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The Nature of the Business: A Q&A With David Dudley, Senior Category Manager, Sprouts Farmers Market

The Nature of the Business: A Q&A With David Dudley, Senior Category Manager, Sprouts Farmers Market

You can experience something 100 times, and it’s unremarkable. However, that 101st time you see, hear, or feel it, it suddenly takes on a new meaning.

I experienced this phenomenon with the phrase “nature of the business.” Since starting in the produce industry, I’ve heard this countless times. Only when I recently spoke with David Dudley, Senior Category Manager at Sprouts Farmers Market, did it truly hit me. The context of his words gave the expression dimension, turning a gear in my mind.

What does that phrase mean when applied to produce and retail?

There is the obvious growing and selling fresh fruits and vegetables, but what about beyond that? After some pondering, I concluded that the nature of our business is just that: nature.

Mother Nature is at the center of the industry, but what I’m talking about extends beyond that into less conspicuous realms. Our industry’s business is contingent upon human nature, the essence of the deal, and, most importantly, the spirit of adaptation and evolution. These players are working alongside Mother Nature to ensure no day is ever the same as the last for buyers and suppliers.

These attributes, my friends, are what David Dudley thrives on. So, let him give you more details.


Jenna Plasterer: David, I know you still consider yourself relatively new to produce compared to the legends who have been at it for decades, but you have been around the industry since you were a kid. How did you decide to take those first steps toward a career in fresh produce, and how did you officially make your foray?

David Dudley, Senior Category Manager, Sprouts Farmers Market: I grew up in a small town in California where agriculture was all around us. In high school, I decided I wanted to attend California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo and study Ag Business. My late stepdad, who was very influential in my life, took that path, so everything just seemed right about it, you know?

When I graduated in 2010, I got a buying job with Markon Cooperative; moved to Salinas, California; and lived there for almost four years. I spent all day buying produce—it was a blast!

When 2014 rolled around, I moved back to my hometown and began working for The Save Mart Companies as a Senior Category Manager, even though I had no retail background. At the time, Steve Junqueiro was the company’s President, so produce culture ran deep. I think that is why they took a chance on me.

“I’m old school for being 34 years old, so I like the nature of the business. Many of our deals are decided in a phone call, conversation, or handshake, and it sticks.”

David Dudley, Senior Category Manager, Sprouts Farmers Market


JP: Having made the jump to retail, especially with no background in the sector, I’m sure you have had some pivotal experiences. What are some of your career-defining moments so far in your journey?

DD: When I started with Save Mart, I worked for Jim Corby, who had moved to the company just three months before me. He was upfront that he planned to be around for four or five years and then consider retirement.

Two years in, at the end of 2015, he told me he was leaving. He said he would strongly recommend me for his position as Director of Produce.

When Jim left, his position was open, and I filled in while still doing my job. I’d get to the office when it was dark and leave when it was dark. It was grueling, and there wasn’t any clear answer for who would take over. Months dragged on, and the boat was still floating. I thought, “Hey, with a little help, I might be able to do this,” but they hired someone more experienced. After eight months, they left, and I eventually got the role.

Overall, it was an actual sink-or-swim situation, and I learned much about growing and adapting early on. It wasn’t easy, but it helped shape me.


JP: I love how, even through that uncertainty and without being able to see your face through the phone, I can tell you are smiling as you tell this story. What makes you so passionate about the industry and the produce side of retail?

DD: I’m old school for being 34 years old, so I like the nature of the business. Many of our deals are decided in a phone call, conversation, or handshake, and it sticks. Not many times in my career have I felt “burnt” by somebody because they didn’t live up to what they said they’d do. Most of the people you meet in our industry have strong moral compasses and want to do business honestly.

Also, it sounds crazy, but I like the constant challenges. I can start my day with emails and get pulled in a million different directions. You can never anticipate what’s coming.

Additionally, I love that we’re sourcing, merchandising, and selling nature’s medicine. We’re providing consumers with the stuff doctors tell them to eat. We’ve also been able to share cool produce innovations with them, which is exciting because it’s been a stagnant industry for a long time. Seeing how they react to new products and concepts is always fun.


JP: Seriously, who doesn’t love cool new stuff? Speaking of innovations and industry evolution, what have been some of the biggest changes you have witnessed since entering produce?

DD: In the past 12 years, organics have grown significantly. From when I first started to where we are now, the category has a much bigger piece of the business. It’s fantastic to see the development.

Growers are also increasingly programming business. By that, I mean retailers work with growers on forecasting volumes prior to planting, so there is more predictability and organization. It’s less free-for-all, with buyers going after one big pile of produce, which is not feasible for either group. It also lessens food waste and increases sustainability, as growers only plant what they need rather than flooding the market.

Lastly, and it seems obvious, is technology. We were still working primarily with fax machines when I was at Markon, and now everything is done online. Not to mention, smartphones have sped up the process, allowing us to send emails and photos that can help determine product quality on the spot. It’s hard to imagine how I did things without some of my iPhone apps.

“...it sounds crazy, but I like the constant challenges. I can start my day with emails and get pulled in a million different directions. You can never anticipate what’s coming.”


JP: In just 12 short years, there have already been so many developments in the industry; what predictions do you have about the next decade?

DD: Organics are going to continue to play a significant role. Especially as farmers advance growing practices and costs get closer to conventional. I’ve witnessed Sprouts and other retailers make moves to go organic only on commodities where it makes sense. Controlled environment agriculture (CEA) will see key changes. For the most part, everyone tends to associate CEA with indoor-grown lettuce, but so many other offerings are produced that way, such as berries.

We’re going to see a lot more refrigeration devoted to produce in stores. Some retailers are already doing a good job getting refrigeration into the produce department, and I’m not just talking about the value-added cases. I’m referring to things like display bins—for items that are not usually considered refrigerated. Instead of storing offerings at ambient temperatures, I believe more grocers will realize that refrigeration will reduce shrink and enhance quality.


JP: Hearing what you say, I’m excited to see how the nature of produce will evolve. I’m also curious to see how your career will continue to flourish. As we look toward the future, do you have any advice for those wanting to make it in the industry, especially as a leader now yourself?

DD: Be prepared. Be present. Work hard. Think outside of the box. If you do those things, you will keep learning and building confidence to go after what you want and overcome obstacles. I’ve been asked in the past how to advance one’s career, and my advice is simple: On a scale from 1 to 10, be an 11. You can’t sit by and wait for an opportunity. A lot of times, you gotta go find it.


In a nutshell, David Dudley exemplifies the nature of our business. He is a swirling mix of business acumen, passion, humanity, and adaptability that forms together to impact the world, one piece of fresh produce at a time. 

The Nature of the Business: A Q&A With David Dudley, Senior Category Manager, Sprouts Farmers Market