Third Coast Produce brings fresh-cut line in-house

May 16, 2008

The coastal area of Texas is America’s “third coast,” and like the East Coast and the West Coast it makes huge contributions to the economy with its climate, beaches and ports. Houston’s Third Coast Produce takes its name from its geography, and the company only serves customers in the Houston metropolitan area.

Third Coast has been in business since 1992, when company founders George Finch, Art Bueno and Dennis Honeycutt decided to start a produce distributing company that could provide the quality and service customers were demanding. The three friends bought a delivery van – a 12-year-old gold, shag-carpet covered truck they nicknamed “Goldie” – and Third Coast Produce was up and running. The gold van went on to rack up 500,000 miles delivering produce, and still lives on in company lore.

Third Coast services the Houston area, specializing in delivering the freshest product to foodservice customers in a wide variety of applications, from hospitals and schools to quick casual and fast food restaurants.

As the market in Houston grew over the years, foodservice customers increasingly requested convenience items in the form of fresh-cut produce. Third Coast has delivered fresh-cut items for many years by outsourcing to third-party processors, but one year ago the company decided to bring the fresh-cut items in-house, and that part of the business has grown so quickly that the lines have already been expanded three times.

“We grew a lot quicker than we counted on. The demand was there,” said Finch. He said his job title is “chief cook and bottle washer” because he does anything and everything for the produce company.

Third Coast’s 62,000-square-foot facility was constructed with growth in mind, but the fresh-cut operation had to be built from the ground up.

“We started, in many ways, from scratch,” Finch said. “The business was already there, but there was a lot of thought behind it.”

The initial fresh-cut operation had three full lines and two rooms dedicated to processing. Soon after the fresh-cuts were brought in-house, the processing lines had to be expanded to four and more room had to be allocated for the processing lines. The company now processes a full line of produce according to customer specifications. On the fruit side, Third Coast offers fresh-cut apples, grapes, limes, honeydew and cantaloupe melons, pineapples, pears and watermelons, plus fruit medleys or fruit trays. In addition to leafy greens and salads, Third Coast processes beets, broccoli, carrots, cauliflower, celery, cucumbers, yellow and white onions, peas, peppers, potatoes, squash and tomatoes. The company also can do root vegetables, garnishes and vegetable medleys or trays. Each item is available in a variety of treatments, depending on how the customer wants to use the produce.

The third upgrade for the facility will come online this summer. The latest move will increase the processing lines six. The plant is processing about 100,000 pounds of produce a week, and the two additional lines will increase that output. The plant runs five days a week with two crossover shifts, which offers more challenges when upgrading because lines have to keep running.

“The biggest speed bump was, you can’t shut down the lines,” he said.

Although the investment has been “significant,” Finch said, the growth is an indicator that customers want convenience products and Third Coast’s fresh-cut plant is providing the quality and service they desire. That doesn’t mean there weren’t problems starting a fresh-cut operation from scratch.

“They’ve been good challenges. The biggest was understanding what we wanted and what we thought we needed,” Finch said. “It’s just managing it. Ninety percent is just showing up.”



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