The Tedesco family’s roots may be in farming, but they continue to blossom as processors of fresh-cut produce and related products.
In 2008, the family sold Missa Bay, the Swedesboro, N.J.-based company they had purchased and built with a partner by cultivating the growing retail and quick-serve restaurant (QSR) market for modified- atmosphere packaged salads and fresh-cut fruits, along with fresh snack items for fast food giants including McDonald’s.
But they didn’t just turn over the keys and go fishing. For one, they remain farmers, growing zucchini, carrots, soybeans and corn on about half the 1,000 acres at their Sunnyside Farms in Rosenhayn, N.J.
And they went on to buy Safeway Group, a frozen storage, logistics and transportation company on 40 acres adjacent to an active rail line in Vineland, N.J., not far from the farm and their homes. Spending two years fixing it up, they retrofitted a little less than half of the full 70,000 square feet they expect to eventually be using for manufacturing.
In 2011, the first Safeway Foods products began rolling off the line. Today, they’re going full tilt again, developing new products with an eye toward the convenience store sector — and breakfast.
Fresh to fresh-cut
Sal and Anna Tedesco’s fathers got the ball rolling by becoming farmers in Rosenhayn after emigrating from Sicily. Both Sal and Anna grew up working around the farms, and Sal said farming remains his passion.
“You can take the farm boy off the farm, but you can’t take the farm out of the farm boy,” Sal said. “This is something I really like to
do and through my career as a food processor, I’ve spent a lot of time buying a lot of property to prepare to, at this age of my game, be able to continue to farm.”
“We had the opportunity come along to be a processor for Progresso and Campbell’s Soup,” Sal recalled. “We were growers for those people; they knew us well.
“Farming was where we came from and processing is what we learned how to become.”
They called the business Sunnyside Vegetables, expanding into fresh deli salads in the mid 1980s. In 1991, Sal sold Sunnyside Vegetables and the family started a new company called Cherry Hot Shots in Vineland. There, they produced an Italian delicacy consisting of cherry peppers stuffed with prosciutto and marinated provolone.
At the same time, Sal was beginning to dabble in modified- atmosphere packaged salads, which the family then produced for the Wawa convenience store chain. That led to the formation of C&A Fresh Cuts, which paved the way for Missa Bay and what was shaping up to be an explosion in the market for fresh-cut produce.
“We were doing fruits and salads and frozen entrees,” said Frank Tedesco, now president of Safeway Foods. “We did fresh-cut fruit and fruit platters for Costco, we started doing sliced tomatoes for McDonald’s, and also did a frozen blend for them for their fajita dollar menu.
“Then we got into Apple Dippers — that was one of the things we pioneered with McDonald’s. Then my dad had the opportunity to develop a fruit walnut yogurt with McDonald’s that McDonald’s still has today.”
“Previously, we mechanized the operation, where we’ve been going back to focusing on the quality of the product and not so much the mechanizing where it would impede quality,” Frank said. “We’re doing a little more hand cutting, where the consumer gets the best quality product.
“There is some good technology out there, but I think nothing beats the knife and the hand in regards to the fruit category. We’ve seen the pickup in yield, the pickup in our overall end of shelf life products.”
Safeway is concentrating on the convenience sector because that’s where they see the potential for the most growth. They produce about 80 percent under customers’ labels, doing the rest under their own.
“Some of the newer players getting into the game are your pharmacies — CVS, Walgreens, Rite Aid,” said Sam Tedesco, Safeway vice president. “Grocery stores are going to take a few items — maybe the modified- atmosphere single-serve salad, some yogurt parfait cups and side salads, but they’re not going to buy the whole gamut.
“Whereas, the convenience (sector) … they take the entire program as a fresh-to-go food offer. And for QSRs, for the most part, even though they take one item, they buy a lot of one item.”
Looking to grow their roster, the company has already developed more than 200 SKUs for their salads and grab-and-go snack products. Anna continues to influence the recipes and combinations that go into the mix, as she has in the past.
With so many years in the business, the family always has leaned toward retrofitting a lot of its own equipment when it could, and continues to do so.
“It allows us to keep our technology in house,” said Frank.
Safety is also a huge emphasis at all levels of the organization.
“The business has evolved so much in the last 40 years,” said Sal. “From when I started to today, the focus has changed so much on flow and quality, and the safety of the products, where 35 to 40 years ago, it was more about chopping the product and making it survive.”
The new facilities, including cold storage and a fleet of a dozen trucks and twice as many refrigerated trailers, give the company flexibility to get its
product to customers as fast as possible. They consider anything east of the Mississippi — roughly a 12-hour drive or less away — viable for delivery.
And the bottom line?
“There is really an opportunity for us to capture this (grab-and-go) market,” said Frank. “We’re in the right place at the right time.”