We ran a piece, Understanding Risk, which focused on attempts to understand the coronavirus and what risks it posed for the industry and society.
Then we featured a piece titled, Surviving Coronavirus: Baldor’s Trials, Tribulations And Michael Muzyk’s Goal To Keep Everyone Working, which focused on how a very successful foodservice distributor dealt with a world where most restaurants were closed or doing just takeout. Foodservice distribution suddenly was a much smaller business than it used to be.
We then ran a piece we called, Coronavirus/Produce Industry Survival Guide: Specialty Produce Supplier Babé Farms Put To The Test But Meeting The Challenge, which profiled the tribulations of a grower/shipper of mostly upscale foodservice items.
Now, Pundit Investigator and Special Projects Editor Mira Slott speaks with Chuck Weisinger, an industry icon who after working many years at what was called Six L’s and is now called Lipman Produce — his wife is Sheryl Weisinger (née Lipman) — started his own firm.
He just turned 78 years of age, so has seen a lot. We wanted his perspective on the industry in the midst of the coronavirus:
Founder and President
Ft. Myers, Florida
Q: Before we start, I want to wish you a Happy 78th Birthday (March 31)! You bring storied perspective during this extraordinary time.
Your website describes Weis-Buy Farms as an international, full-service produce organization, and notably a specialist in tomatoes:
“We form the link between the grower, shipper and buyer. We become the receiver’s eyes and ears in the field, at the packing facility or assembly area. We strive to keep up with the freshest produce and the most up-to-date pricing. Our staff continues to build a reputation on the success of delivering quality produce to customers at a fair price and get it to the destination on time.”
On any regular day, this is quite a tall order. How has your mission been affected by the global coronavirus pandemic, with exponential growth rates in the US?
A: You ask me about my mission statement; that’s a good place to start. By accessing us, our management and our sales force are trying to ease the burden of our buyers, who in some cases own wholesale companies.
BACKGROUND: What happened was, I decided to retire in 1991, when I was 49 years old. But I didn’t know what to do with myself. I don’t play golf and I don’t play tennis. I joined the Board of United, and all my friends were in the produce business, so I was back to work in about a year, and I’ve been doing this ever since.
My kids now are involved with my old business, Lipman Produce, in Fort Myers, FL, and that’s where we are.
What I tried to do when I went back in with Weis-Buy Farms was to get accessibility for those people that I knew. We understand the receivers we serve, and the problems with timing, quantities and quality, and government regulations. I was a farmer, a shipper, and a grower, so I could relate to all of this.
What we actually do is service wholesalers directly, and they in turn service hotels, restaurants, hospitals, schools and some small chains in the U.S.A and Canada. And we started to reach out beyond these borders to Central America and Mexico.
In the last two months, 79 percent of our product came out of Mexico, as well as Canada in partnership deals with our growers, and some of our importers.
We’re not a nonprofit organization -- well maybe now we are — but we’re trying not to be.
Q: Can you talk about how things have changed with the coronavirus...
A: I live in Lee County, in Southwest Florida, near Ft. Myers, which is being hit hard. Out of 67 counties in Florida, our county has one of the highest coronavirus death rates in the state.
Part of the problem is the age of our residents. We’re probably the only county in the country where you can’t get a 30-year mortgage on a house. I’m being a little facetious, but the truth of the matter is, we have the oldest population of any county in the State of Florida.
So, we have a problem taking care of people here. Restaurants have shut down, like many other places. We’ve got 320 restaurants with just takeout/delivery in our county. Delivery companies have helped.
Q: Has your company been able to ease the problem, perhaps get produce to hospitals and nursing homes?
A: There is a certain amount of institutional business I’ve had, certain hospitals and nursing homes, as well as restaurant trade. We’re trying to have new creative ways of making deliveries. We suggested to our customers that they talk to individual companies to give them discounts and try to get by with this.
Certain things are happening, I know it’s not enough. I know we’re going to see failure of some of the weaker restaurants, and maybe even some chain restaurants that just won’t be able to make it.
Two weeks ago, there was a real pent-up demand, a lot of people did some hoarding. I went by Costco and they had lines out the door both ways, waiting to buy what they considered essential items. It was focused more on toilet paper runs, but this spilled over to the produce.
