You can never truly exhale in this industry.
This is that mythical thread that DJ Ryan shares with me as we navigate through the promises of a new year and the impacts of a decades-long vision for SunDate to translate success into continual growth and excellence.
As I looked back at my notes that revealed the task of this story, I realized that we never truly took a deep breath in this conversation either, except for a few moments of pause. And even those fleeting breaths feel brief as DJ casts a look back over his shoulder—back past the storm of 2020, back around the corner of a 25-year commitment, to a partnership that leveraged the growing and operational expertise of two industry-leading catalysts that raised the stakes on the date category: SunDate and Anthony Vineyards.
“It was the partnership between two like-minded families that truly gave our company the edge, the foundational expertise, and the industry prowess that SunDate is known for today,” DJ tells me. He settles in to share the story of an undertaking to steer a niche category into a highly demanded resource for flavor, nutrition, and, of course, competitive sales in the flourishing specialty foods space.
To break a complex kinship down into its parts, SunDate is structured as a partnership between two families: the Biancos of Anthony Vineyards and the Chuchians of SunDate. Nearly all of the fruit that SunDate runs through the Coachella, California, headquarters is owned by the partnership, either collectively or individually—making the vertically integrated company a mainspring of quality control and diverse resources for its retail partners.
Founded in 1977 by industry titan Sunar “Sunny” Chuchian, category innovator SunDate grew out of a need in the U.S. for a reliable and dependable source for dates that could not only commit to consistent quality and flavor, but address the desire from retailers to give consumers what they wanted: access to a category not readily available in the late ’70s. In 1996, a meeting of the minds brought Anthony Vineyards’ Bianco family and its vast date-growing operations to the table, and the meal was set for a partnership that would allow SunDate not only to thrive, but reinvest back into the company and establish the roots of what we all hope to achieve in this industry: a legacy to rival.
“The fit was gold from the start. On the Anthony Vineyards side, Cookie and Bobby Bianco brought a burgeoning growing enterprise that the Chuchian family needed and wanted in order to establish itself in the category long-term. While principally a grape grower, Anthony Vineyards also happened to be one of the largest individual date growers in California. On the Chuchian family side, Sunny and Gordon Chuchain brought unparalleled expertise in date cultivation, grading, and packing,” DJ says. “It made sense back in the late ’90s, when there was a lot of what we—at the time—described as upheaval in the date business here in Coachella, to form partnerships and strengthen our footprint and commitment in the date industry.”
That partnership found success almost immediately, promoting progress that translated into growth and reinvestment in the business. After Sunny’s untimely death in 2001, Gordon assumed the role of President of the partnership and further invested into the SunDate legacy. Scalable growth is critical in an industry that constantly succumbs to and rivals against the wills of the weather, markets, global competition, and volatile consumer buying behaviors. And these are only a few reasons why you can never truly exhale, DJ reiterates with a laugh.
“SunDate is constantly pushing to find new markets, develop customers, and to help mature our existing relationships. There’s always more fruit coming down the pipeline, and how we choose to address that production matters every step of the way,” he says.
Today, what has emerged from a quarter-of-a-century-long partnership is an industry stalwart and retail partner driven by a passionate vision to impact the space and how consumers experience the date category. As DJ notes, most date varieties in California are centered around the Medjool and Deglet Noor cultivars, with the Medjool variety increasing in usage and versatility over the past three decades. This wildly popular date, coupled with its growth trajectory, has invited SunDate and Anthony Vineyards to grow their acreage exponentially by aggressively planting date gardens.
“Scalable growth is a goal we all strive to achieve in fresh produce, and a difficult one to achieve without the right people, minds, and resources,” DJ expresses to me, and I feel the weight of the venture. Such an effort is at the will of a “chicken or the egg” mentality. Do you become a part of generating demand by planting in the early stages, or do you wait for the heightened consumer interest to dictate the planting? It takes about seven years for a newly planted date tree to produce a crop, making strategic planning critical to success. Calculating the formula is proprietary to many companies, and SunDate appears to have one with a winning streak.
It does go without saying—but, I must—that the needs of the retailers have driven the reinvestment strategies of SunDate on a varietal front in recent years, and they have also driven the need for more organic options to address that evolving sector of the consumer basket. Such a change in the conventional status quo has resulted in SunDate responding with an expansion of its organic offerings.
“Each year, we have more date gardens that transition into organic. In 2021, we’re probably approaching 80 percent of our Medjools grown organically, and about 60 to 70 percent of our Deglet Noor dates will be organic as well,” DJ expresses. “The ability to adapt to a changing consumer environment and retail space is genuinely attributed to our vertically integrated operation and the incredible organic expertise of the Biancos and Anthony Vineyards.”
That vertically integrated element that DJ mentions has also played a significant role in the company’s ability to thrive this past year in an era of COVID-19 and increased food safety demands.
