With food safety being such an important issue nowadays, being able to make a fresh start was important when Robert Rossi with his high school buddy, Anthony Cagnacci, started Field Fresh Farms in 2004 in the heart of California’s “salad bowl to the nation.”
“We enjoy being in the Pajaro Valley – it’s less industrial and more like country,” Rossi notes. “There’s nothing but rolling hills and strawberry fields around us.” The company’s fresh start in the valley next to the famous Salinas Valley enabled it to build a 60,000-square-foot processing and cooling facility that is kept at 34 degrees Fahrenheit. “We process in cold temperatures to keep the product fresher with no chance for bacteria growing – they need 40 degrees F and above,” Rossi asserts.
This is cooler than many competitors’ facilities, he says. “A lot of them like to process around 50 degrees F for the comfort of the employees, so a lot of places are starting around 45 to 50 degrees F,” Rossi maintains.
“There’s few people who like it cold like us,” Rossi continues. “We really have a strong background in food safety and quality – just being an inspector for many years – so we really take that stuff seriously.”
Processing facilities in California are governed by the California leafy greens marketing agreement that prescribes food safety standards for produce growers, processors and distributors. “We use third-party audits to keep our plant up-to-date,” Rossi declares.
Founded in July 2004 with four employees, Field Fresh Farms did not have a lot of history to work against. “We had an opportunity when we put our state-of-the-art process plant together to meet all our food safety measures and all the new metrics that we were given by the California leafy greens marketing agreement,” Rossi points out. “When we first started, we were already working with those metrics right off the bat and did not have to teach our employees new tricks because they all started doing the right job.” The company now employs 80.
Buyers in Force
Rossi has been in the produce industry for 25 years. He started as a produce inspector for The Fresh Network and worked his way through various companies’ buying offices. After that, he became a broker on his own for another 15 years before he went to the other side for a shipping job.
While there, he met an old high school friend, Anthony Cagnacci, who was married to a farmer’s daughter. So he and Cagnacci decided to put together Field Fresh Farms using the same philosophy as a buyer.
“I understand both sides of the spectrum when it comes to buying or selling,” Rossi notes. “That has helped us in having a lot more repeat customers.”
The produce business is highly competitive and dominated by companies with long histories in the Salinas Valley. “People don’t usually start businesses in pretty much an established business with generations of companies who have already been around,” Rossi concedes. “It’s a tight, small community of established businesses and hard for a newcomer to come in and jump into this market.”
The Gourmet Way
Field Fresh Farms prides itself on working with farms that avoid mass production with millions of employees. “We kind of make that same product and go more the gourmet way of it,” Rossi emphasizes. The difference starts with the packaging.
“With our white box, we go a little bit farther,” he stresses. Instead of using a cheaper film on its packages that fogs up and has a milky look, Field Fresh Farms uses a clear pillow pack bag that holds 3 to 4 pounds of the company’s produce, which includes arugula, spinach, mixed greens, frisee, baby greens, cabbage and herbs.
“They get a full look at the product so they can see the quality there,” Rossi emphasizes.
“We spend a little more in packaging and cartons to make our product stand out a little more than the other people.” Another competitive advantage Rossi cites is customer service.
“We feel it is more important to take care of the customer on good pricing,” he continues. “We try to maintain a price our customers can handle, so they can make the money and hopefully we can reap the benefits afterward. Instead of doing a price gouge and reinventing the customer every day, we’d rather keep him around and have him buy from us another day, knowing he will always have the same price and the same quality of product.”
100 Percent Confidence
Field Fresh Farms’ customers include wholesalers, distributors and commercial chain restaurants. “They take 100 percent of our product,” Rossi declares. “Instead of buying spring mix from three different people, they buy all their spring mix from us. They feel confident they can give us 100 percent of their business on these items, knowing they are going to be covered and get a year-round consistent quality.”
The company is obtaining more business from chain restaurants than retail distributors. “Even with the economy how it is, people still go out to eat,” Rossi maintains. “People aren’t used to eating at home five days a week anymore, no matter how hard they want to. Between the family running around taking care of sports, the causal dining is showing more strength now than it was in the past.”
Field Fresh Farms has started an organic label named Beach Road Organics. “We established that a couple years later in 2006 to help try to push us going more green,” Rossi says. “We’d like to get organic and sustainable farming a little bit closer together to where maybe for farming, it doesn’t have to be 100 percent organic, so we can still keep costs down and still make sure we are selling the customer a nice product.”
Rossi and Cagnacci are co-CEOs of Field Fresh Farms, and their skills complement each other. Cagnacci was a California state investigator for the Department of Motor Vehicles for years. “His strong criminal background really fits well in the new food safety program that we had to have out here because those two items go hand-in-hand,” Rossi notes. “There’s a lot of investigating and a lot of troubleshooting and problem-solving there. He’s pretty much taken over all that and run with it to make our food safety program one of the top food safety programs out here.”
The company’s vertical integration allows it to be responsible for its products from seed all the way to the fork, Rossi maintains. “We handle everything between processing and sales and shipping and handling,” he emphasizes.
“When you’re buying produce from us, we can pinpoint that product to the row,” he says. “We know what branch it came off and where the seed was bought from. A lot of people out here have four to 100 different growers, and it’s just hard to keep all that in check with the requirements that we have to carry here for a strong food safety program.”
Rossi insists that his experience on the buying side is what enabled his company to work its way into the industry. “I try to think more like a buyer,” he stresses. “When our customers call, I sympathize with them, and I know their thoughts and what they need to get accomplished so they can make their sale. And if they can make their sale, we definitely have their sale.”