Locally, our largest chain is Publix. The shelves were bare in some cases. Eventually the supply was replenished, and the shelves were refilled. Now as people are hunkering down, we’re seeing a glut of produce.
In Texas, one of the shippers is at the point where he’s going to destroy 10 million pounds of tomatoes, a great percentage of his crop.
Q: That’s horrible to hear.
A: I think every company that grows produce is in the same shape. One of the bean growers says he’s forced to destroy about half of his crop due to lack of sales. His business could be irreparably harmed.
A strawberry grower has given I don’t know how many pounds of product to food banks. The biggest problem there is getting the product to the food banks on a timely basis, and then getting it to people who need it.
Q: I understand a major portion of your business is as a buying broker for restaurants. The foodservice industry has been pummeled with restaurants across the country mandated to close their doors or limited to takeout/delivery. Are you still moving tomatoes to the foodservice sector in any way?
A: We are getting some demand for the tomatoes, although it’s been tough with all the restaurants closing.
We’re expecting.. we’re hoping… it won’t be long until restaurant customers will be allowed to get out. Major chains are making deliveries right now.
I’m not saying things will get back to normal immediately. The government is doing what it can to help.
I’d just like to think there’s a bright side to this. We’re getting into warmer weather, and maybe that means fewer people getting infected. I’m just hoping the general burnout of the population is a feeling we can overcome.
I know PMA and United Fresh, and most of the industry organizations, are doing everything they can. Maybe I can’t help the microgreens business or those exotic items that go specifically to higher end restaurants, but there are 350 million people in the US, and people must eat.
Q: Could you elaborate on your tomato business, production/harvesting schedules, warmer weather issues, and strategies going forward? What’s going to happen to all these tomatoes? Will there be an outlet? I understand some 70 percent of the tomato business in the southern part of Florida is harvested and winding down, with Ruskin, Florida, now in harvest. What’s going to happen when Quincy is in gear?
A: I don’t know if people realize the financial hurt this crisis is putting on the Florida farmers, with the significant cost of growing in Florida, and having to grow on old land. Do you have any idea of the amount dollar wise?
Q: Please provide some perspective.
A: To grow an acre — a net acre is 44,000 square feet or 200 by 210, about 6-foot rows, 35 linear feet — you ‘ve got no less than $11,000 an acre to grow each acre of straight tomatoes in the State of Florida on average, given good weather.
That doesn’t bring the tomatoes to the packing house. We get between $8-9 a box wholesale for 25-pound box of tomatoes, just to grow. So, if you take 100 acres, and you have to dump it... Once you cut it up and burn down the plastic stream and everything, you have to clean it up, so you’ve got more expense.
In dollar terms, if you have 100 acres, you have over a million dollars in expense to grow. Then you have to turn and clean it up to prepare for the next year. We’re not talking about the food chain… were talking about survival for the farmers. Uncle Sam does not give American growers of perishable crops money to grow crops like [he does] for wheat or soybeans.
When I got started in the business, you couldn't count the number of growers. Today, I would say you’ve got six to eight major tomato growers left in the State of Florida.
The challenges that growers run into… the insurance they need to protect the crops, the costs for fertilizers, etc… it’s a tough situation. This is a pretty serious thing. Thankfully, we had a pretty good fall crop money-wise, and we’re hopeful for the future. If a grower can be optimistic about the future, the U.S. population should be just as optimistic.
Q: With tomatoes more perishable than other items like potatoes or onions, are you looking to build other product areas? Are you getting requests for other produce items?
A: We sell cucumbers, peppers, squash, watermelon, you name it, most crops that don’t require ice. It’s a constant fight whether a tomato is a fruit or veg, but a tomato is a living thing and ripens by itself from green to red naturally. If the temperature is too cold or too hot, it destroys the cell structure of the tomato. So, you can only put tomatoes with certain other items. You can load tomatoes with products that don’t require refrigeration. I always tried to get people to never refrigerate tomatoes. It kills the flavor.
Q: So, there’s potential for your company to build on those products as well.
A: We have been fortunate and have contacts in Mexico and Canada where we’ve been bringing product in for years, and out of Dominican Republic, out of Guatemala and other countries as well.
