‘New school’ produce guys grow sales at ‘old school’ company

Phil Riggio, CEO of Detroit-based Aunt Mid’s Produce Company, considers himself an “old school” produce man, so he’s letting some “new school” men take the company into the future.

They are Riggio’s three sons: Dominic, Vincent and Phil. They range in age from 21 to 29 years old, but they’re old hands at the business, having worked there since high school.

Aunt Mid’s is a regional wholesaler, repacker, retail processor and foodservice processer. The company distributes in a 500- to 600-mile radius around Detroit. In the past four years, the company has grown 25 percent, Phil said, and he thinks there is potential for that much growth in the next four years. He also believes his sons will be the ones that inspire and guide that growth.

A Family Business

The three brothers and their dad work together in the same office with no walls or dividers between them. Phil is the CEO and mentor to his sons, Dominic as the president, Vincent as the vice president and Phil Jr. as the buyer. But they say the titles aren’t important to them.

“We don’t really get caught up with titles here,” Dominic said. “They don’t mean anything to us. We run the business from top to bottom. We’re working owners and we don’t sit behind our desk with a title on our business card. We come to work every day and work the business.

“We know our capabilities in each spot, I know our capabilities in sales and distribution, Vince understands what we can produce and Phil understands what it takes to source the raw products.”

At the end of every day, they meet in the center of the room at a small table. It’s here that they discuss the events of the day and any ideas for new products they may have. That flow of communication extends beyond the office, the Riggios said.

“It never gets left here,” Phil Jr. said. “We’re always talking about work when we go home, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

The Riggio brothers all started from the ground up and, combined, they have worked every job in the company. Phil started as the trash compactor, stomping down garbage in the dumpster. Working every job in the company was an important part of learning the business that their dad passed on.

“If you’re going to end up being in charge of somebody that has responsibilities underneath you, you need to know what it takes to get that job done firsthand,” Dominic said. “That helps when we’re hiring people … because we know what the job entails. There are a lot of responsibilities around here.

“Our dad taught us the right way. He made us earn it and appreciate what it takes to get the job done. I know he had it the same way, so certain things have to carry down.”

As Phil steps back and lets his sons run Aunt Mid’s, he’s confident that the company is in good hands. He said he tries to teach by example and demonstration, and will continue to share his experiences with them. But he says they have one thing that can’t be taught: a passion for the business.

“They’re prepared, because they’ve taken the bumps and bruises along the way,” he said. “The best part about it is they only get bumped one time and they learn.”

And the brothers agree that passion is their driving force, but working together is a competition, too.

“We’re very competitive and very passionate about what we do,” Dominic said. “It’s not a job to us, it’s our life.”

His brother Phil put it another way.

“We do it because we love it, and the money, positive or negative, is a way of keeping score.”

Fresh-Cut Facilities

Aunt Mid’s has been in business almost 60 years, starting with one line of spinach in 1948. The Riggio family has owned the company since 1984, and in that time it has grown to encompass foodservice and retail produce including potatoes, lettuce, celery, tomatoes and the product that started it all, spinach.

Some products, such as the complete line of mixed salads, are only packaged for foodservice customers, but many of Aunt Mid’s products can be found in supermarkets throughout the region.

The company is a retail processor, foodservice processor, repacker and wholesaler. So anything a customer needs, the Riggios can provide from their fresh-cut facility or their wholesale spot at the Detroit Produce Terminal.

Aunt Mid’s has a commitment to food safety. The company has a HACCP and a Good Manufacturing Practices program, there is a trained microbiologist on staff and a quality assurance team that conducts practice recalls.
All of the produce that comes into Aunt Mid’s facility has been seen by one of the Riggios at some point in production.

“I think that because of our produce background we have an uncanny knack for good quality,” Dominic said. “We don’t see produce as product. We look at the celery as celery and the spinach as spinach.

“When a consumer picks up an Aunt Mid’s product at a store, it’s typically four to five days fresher than product from other parts of the country. And it’s been looked at by one of us at this table, so we are confident of the quality.”

A part of keeping their produce fresh is buying from the most recent harvest. Aunt Mid’s is competing with growers trying to sell their whole harvest, but Aunt Mid’s can choose to buy the freshest produce.

“We’re always staying in the new crop. We’re not worried about getting what’s in the field in the bag, we’re worried about finding the newest, freshest lot or load,” Dominic said. “We have the flexibility … to switch on a dime. We stay new crop with all of our programs.”

Buying from the freshest crop means fresher produce year round, and that’s the most important aspect to customers.

“In the end, it’s going to go on an Aunt Mid label and if it doesn’t hold up on the shelf, what does it say about us?” Phil Jr. said. “We’re not going to do anything to jeopardize the integrity of our label and packaging.”

Over the years, the company has developed cost-cutting processes and new ways to use otherwise unusable produce. When Phil Jr. first started buying potatoes, suppliers were practically giving away the smallest grade. Aunt Mid’s started packaging them in smaller packs, and that turned into a successful line. They sell the small red and yellow potatoes in 3-pound bags and 1-quart trays to retail markets.

Aunt Mid’s also sells sliced tomatoes to foodservice customers, but there was a lot of the tomato left over that wouldn’t make large enough slices. The Riggios had workers dice the remaining portion of the tomato for use in the company’s line of salsa.

Customer service is the highest priority at Aunt Mid’s. Anything that a foodservice or retail customer could want can be done. Specialty packs, pack sizes or special cuts are just a few of the services, and the orders can be processed quickly. There’s no lead time, so an order can be processed and delivered usually in one day. And it may even be one of the Riggios dropping it off.

The Future

Phil said his sons are helping to take the company “into the new millennium.” They have introduced new products, such as a line of salad dressings and salsas, and are finding new ways to distribute them. Because salad dressing has a shelf life of 13 months, and salsas three months or more, they’re experimenting with selling products over the Internet. So far, they’ve shipped dressings as far as Idaho and Florida.

“We’re looking at e-commerce as a way to do business and move forward,” Dominic said. “Yes, we’re the old-school produce guys, but we’re still with the times.”

The brothers are also looking at products to complement their new lines, whether it’s a raisin or crouton for salads or a ready-to-eat line. They see convenience as a driving force in the market right now.

“There’s a big push toward microwavable as well, and we’re looking to switch a lot of our packaging to that,” Vince said. “We’ve done a lot of research on microwavable films and coax films, and what makes this film microwavable versus that film. I can’t tell you the amount of hours we’ve spent in meetings with film people talking about the chemical properties and physical properties of film.”

Detroit Produce

Operating in the Detroit metropolitan area offers some unique challenges. The city has a long history of quality produce suppliers, and even the large chains have to provide higher-quality produce to compete.

“We can only sell the best here. Period. There’s no room for marginal quality here,” Dominic said.

But that environment has helped Aunt Mid’s carve out a niche of quality goods. Phil said the company’s reputation for being fair and honest, as well as providing quality produce, has led to interest from national and regional retailers for private labeling.

“In the trade, it probably highlights us even more, to think that possibly a national chain would come to us to do something like that, with their strict requirements, with their certification and tolerances that they have,” Phil said. “I look at it as a feather in our cap.”

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