“SunDate is well-positioned for the increased requirements and restrictions around food safety because we are, essentially, our own grower—eliminating a lot of risk due to our ability to have eyes on everything from pollination all the way through harvest. If there are issues, SunDate can trace them back, find the root cause, and correct them immediately,” DJ says, relaying that it is no small feat in today’s age.
Food safety has been a major priority for the SunDate team as it embraces the evolving demands of its partners and the end consumer. With a vertically integrated operation sustaining its success and allowing for essential pivots, SunDate has made tremendous operational investments to execute a safe, quality product from the seed throughout the supply chain.
“With the ownership investing heavily in planting acreage, the two partners also needed to up their investments in state-of-the-art packing and grading equipment—all of which tie into food safety protocols and quality assurance. At our plant, we’ve made big investments on the food safety side, including the evolution and education of fully qualified staff, food safety managers, on-staff food scientist, as well as highly skilled team members that are focused on assuring the food safety piece of the puzzle is locked in place and present in every aspect of what we do,” DJ reveals.
These moves are required by a lot of the customers that SunDate has, from the Costcos and Aldis in the U.S. to major retailers around the globe.
“But, these new investments are a requirement that we welcome because it allows us to confidently do what we need to do to return the highest value we can to our team members and retail partners,” DJ states.
This series of operational investments also allows the team to sleep a little sounder at night, knowing that the company is doing everything it can to ensure that food safety is paramount in SunDate’s endeavors.
SunDate’s operational features, advantages, and benefits extend even further into its thriving date program, all thanks to continuous strategic planning that allows the date grower to remain a leader of the pack in terms of quality.
“On the grading side of it, we’ve transitioned away from purely visual grading, and we incorporated sophisticated electronic grading on both the Deglet Noor variety and the Medjools. With the Medjools in particular, we made a tremendous investment in the last 16 months in grading equipment that can more accurately detect defects, but also more accurately sort and pack consistent grade,” DJ says. “The equipment that we have here is state-of-the-art, and there’s very little as new and modern in this hemisphere. The equipment has helped us tremendously in getting through the pandemic, allowing us to grade fruit with fewer people. Which, when the pandemic hit, we had tremendous challenges around.”
“It was the partnership between two like-minded families that truly gave our company the edge, the foundational expertise, and the industry prowess that SunDate is known for today.”
-DJ Ryan, Sales and Operations Manager, SunDate
Now, the company is able to react and move through the challenges around COVID-19 without interrupting deliveries to SunDate customers. This is incredibly important, as SunDate has grown into one of the largest growers, packers, and shippers of California dates in the Coachella Valley. Not slim pickings for a category transitioning speedily from niche to mainstream.
Such numbers have seen their own evolution, as dates barely had a shelf in the nut aisle three decades ago. Since the company’s inception, SunDate has watched the dynamics of the date category evolve and has pivoted to respond to those evolving changes. Originally, the company settled into Deglet Noors as the driving force behind its program, and Medjools didn’t come in in a big way until the early ’90s.
“There has been an explosive growth around Medjools that started in the ’90s which rippled through a lot of club store business, contributing to a big part of the growth of Medjools,” DJ says. “Consumers began to see that dates were more than just something that went into your grandmother’s fruitcake.”
The consumer interest spawned from two big realizations: One reveal came in the form of the date’s ability to offer a healthier way to sweeten foods as more folks looked to move away from processed sugars. Then, there was the second contributor—the discovery of the Medjool date variety at retail. Behaviors began to reveal that the specialty date warranted more engagement and demand than the date’s status as a simple ingredient. It became a stand-alone item that consumers wanted in their baskets. This spurred the movement of dates from the nut aisle to multiple areas of the store, including the produce department.
SunDate saw date demand around the traditional Western holidays grow at first. Then, retail recognition of how diverse the country was becoming began to develop, as did the impact of the Muslim celebration of Ramadan—which travels forward about two weeks through the calendar each year. Medjool dates, in particular, have now been driving demand exponentially in just the past 10 years.
The area of category expansion can be a double-edged sword, as DJ tells me, but also one that can help fine-tune a company’s focus to an even sharper point.
“Sometimes, you can get so caught up in the growth that you lose the forest in the trees, but at the end of the day, both sides of the partnership are focused on one measurable attribute that genuinely reveals how successful we are: quality. You can be the best without being the biggest, and it’s important that we establish and maintain the reputation of really delivering the best—first and foremost. Scale will come,” DJ expresses, taking a quick pause—so rare in this industry—to reflect. “We like to call our product ‘The best dates under the sun.’ It’s our tagline, but it’s also what we truly strive for. This vision of the Chuchians and the Biancos is spelled out in everything we do and with every handshake and promise to our team and our customers.”
It is this statement that has me turning my own corner in this story. While the company has invested enormously in its operations over the past several of years, I realize that the all-encompassing goal and achievement is actually SunDate’s investment in its word. As a storyteller, that makes the most sense to me. Whether you are a date grower in Coachella or a trade news writer in Sacramento, California, we have more than an industry in common.
We have our word.
And SunDate’s will carry on long past the last breath of this sentence.
That is more than a hope. It is an investment.