Fresh-cut processor expands with 160,000-square-foot facility

There’s one moment that has come to define McEntire Produce.

“We had a customer ask us to start shredding lettuce on a Hobart,” said Carter McEntire, vice president of the Columbia, S.C.-based company. “That’s what got us into the fresh-cut business.”

At that time, lettuce wasn’t even washed – it was shredded, bagged and tied. That customer’s request launched the company from being a repacker to a distributor of fresh-cut produce throughout the Southeastern United States.

McEntire Produce moved into a new, 160,000-square-foot processing facility in the fall of 2006. The move took three months to complete, and the new plant is already paying for itself.

“We are already bringing in new business that we wouldn’t have been able to have if not for the new facility,” Carter said.

Even better, the new business is still in the core competencies of McEntire Produce. The fresh-cut processor, repacker and wholesaler serves the foodservice industry, primarily focused on quick service, quick casual and casual dining restaurants.

That’s not to say the move wasn’t without bumps. McEntire Produce had been at its previous location for more than 50 years, and moving to a new plant meant that some jobs and responsibilities would change.

“Culture is the hardest thing to change,” Carter said. “I don’t want to ever do that again.”

He credits the 350 to 400 employees of McEntire Produce with the success of the move and the company. They worked long hours and had to adapt to a change in the corporate culture.

“When you move a company, you find out real quick who can work 20 hours without a break – who can hang in there when the going gets tough,” Carter said. “What I learned about this company is nobody quits.”

History

Carter’s grandfather, R.C. McEntire, founded McEntire Produce in the early 1940s as a tomato repacking company. When the Columbia State Farmers’ Market was built in 1955 as a terminal market, McEntire Produce was one of the first produce companies there, and remained there until 2005.

In the 1970s, R.C. “Buddy” McEntire Jr. bought out his dad and took over McEntire Produce. He started with three coolers, one 28-foot truck, one tomato line and one employee. He sold repacked tomatoes off the dock at the state farmers’ market, then began delivering to restaurants and retail markets. Soon after, he went full line, delivering lettuce, cucumbers and other vegetables.

“The dynamics of distribution changed,” Buddy said of why he got into delivery. “Those guys weren’t coming anymore.”

That worked fine for about 20 years, he said. But then restaurant chains started to get bigger. They had their own distribution chains, and McEntire Produce didn’t want to compete with them.

“It used to be more mom and pops,” Buddy said.

So Buddy and son Carter decided to build their company by working with restaurant chains, creating innovation solutions for large customers.

“We built the business on the burger business,” Carter said.

The New Plant

As the company grew, the state farmers’ market became too small to keep up with demand. With the addition of a fresh-cut line, McEntire Produce added a packing facility that was 8,000 to 10,000 square feet and had another 60,000 square feet under lease at the farmers’ market.

“We ran out of room,” Carter said.

They leased 20,000 square feet of warehouse space around Columbia, while the state farmers’ market worked on plans to move to a larger area that could accommodate a company the size of McEntire. But plans weren’t moving forward fast enough and the McEntires knew it was time to find some property on their own.

“Our customers, being national brands, let us know we needed to do something,” Carter said.

The result of that is a 165,000-square-foot processing facility that can handle a full-line produce company. Fresh-cut lines include shredded lettuce, salad blends and sliced onions and tomatoes. McEntire also sells wholesale, with case lettuce, bulk onions, zucchini, broccoli and grapes, to name a few. And the company is still a repacker, selling all sizes of tomatoes in bulk, air-sealed packaging or clamshell containers.

Deliveries are made by the 40 trucks and 80 refrigerated trailers the company owns. The trucks allow the McEntires to deliver anywhere in the southeastern United States within a day, Carter said. If an order is in by 10 a.m., it can be processed and delivered by that time the next day.

Owning the delivery mechanism allows the McEntires to control the cold chain more effectively, but the trucks have other advantages. They can provide less-than-truckload shipping for smaller orders or they can ship a full load to its final destination.

“We’re a service company as much as a produce company,” Carter said.

He said that service extends to its products, where the company makes an effort to provide innovative solutions for its customers. About 95 percent of the company’s business is foodservice, so that has come to define its products.

“We have the ability to go retail in this facility,” Carter said. “But we do a better job staying focused on foodservice.”

One product that’s come out of that focus is a tray of sliced tomatoes. McEntire worked with Maxwell Chase Technologies to extend the shelf life of the fresh-cut tomatoes to 10 days.

Carter said developing a new product isn’t always done with a customer in mind. Sometimes they develop a new item and then go seek out a customer. He said they’re looking at getting into fruit or specialized items like pico de gallo sauce.

“Historically we’ve been a reactive company, and we’re trying to move into a proactive position,” he said. “We don’t want to be competing on price – we want to have those innovative solutions.”
Food Safety

“Food safety has always been at the forefront of our mission,” Carter said.

In the processing facility, McEntire Produce has a stringent HACCP plan and a quality assurance staff of eight employees. The company’s motto even revolves around food safety: “Quality is our contract.”

But food safety starts before the produce goes down the line.

McEntire Produce sources its raw product from across the country. Most of the lettuce and leafy greens come from the West Coast, but Carter said they were looking at moving to an East Coast deal. He said McEntire is rigorous about approving suppliers – they’re required to have E. coli assessments, Good Agricultural Practices and Good Harvesting Practices. They’re also required to conduct regular self-audits and third-party audits, which Carter said was making him more comfortable with the quality of his produce suppliers. Even the McEntire facilities go through third-party inspections and audits to ensure they’re following the HACCP plan.

Produce suppliers and buyers have improved their food safety protocols somewhat as a result of the E. coli O157:H7 outbreak linked to spinach, Carter said. But in case there is a test that comes back positive for contamination, McEntire Produce has a full traceability program, forward and back. Each lot is coded, and that code follows the product through processing and to the customer. Food traceability and overall product safety are still improving companies like his, Carter said.

“The industry has some learning to do, but there have been incremental increases in food safety,” he said.

Grand Opening

McEntire Produce wants the community to share in its growth. The company scheduled a grand opening celebration for the end of March so Columbia officials, suppliers and the media could see the new plant.

Carter said they would be sharing the event with their customers as well, with private receptions. He said he wanted to show off the new plant and create stronger relationships with existing customers.

“They’re the reason why we’re here,” he said.


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