Adapting to Changing Needs
By Peter Hildebrandt
Perhaps one of the main reasons for the success of Walter P. Rawl and Sons Inc. is the company’s ability to adapt to changing needs. The Pelion, S.C., company started out in the early 1920s with a mission to serve the local community and now supplies fresh-cut, packaged greens to customers all over the eastern United States. The company’s own fleet of trucks ships fresh-cut and packaged greens all over the South and now in many other locations east of the Mississippi River. They currently deliver as far north as Rochester, N.Y.
Walter P. Rawl and his wife, Ernestine, began their produce business by growing and selling peaches. “In the early days we did a lot of canning,” says Ashley Rawl, director of sales and marketing and a grandson of Walter and Ernestine Rawl. “This started right in the backyard. At that time, there was very little refrigeration or ice around so we had to sell what we could locally and then canned the rest for sale in the local markets.”
The Early Days
In the 1920s and ’30s that included a wide variety of items. To meet the needs of a community struggling through the Great Depression, the Rawls accepted products, such as homegrown okra, from local families for the canning process. People could bring one basket of okra, one basket of tomatoes, or whatever they had, and be paid cash for their produce.
“We would then add this food to the canning operation,” says Ashley. “This was a way to make good use of what was grown in the local community. It was up to the people how many baskets they wanted to contribute.”
In the mid-1970s, the Rawl family left the peach business entirely. It also stopped growing another longtime crop, sweet potatoes. At that point, they moved into more traditional vegetable crops including most of the locally and regionally grown, popular dark green vegetables such as collared greens, green onions, mustard greens, kale, turnip greens and spinach.
The Rawl Company’s timing could hardly have been better. These traditional “Southern” vegetables continue to grow in popularity as consumers become more informed about healthy foods.
“I think we have seen growth due to new information on the benefits of eating the vegetables we produce and process,” says Ashley. “There seems to be more talk on TV and radio shows as well as information in magazines that point to dark leafy green vegetables and their healthfulness.”
New Packaging Facility
In the early 1990s Rawl Produce decided to package its cut produce. The family didn’t have the facilities then to do the packaging itself and worked with a packaging firm in Columbia, S.C. After a year, management decided to package its produce at its own site. Since 1999, the family has been utilizing a new packaging facility outside of Pelion, S.C., about 20 miles from its old location. For a while, office staff had to cram into one small glassed-in room. Then, eight months ago, Rawl Produce moved into a brand-new corporate office building in front of its packing facilities.
The capability of offering a year-round, steady source of fresh produce, as well as good service, has helped the Rawls achieve a high rate of customer satisfaction.
“We constantly strive to be progressive and are always looking for new ideas and ways to improve,” notes Ashley, “be it crop rotation, growing or running test plots to grow a better product. Whether for processing or whole products, we deliver straight to the fresh market.”
As food safety is one of the bigger concerns, the company has a HACCP (Hazardous Analysis Critical Control Points) program is in place, and its food safety practices are all audited by AIB (American Institute of Bakers) certified. AIB has been in business for 100 years and is recognized internationally for the highest standard of food safety auditing possible.
Rawl’s food safety management team includes: Leslie Benton, food safety QA/QC manager, and Marshall Sherman, head general manager of warehouse and fresh-cut operations. The company’s AIB certification runs from all the way through – from seed to its distribution channel including truck fleet. From a harvesting standpoint, they can document back to the planting stage.
Ability to Track Produce
“We can track anytime anyone goes into a field for over five minutes,” says Rawl, “anyone who does any work at that location has a daily worksheet that they have to turn in. It is then put in the computer program when someone is in that field, as well as what they did. If they worked with a certain tractor or coded implement, it has to be recorded when they wash that implement. We are proud that we have created special handling processes for our specific type of products. This happens all through the growing process.”
“I put a quality inspection process in place,” says Benton. “Now, we have inspection sheets that can track things back in time. FDA’s guidelines for fresh-cut produce are just coming out, but we are ahead of the game.
“Rawl does a lot of in-process quality inspection checks. My goal is to keep them on the cutting edge of technology. I want them above and beyond standards. People from a major produce company at a seminar I attended recently in Davis, California, approached me and asked about the degree of testing we do. They were impressed that we go as far as we do.”
Much of Marshall Sherman’s focus lately has been on researching packaging based out of Europe. “Europe has been ahead of the U.S.” says Sherman, “because they don’t have as extensive a cold train, so they try to let their packaging do their work. I’ve been working with two outfits in Switzerland, one out of Denmark and one out of London. These technologies have not been used in the United States. What these new products do is allow the product being shipped to respire at different rates. It also helps control the moisture vapor transmission rates. These products contain some new nylon-based films. My goal is to increase the shelf life as much as possible – without chemically altering the product.”
Sherman is very active too, in assuring that other growers and locations where they obtain produce to sell, meet Rawl’s exacting standards. “The Rawl Company makes that investment,” says Sherman, “to have us go and check on how their products are being handled. If it’s not the way we want it done, we go elsewhere. We are not going to put our name and reputation on the line.”
Marshall Sherman asserts that many growers have not made that investment yet and he admits it is a huge cost. But just as in past times, Rawl is trying to stay ahead of trends. They have 9 to 11 new produce items that they are currently working on that are not yet on the market. But the company wants to make sure that they put the product in the package and it doesn’t go bad on the store shelf.
For Walter P. Rawl and Sons Inc. the more things change, the more the company seems to be sticking with its original vision, helping meet the produce needs of their community. Only now, their community is a great deal larger.
© 2005 Columbia Publishing