a “we want to keep this in the family,” mentality is a best practice. Some of the owners work here and some don’t. Most of the managers of the distinct lines of business have been non-family members for decades.

AA: With this in mind, what do you think really matters most to your customers? And what does that mean for you and Pandol Brothers in terms of being a good grape supplier?

JP: You have to balance the benefits between the buy-side and the supply-side. Because you know what? They both have to win. I would also say you need to not get distracted by all the small pieces. Focus on the big piece which, for us, is red and white seedless grapes. All these niches—the organics, the specialties, the black seedless—they all have their place. But for us, it’s red and white seedless.

Another piece of the puzzle is on the service side. A small benefit you’re never going to see in any ad is that our average truck is here for 25 minutes, and then we get them out. Fast loading makes fast friends.

I would also say finding the optimum maturity and true shelf-life is important. In the grape world, we’ve ruined many good varieties by storing them too long, or picking them too quickly or too late. So, my job is to evaluate, assemble, and optimize all available seasons and sources to create the best 52-week supply. I basically curate seasonal supplies to make it look like a seamless deal. And look good doing it.


AA: High-fiving you through the phone, John! Now, you’ve been in this business for quite some time. When did you really find your stride?

JP: I was working in Chile and Mexico in the ’80s and ’90s, and in the 2000s I turned my focus to the U.S. and spent more time learning merchandising. I began to question why we didn’t or couldn't sell certain things—one of the things I always say is, “Accountants live in the past, sales people live in the present, and marketers live in the future.” One is looking at last year’s numbers, the other is demanding more grapes to sell now and planting more than is needed five years down the road. I’d been on the supply-side of the business, so it was time to dive into the sell-side—to move from historical data-based trend tracking to forecasting.

I had a black composition book I’d take into stores and write down what I saw price-wise, the packaging, and how the packaging was being displayed. Basically, I learned merchandising from the store backward. This was a time when merchandisers were starting to make more of the decisions and not buyers. Those are the people thinking, “If I put that item in, am I going to cannibalize another better item?” So they made the decision and advised the buyer to either buy black grapes or not buy black grapes.

"You have to balance the benefits between the buy-side and the supply-side. Because you know what? They both have to win."

John Pandol, Director of Special Projects, Pandol Brothers

AA: This is how you came to understand what innovations you should be committing to, right?

JP: Right. And about 10 years ago, we were asking ourselves, “What do we want this business to be? What do we want it to do?” And management looked at my role and said, “You know what? You know a lot of stuff, you just need to be out and about with your eyes and ears wide open and make sure we don’t get burned. Make sure we’re doing the right things, and we’re not wasting time with the wrong ones.”


And so the Director of Special Projects was born.
Not concocted in a lab, but through a carefully observed chemical reaction called experience.

You’re probably wondering whether I see more Jekyll or Hyde in him, and my response to this query is simple: John knows when to unleash Hyde—and I think we could all learn a lesson from that.