In its 25 years, F&S Produce Co., Rosenhayn, N.J., has grown from a seasonal grower/processor to a fresh produce distributor, frozen processor and fresh-cut processor moving more than 50 million pounds of fruits and vegetables annually.
Sam Pipitone Jr. started the company with a business partner in 1981 – he’s the “S” in F&S Produce. He was the third generation of his family to farm in southern New Jersey, but had the chance to process brined green and red peppers for Green Giant’s Mexicorn product. From there, F&S Produce moved into fresh-cut and value-added produce.
Pipitone took over as sole owner and CEO in 1986, and at that time decided to focus the company’s attention on fresh-cuts. He divested the farming operations and sourced produce from around the country. He also started a trucking company, Pipco Transportation, that operates 22 tractors and more than 50 refrigerated trailers. The trucking company hauls F&S Produce products as far south as the Carolinas, west to Ohio and north to New England.
Pipitone built a new 20,000 square foot fresh-cut facility in 1988, and the company’s success led to a 10,000 square foot addition in 1995. Four years later, that plant was added onto again, to include a state-of-the-art quality laboratory and new offices.
In 2001, F&S Produce was again looking to expand its fresh-cut operations. Pipitone bought a nearby 55,000 square foot building to house its steam-peeled carrot line, bagging lines and brined pepper operations. A renovation in 2002 added new fresh-cut lines that allowed the company to expand into retail and foodservice fresh-cuts and a 2005 addition was an individual quick-freezing system (IQF) that allowed the company to offer frozen fruits and vegetables. In 2006, a 15,000 square foot addition was built that increased the warehouse capabilities. A truck dump system also was added at that time to improve the efficiency of the bulk material handling for the IQF processing.
Now with the more than 100,000 square feet of processing capabilities, the company can meet customers’ needs in a variety of ways. In addition to fresh-cut processing, customers can order fresh raw product, frozen processed products or brined products. Pipitone said he is developing a puree in an aseptic pack that would go to industrial trade customers who would use the puree in soups and other products.
“We’re open-minded to serving our customers,” he said. “We look at what’s going on in the marketplace and respond by offering new and innovative products to meet our customers’ needs.”
F&S Produce offers a full line of fruits and vegetables for industrial, food service and retail customers. The big sellers in the industrial market are carrots, onions, peppers and celery. All of the items are processed according to customer specifications and packaged in a wide range of containers from grab-and-go retail packages for Wal-Mart, BJ’s Wholesale Club and Albertsons, and MAP film-sealed trays for Chick-fil-A to 1,500-pound tote bins for General Mills.
F&S Produce’s commitment to food safety includes a written HACCP program and regular third-party audits of its plants by the Food Processors Association’s Supplier Audits for Food Excellence (FPA-SAFE), Cook and Thurber and the American Baking Institute (AIB). F&S Produce requires its suppliers to complete third-party audits and to follow USDA guidelines for Good Agricultural Practices in their growing and harvesting operations. And while it’s not a food safety certification, the company is certified by the Kosher Orthodox Union as a service to its customers producing kosher products. These types of certifications have enabled F&S Produce to participate in a number of programs, including the USDA School Lunch Program to supply schools with salad mixes and ready-to-eat apple slices.
In its continued efforts to respond to their customers’ needs, F&S launched a new product line in October – organic fruits and vegetables in raw, fresh-cut or frozen form.
“Our customers are interested in organics,” Pipitone said.
The demand for organic products came primarily from F&S Produce’s foodservice and industrial trade customers. It was a growing market that Pipitone wanted to invest in, and he was pleased there was that demand.
“We have been paying attention to the marketplace and the trend toward organic products,” he said. “We felt it was a nice addition to our product line.”
Pipitone said he looked at several different USDA organic certification programs and chose the one he felt was the best – the NOFA-NJ certification. It took between four to six months to become certified organic. Doug Nicoll, director of technical services, led the organic certification process. He also oversees quality assurance, R&D and sanitation.
There were additional steps and guidelines that employees and quality assurance staff had to follow in order to handle and process organic produce. The organic produce must be stored separately and special handling practices are required in processing. Extra coordination was needed because the company doesn’t have lines dedicated to organic production.
“I would say that it was not as difficult as we expected,” Pipitone said. “It takes paying attention to the details.”
The plants have a unique approach to processing organics. F&S Produce processes organic produce during the first shift of the day. Following the organics, the conventional produce that makes up the bulk of the company’s sales is processed.
Overnight, the sanitation crew cleans the equipment to prepare for the organic processing again in the morning. The organic certification program requirements required the use of special sanitizers in the cleaning process. Using the same equipment allows F&S Produce to sell the same organic products that they offer conventionally, as long as they can find an organic source. That doesn’t seem to pose a problem either because the company already has a year-round supplier of organic produce, Pipitone said.
Pipitone said the organic market would likely continue to grow, which was good reason for his company to get into organics. Even though it is unlikely that organic produce will replace conventional produce, it’s important to offer products in response to current trends in the marketplace. F&S Produce anticipates that the expansion of the organic produce supply chain will provide substantial growth in this product line in the months and years to come.