New processor sets up shop in Arizona

September 10, 2008

In the early ‘90s, Henry Chavez saw a need for cooling operations in San Luis, Ariz., so he started Spindle Cooling and Warehousing. As that company grew, he watched fresh fruit going through his warehouse to be shipped out and processed elsewhere. With so much volume moving out of state, Chavez saw an opportunity to start his own processing company that would reduce shipping and provide customers with fresher produce. So Chavez and wife Lydia started Lydia’s Specialty Fruit Inc. about a year ago, and the first fresh-cut products are due to roll out this summer.

“I just thought it made sense to build a fresh-cut fruit facility right here, reduce all the transportation costs, add additional jobs to the area, help the local economy and have a product that will stay fresher for a longer period on retail and commercial shelves,” Chavez said.

The new processing facility is adjacent to Chavez’ cooling business. The 24,000-square-foot space features state-of-the-art processing lines that can peel, cut, core and slice a range of fruit. Construction of the plant is a three-phase plan, and with phase one completed the initial rollout can begin. The groundwork – the concrete pad and underground utilities – are in place for phases two and three, and an additional 60,000 square feet. Once he reaches capacity in the existing building, all that needs to be done is to put up the walls, and he’ll nearly triple the processing space, Chavez said.

Lydia’s Specialty Fruit will process pineapple, mango, papaya, cantaloupe and other melons in season, apples, grapes and other snack items. Most of the cutting will be done by hand, and Chavez said he was surprised by how efficiently the workers can process the fruit with little waste. The fruit will be cut on a made-to-order basis using the highest quality product – in some cases grown especially for fresh-cut processors. The melons that Chavez will be using will come from Sandstone Marketing, a specialty grower in Arizona that develops varieties well suited to fresh-cuts.

Having a local workforce is one of the advantages Chavez saw when he started looking at the fresh-cut fruit industry. The workers in the Yuma provide a legal workforce that have dealt with guidelines and border crossing for years, and many have family in the area so they want a stable job.

Another advantage Chavez saw was his location near Yuma. San Luis is a port of entry for Mexican produce, and the fruit Lydia’s processes will either enter the country fresh from Mexico or be grown locally. Not having to ship raw produce to California or other states for processing makes the company’s fresh-cut produce three to five days fresher.

“Fresh-cut fruit, such as fruit grown locally, will no longer have to be shipped out of state, processed and then shipped back to the local area for resale,” Chavez said.

The company also is within 200 miles of major markets – San Diego, Los Angeles and Phoenix – that will provide a larger market for the products.

Experience Matters

Lydia’s Specialty Fruit isn’t Chavez’ first produce endeavor, nor was Spindle Cooling. He’s spent his entire 45-year career in some aspect of produce. He earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in biology from New Mexico State University then worked in the agriculture industry for seven years before returning to school to earn his doctorate in plant pathology from the University of Arizona.

His science education coupled with his agricultural experience led him to California farm businesses in the 1970’s. He worked for Superior Farming Co., working his way up to the vice president and chief operating officer level. In 1988, he joined a farming and distribution business, where he handled international distribution and procurement.

In the early ‘90s he set out on his own with Spindle Cooling. That company now handles raw product shipped to and from Mexico, Canada and the United States in its 50,000-square-foot cooler and 7,000-square-foot freezer. The recent price increases of diesel fuel have helped the cooling business, Chavez said. Business is double what it was last year due to shippers crossing the border as close to the source as possible, rather than going across to McAllen, Texas, which used to handle more of the trucks that are now crossing at border towns like Yuma and Tijuana.

The cooling facility sits in the San Luis Industrial Park, which he manages as the president and director of operations. Since 2004, the industrial park has grown from 25 acres to 64 acres and will be expanded to more than 100 acres by the end of the year.

Despite Chavez’ experience in the produce industry and managing businesses, he decided to partner with Desert Best Distributing, a Yuma-based company founded by Frank Ruiz in 2003. Desert Best started as a distributor of janitorial supplies in the Yuma area, then acquired the rights to a food-contact-safe sanitizer – DBK with the active ingredient trichloromelanine – and then purchased downtown Yuma’s landmark Kress Building and a family fun center called Yuma Fun Factory.

The marketing agreement with Lydia’s Specialty Fruit will make Desert Best the sole marketing agent and distributor for the fresh-cut fruit products.