Partnering for Success
As director of produce for Sunset Foods, Vince Mastromauro is proud of the selection and space the chain of five food stores operating along Chicago’s North Shore presents in fresh-cut produce.
But, he said, they couldn’t do it alone.
Sunset Foods partners with Indianapolis Fruit’s Garden Cut division, which provides made-to-order fresh-cut fruits and vegetables. In all, Mastromauro estimates, Sunset stocks between 50 and 60 SKUs from Indy Fruit, displaying it in approximately 12-foot sections – everything from 1-pound containers of fresh-cut melon pieces and mango wedges to, well, “There’s a long list,” Mastromauro said. Sunset buys four apple products – tart wedges, sweet wedges, a combo pack and “apple fries,” which are cut like french fries.
Carrot sticks and celery sticks packed in water and veggie and fruit trays all come fresh and ready to sell, under Sunset Foods’ private label. Sunset also sells Garden Cut’s new line of Garden Grillers, kits that come with prepped veggies, olive oil and seasonings, ready to go on the barbecue. In the fall, they buy Indy Fruit’s diced sweet potato, butternut squash and russet potato products.
It’s a partnership that has worked, taking the onus off store staff and enabling Sunset Foods to expand its fresh-cut offerings.
“Before, one store would keep up, but another would be out of stock and can’t keep up,” Mastromauro said. “I chose to go this route for consistency and quality.”
Safety is also a factor.
“They’re a quality vendor,” he added. “They follow all of the HACCP rules and guidelines.
“It’s worked out very well.”
It’s a case in point for why Indianapolis Fruit got into the fresh-cut business. Established 65 years ago by Joe Mascari, uncle to current president Mike Mascari, the company ventured into fresh-cut processing in 1992.
“We saw a need in the marketplace,” Mike Mascari said. “At that time, Indianapolis Fruit was doing foodservice and retail. We saw the demand from our customer base, and that motivated us to get into processing.”
The company hired Bob Steele, who had worked for a small processor that had closed. They acquired an existing fresh-cut operation in Muncie, Ind., and relocated that operation into a new addition at their headquarters in Indianapolis.
“At the end of the day, it certainly was a logical extension of our business model and philosophy of providing our customers with a fresh experience,” he said.
Initially, foodservice was the primary niche – diced and sliced onions, peeled potatoes, cole slaw and the like. It didn’t take long for retail to follow.
“We started doing cut fruit for a few of our retail customers,” Mascari said. “It continued to grow and evolve, and ultimately, it just continued to increase in importance for our customers and for our business model.”
With a major renovation and expansion in October 2011, the company’s fresh-cut offerings have only continued to grow. Today, Indianapolis Fruit’s Garden Cut division offers around 400 SKUs, producing items under its own label as well as providing bulk foodservice and some private label products. Between Indy Fruit and its partner company, Piazza Produce (the two joined forces in 1997), they service restaurants, institutions, processors and retail, with distribution in a 14-state area.
When Indianapolis Public Schools made a strategic decision in 2005 to build a central facility that supplies packaged meals to 56 elementary and middle schools that don’t have kitchens, along with fruit and veggie snacks to 32, sourcing fresh-cut produce was an integral part of making it work. Meals get packaged one day, delivered at night and served to students the following day.
“We said, ‘why should we duplicate efforts? Why should we take the risk (of doing it ourselves)?’” said Jane Cookson, Indianapolis Public Schools director of foodservice. “Yes, our food costs will be higher, but our labor and our liability will be much lower.
“So we got with Indy Fruit and said, ‘how can we get single portions of fruit to the schools,’ and they told us about the bagged fruit.”
For almost everything except bananas, the district receives cut fruit in 2-oz. bags.
“It saves a whole lot of effort on our part, as well as at the schools,” Cookson said. “The kids get an individual portion and there’s not cross contamination.”
The district also receives bulk product including apples, watermelon, pineapple, grapes and mixed fruit. Cookson and her staff also order a couple of different lettuce mixes. (The high school kitchens also order salad mixes.)
“I spec a half-inch chop, which is not what is standard in the industry, but that’s what I need to fit in my trays,” Cookson said. “And yes, they can do it.”
That’s what it’s all about, Mascari said. When Indianapolis hosted the Super Bowl in 2012, Indy Fruit made “thousands” of skewers with a small mozzarella ball, grape tomato and basil for one of its catering customers. Another wanted to serve drinks in coconuts, so Indy Fruit got out the saws and cut countless coconut shells in half to accommodate the client.
And overall demand continues to expand.
“Certainly, fresh-cut volume is seeing growth in the school foodservice sector due to increased demand and USDA guidelines,” Mascari said. “And as the economy continues to improve, consumers are returning to fresh cut for the sake of convenience, and nutritious products.
“The United Fresh Foundation reported growth in the fresh-cut fruits and veggies in Q1 of 2013 versus the first quarter of 2012, and I’ve not seen numbers for second quarter yet, but I can share with you we have seen that growth continue for us through the second quarter of this year versus Q2 in 2012. It’s an exciting place to be.”
And it’s probably going to get more exciting for this family business that is poised to bring another generation along. Mascari and his partners – Pete Piazza, president of foodservice; brother Chris Mascari, executive vice president of procurement; Dan Corsaro, executive vice president of sales and marketing; and Joe Corsaro, executive vice president for logistics – have seen eight children from among their collective families join the business.
“We’re very fortunate,” Mike Mascari said. “It is special when you come to work every day and you’re interacting with this next generation, whether they’re my son and daughters or my niece and nephews.”
He thinks his Uncle Joe would be proud.
“If he was around, he would be about 102 years old,” Mascari said. “He’s probably looking down with a smile on his face.”
Kathy Gibbons, contributing writer