It’s noon and a food processor needs 100 pounds of diced onions by 3 p.m.
The crew has gone home and a hotel downtown wants 50 pounds of sliced tomatoes in two hours.
That’s how Vegetable Fresh in Chicago operates. Owner Vance Jackson said he’s built a niche in being the go-to guy for fresh cut for foodservice customers who mostly order through distributors.
“What I do is a lot of quick, on-demand things,” Vance said, “so that somebody can give me an order at 3 o’clock this morning and I can have it for them by 4:30 or 5 o’clock the same morning, whereas your larger processors are processing things for orders two to three days in advance.”
A humble beginning
Vegetable Fresh got its start in the early 1980s. One of the men who would become Vance’s partners began by cutting produce in his garage for a major hotel group in downtown Chicago.
“At that time, it was the infancy of this industry, and by today’s standards it would be unimaginable,” Vance said. “And he was doing it all by hand.”
After about four months, the operation moved to a spot in the produce terminal.
“This was 1984, and we didn’t have the machinery we have now, we didn’t have the technology,” Vance said. “Everything was kind of a seat-of-the-pants-type operation, where you were kind of guessing at a lot of stuff. There wasn’t much written about fresh cut.”
Then a major fast food chain came along, wanting to buy diced and sliced onions. Machine companies who had been catering to the meat and cheese industries were adapting their equipment for cutting produce – but the options weren’t nearly what they are today, Vance said.
Still, they pressed on. Vance joined the company and they began working with distributors who were selling to hotels and restaurants. Vegetable Fresh also supplies food processors – companies that make eggrolls and pizzas, for example – and hospitals.
Caterers are also loyal customers.
“Caterers always love our products and the things that we can do to make their job easier,” Vance said. “It’s a daily thing. We’ll cut zucchini or yellow squash eight to 10 different ways. We’ll do mushroom-shaped potatoes, or fruit kabobs – we even put them on the stick.
“And we do fruit trays and vegetable trays upon request, through distributors.”
Michael Kirshner of Staff Kosher Catering in Chicago frequently sources fresh-cut produce from Vegetable Fresh. He frequently caters large events, including some that require kosher products, and Vance works with him to meet his needs.
“It saves me a lot of time and it gives me a better product,” he said. “They’re just wonderful people to work with.”
In 2004, Vegetable Fresh relocated from its last location at the Chicago Produce Terminal to its own 22,000-square-foot manufacturing facility on Chicago’s southwest side, near Chinatown. There they process about 300 different items and run two shifts a day with around 50 employees.
“We’re very efficient at what we do, while never compromising on safety and sanitation,” he said. “We have the capabilities of running 10 to 15,000 pounds of product at a time and can usually do it at a moment’s notice.
“My average run is probably about 200 to 300 pounds of any certain product, and we’ll do as little as 10 pounds of one item if somebody requests it.”
The company doesn’t use modified atmosphere packaging. Instead, they’ve focused on equipment and cutting techniques, using the right bags and preserving the cold chain to ensure quality and shelf life.
“Most of my product is probably consumed within three days after we process it,” Vance said.
While Vegetable Fresh direct-delivers to a few large end users, the rest goes out through distributors.
“Everything I do is foodservice, and currently I don’t do anything at the retail level,” Vance said.
Even through distributors, Vegetable Fresh is able to tailor products to customers’ needs.
“We tell them we can pretty much model anything that you want, from stir fries to custom blends to vegetables cut multiple ways,” Vance said. “For example, we’ll have somebody that wants a zucchini cut on a half moon bias or a carrot cut 1/8-inch by 2 inches. We do a lot of things by hand, so we’re able to tailor just about any kind of cut that anybody desires.”
Angie Bader, marketing coordinator for Testa Produce in Chicago, said custom orders are common, and Testa also orders fresh-cut items to keep in stock.
“Testa buys the product from our vendors, sends it to Vegetable Fresh to process based on the order requirements, and then they send it back to us to distribute,” Bader said. “This is extremely convenient for customers because they can meet all of their ordering needs through us.
“They place one order, and it all comes in together.”
Vance has been seeing growth in demand from restaurant chains through his distributors.
“They realize that pre-cut is definitely the way to go as far as an alternative to trying to do the product themselves,” he said.
School lunch programs have also been a niche for expansion, he said.
Trying to stock the right amount and variety of fresh produce on a daily basis to anticipate demand, as well as unexpected last-minute requests, is a balancing act. Vance tries to buy locally, though purchases directly from California and Florida on larger volume items. His onions come in pre-peeled from California or Oregon.
“I probably have in the neighborhood of 120 different items every day that I keep in stock,” he said. “It’s kind of difficult, but it’s knowing your business and knowing your customers.”
It can get tricky, he said, giving the example of a customer who might normally use 60 pounds of peeled celery root a day.
“Then all of a sudden he goes on vacation and I’ve got that product sitting there,” Vance said. “But almost all of my items I carry, I know that if this guy doesn’t use it, another guy will, so there’s always a backup.
“I try and carry items in my cooler that I know I can move within a two-day period.”
When he does have excess produce that can’t be used in time, it’s donated to food banks through the Chicago Food Depository.
And as fast as the commodities come in, products get turned out.
“A lot of times guys don’t know what they want, or they forget to place their order, or they realize they’ve got a party and they need X amount,” Vance said. “We’re able to react.
“It’s kind of a niche that I have here in Chicago. We do what it takes to get it done.”