Some folks in this industry, like myself, ended up falling into their fresh produce careers. Call it destiny, luck, or coincidence—we somehow found ourselves here and fell in love.
But, for Tom Smith, his foray into fresh was filled with purpose.
In spending some time with Tom at the 2022 California Giant Berry Farms Chef Invitational, I saw firsthand how his passion for the produce industry has opened new doors to the foodservice world for fresh berries.
The Director of Sales took his career into his own hands in 2011 when he moved across the country from Springfield, Missouri, to Salinas, California, to pursue a career in fresh produce. In the 12 years since, Tom has carved an impressive path, utilizing his skills as a communicator to make connections along the way.
“I worked as Commissary Manager for a concessions company, which serviced several Missouri sports venues, before landing a role as Produce Buyer for Reinhart Foodservice,” Tom outlines. “I soon figured out one of the best places to be in the produce business was in Salinas, California. I moved out there to fill a transportation position at C.H. Robinson, but was soon hired by PRO*ACT as a Berry Buyer, where I spent five years.”
At PRO*ACT, Tom came to know one of his first mentors in the industry—Joan Daleo, now the President at Ole Tyme Produce. A fellow St. Louis Cardinals and Blues fan, she became quick friends with Tom. This grew to become a mutually respectful business relationship that would play a large role in Tom’s career.
“I soon figured out one of the best places to be in the produce business was in Salinas, California.”
Tom Smith, Director of Sales, California Giant Berry Farms
“I have always had respect and admiration for Joan and her business acumen, wit, and ability to find solutions to problems,” Tom tells me. “Joan is a force to be reckoned with if you are standing between her and what she believes is right or necessary. That’s what I love about her. While she is a ‘no nonsense’ kind of person when it comes to getting the job done, she is a fun character when times are light. Joan is a great example of what leadership looks like!”
One of the berry suppliers Tom became closest with during his time at PRO*ACT was California Giant. It was a company he respected highly in the sector, and soon grew even closer with as his career progressed.
“It was a brand and shipper that represented quality while building out a year-round supply of all four berries,” Tom explains. “Those things made a lot of difference to the foodservice business and how we programmed everything.”
After collaborating with California Giant on how it could implement year-round contracting for its foodservice business, Tom was asked to join the team as the head of the company’s foodservice program. Now, six years later, Tom has played a major role in growing California Giant’s foodservice business and continues to find new ways to raise the bar in berry excellence.
As Tom highlights, one prominent leader within California Giant’s structure who made an impact on him was Founder and Chief Executive Officer Bill Moncovich. He says that while California Giant has evolved over 40 years from a sales office in a single-wide mobile home to a global berry company, Bill has not changed.
“‘Monc,’ as those who know him well refer to him, truly cares about people. Whether it’s our growers, customers, employees, or the communities we grow and work in, people matter the most to him. One of the many reasons I was attracted to working at California Giant was the philanthropic work and community involvement that has always been a priority to Bill,” Tom relays. “Because Bill has always been focused on people, it’s allowed us to attract and maintain a grower base that continues to grow and supply the highest quality berries in the industry. He’s treated them with respect, allowing them to grow and partner over many years and build livelihoods together.”
Outside of California Giant, Tom has been involved extensively in the industry through various networking events, volunteer opportunities, and more. One industry organization he often worked with was United Fresh—now part of the International Fresh Produce Association (IFPA)—which is where he met his third mentor, Michael Muzyk, President at Baldor Specialty Foods.
From his Bronx, New York, accent to his louder-than-life approach to business, Michael made a large impression on Tom, and the two have been working closely ever since.
“Because Bill has always been focused on people, it’s allowed us to attract and maintain a grower base that continues to grow and supply the highest quality berries in the industry.”
“As Chairman of United Fresh, there was a big agenda in front of him, and he was motivated and ready to tackle it. Everyone knew he was laser-focused and was going to own the position and responsibilities that came along with it,” Tom expresses. “I once toured Baldor’s Bronx facility with Michael. He made his daily rounds, greeting each employee by name and asking them about their family, an event from the previous weekend, or something specific to that individual. Within a year or so, we started doing business with Baldor, and I really got to know him when he emceed our 2022 Chef Invitational.”
I promise you, Tom had plenty more to say about each of the three impactful mentors that I could not fit onto these pages. It is clear in hearing Tom speak that he values strong character deeply. Between Joan’s get-down-to-business attitude, Bill’s passion for people, and Michael’s dedication to great leadership, Tom has been molded by each of these mentors along his journey.
In the short time I have known Tom, he has proven himself more than worthy of the title “industry expert.” His penchant for berry innovation married with a knack for foodservice excellence is what makes him a stand-out in this industry. The way I see it, any produce up-and-comer would be lucky to call Tom their mentor.
Now, watch closely as Tom takes to the berry fields with his mentor cap on.
Here is what they have to say about Tom…
President, Ole Tyme Produce
“I first met Tom Smith when he was working for PRO*ACT. He was a very approachable young man who listened intently, was incredibly observant, and seemed to be always learning and acquiring skills. When Tom went through PRO*ACT’s emerging leaders program and I saw part of his presentation, it confirmed how special he was and how big his future would develop. Tom is genuine, and he cares about people and the products he represents. I recently posted about my mother transitioning into assisted living and how tough it was for me and my family. Tom took the time to send me a note, letting me know he was thinking of us. It meant a lot to me, as I believe it would to anyone. That says a lot about the character and compassion of Tom. I believe Tom Smith is the kind of leader young people desire to follow and emulate.”
Founder, California Giant Berry Farms
“Tom has a great passion for the berry industry. He cares about both the customers and the growers—two segments that are hard to balance—and he does it with grace. Tom is a great asset for California Giant.”
President, Baldor Specialty Foods
“While I haven’t known Tom for long, I’ve been really impressed with his approach and ideas. When we met, Tom was Director of Foodservice Sales at California Giant Berry Farms, a company that was well known in retail but not as much in foodservice. Many grower-shippers ignore the potential of foodservice, but Tom saw an opportunity for California Giant to be a challenger brand. He took a few of the larger foodservice accounts, including Baldor, into his own hands. Through his engaging, positive manner, he won our business—and leveled up California Giant’s foodservice sales.
We met in person at our Baldor BITE event. Seeing my presentation there, he asked me to emcee an event for customers that he was holding in Monterey, California. He curated an unforgettable experience including tours of the farms, a culinary competition, and winery visits complete with pairings. I love Tom’s creativity and can-do spirit. Along the way, I shared with him some of the leadership lessons I learned through Baldor and the International Fresh Produce Association—things like never taking no for an answer and never accepting mediocrity. It’s an honor to know Tom thinks of me as a mentor, and I look forward to continuing to watch him grow.”