This year — and I’m not just talking about Florida and Mexico — once the weather straightened out, we had a very climate-friendly winter. We’re able to harvest a little longer than usual. We’re even harvesting a few watermelons in Florida right now, about 15 days ahead of time.
Q: What’s happening with trucking and labor?
A: We haven’t had any labor problems harvesting. This time of year, we’d normally have a shortage of trucks, but due to a lack of business, that hasn’t been an issue. I don’t think trucking will be a major problem. What I’ve done is given most of my trucks an extra day to make deliveries. They can only run 10 straight hours, then need to rest.
We’ve put two people on trucks and we’re running teams, and we’ve been telling our customers to order ahead to give us extra time to get from point A to point B. So, at least for now, we’re OK.
What might happen, once it picks up, I don’t know, because people need to eat.
Q: What percentage of your business is in retail… are there opportunities to expand in this area, or divert your product through other channels? Are you buying for wholesalers who supply retailers...etc.?
Are you involved in any new industry partnerships being formed, such as with foodservice and retail combining forces?
A: We’re trying. We’re working on it. We’re still in the planning stages. Nothing major has happened yet, but it’s a work in progress.
We’re a supply-and-demand business. Over the last 10 years, I’ve seen the number of wholesale and retail customers drop by a minimum of 20 percent. I think this coronavirus crisis might exacerbate this consolidation. I think it might push us into a new way.
I also see online sales going up. To be candid with you, I’m not sure how much, but they’ve spiked. When things normalize, people will find other ways to do things.
Q: What are your projections?
A: So, looking to the future, we’re going to have to realign ourselves for a different kind of business in the next few years. The way we did business in the past isn’t going to work for us anymore.
We are resilient. We’ll survive this like we have survived other crises in American history. We need to approach this with a glass-half-full attitude. I think this will just create a better tomorrow. But right now, people are a little paranoid.
I’ve been doing this since I was 22 years. I’m 78 years old now. I have beautiful grandchildren, wonderful kids, and I’m happy most days. I’m a little sleep-deprived worrying about things, but what am I going to do?
The produce business as an industry has been bombarded by bad news 24/7. It takes a toll on our customers and our sales professionals. You must be good to your people. We’re looking to keep attention to detail and not become cynical.
People are feeling despondent. Personally, I think we need an attitude change in this country. I’m not denigrating the problem. I’m not saying the situation is not major. This is a life-threatening problem. People are dying. But people in this country are basically optimists.
We, as farmers, are giving people the best thing in the world -- fresh produce full of nutrition, full of vitamins. Now that they have to cook at home, they should find out new ways to do it.
I’m very happy that I’m able to do what I do. I keep looking to retire, but there always seems to be something new to look forward to. I want to live to see my grandchildren grow up healthy.
Most of us are housebound and staying home and getting upset about it. They closed the parks here and my granddaughter has been inside for days going stir crazy. We’re not used to it. Will it change things? We may be surprised by the changes we see and how quickly they occur.
At my age, it won’t make a change for me, although my Uncle Bernie is 97 years old. He lives in Brooklyn by the way. We talked yesterday and he was giving me stock tips!
Q: You have good DNA in your family...
A: We’re going to see some pain ahead of us, but people have short memories. Once this crisis is over, I think we have a chance to bring this country back... will it be the same? No. We’re throwing two to three trillion dollars at this thing... but we’ll make the changes necessary. You talk about DNA. It’s in Americans’ DNA.
The industry faces many challenges. Obviously the foodservice sector has been in severe distress. But, when people shift to eating at home, they don’t necessarily eat the same items they had in restaurants. So the production sector of the industry probably is producing many items that will not sell. These can be high-end items used in foodservice or they can be core foodservice items, such as fresh tomatoes that just won’t be used as much if people are cooking.
Although produce has the advantage that when people buy too much in a panic-buying mode, it will mostly be thrown away and more will need to be purchased, it is also true that in the long term, people who bought 100 cans of soup — or canned or frozen vegetables and fruit — may not rush to purchase fresh, especially if the economy is slow and people are trying to save money.
The problems are clear: Food will be wasted, growers will be hesitant to plant, and consumers will use up stock rather than spend money.
But, Chuck has lived long, has seen much and remains an optimist. He has had 78 years to judge the character of the American people, and he says we will overcome. Maybe this is why we always enjoy talking to Chuck.