(Feb. 6) DELANO, Calif. — It’s winter in Delaware, and two fresh produce industry leaders have just finished lunch in a Newark restaurant. It’s dessert time, time for fresh produce. But this is the East Coast — the chef says fresh produce isn’t available at the restaurant during the winter. At this point, most people would probably smile, thank the server for her trouble and ask for a check. However, one of the diners isn’t your everyday customer. In fact, he knows something the chef doesn’t.

He knows fresh produce is available near the restaurant. He knows because he’s worked to get it there since the 1960s, and this is 1984.

That man is Jack Pandol, and it’s a story Bryan Silbermann, Pandol’s lunch companion, said he will always remember.

Pandol wouldn’t take the chef’s remarks for an answer, so when the server said fresh produce wasn’t available, he pulled out $20, handed it to her, and instructed her to have the chef buy fresh produce on the Philadelphia Regional Produce Market, Silbermann said.

But the chef said he couldn’t accept the money.

Again, at this point, most would probably smile and give themselves an ‘A’ for effort.

Not Pandol. He wanted the restaurant to serve fresh produce during the winter, and he knew just the person to get it there.

Silbermann, who was assigned to work on the import/export committee of the Produce Marketing Association, Newark, when he first joined the association in 1983, was instructed to take the $20, buy produce on the regional market and bring it back to the restaurant.

Silbermann, now PMA’s president, delivered.

Pandol made sure the restaurant received Chilean grapes, nectarines and peaches that winter day. He had started shipping the fruit to U.S. markets 20 years before that lunch, and he’s done the same since.

20 YEARS LATER

Today Pandol said nothing new is going on in his life. He’s still an international traveler, with more than 30 countries under his belt; he’s still whole-heartedly involved in the grape industry; and though he doesn’t cook for large groups anymore, cooking is still his favorite hobby.

In fact, the president of Pandol Bros. Inc., a leading Chilean and domestic grape shipper, said he’s simply doing what he’s always done — and at 80 years old, many might believe that’s an accomplishment in itself.

Fifteen to 20 years past the age at which most people retire, Pandol is still active in the produce industry, and it seems plans to leave his lifelong passion aren’t in the works.

In early January, Pandol and his son, Jim, vice president of marketing for Pandol Bros., traveled to Chile to check on the company’s grape crop, and later in the year, Pandol planned to venture down to Mexico to do the same thing.

Travels nowadays, however, are a little different from years past, Pandol said. His wife, Winnie, won’t let him go anywhere alone. They’ve been married for 55 years.

“I can take anybody I want,” he said. “As long as somebody goes, that’s good enough — unless it’s a thief or somebody no good.”

And when his plane lands in Chile, Mexico or other countries, Pandol said his wife has another request: Get some rest.

Though Winnie Pandol might not want to hear it, that’s something her husband said isn’t necessary.

“Rest is seeing my fruit. Those are my children,” he said.

LIFELONG PASSION

Though Pandol has four kids of his own, it seems understandable that he would have a paternal bond with the grapes he ships.

Pandol, whom many call a pioneer in the Chilean fruit industry, has helped raise the import and export programs at Pandol Bros. from infancy to maturity throughout his career.

The company started its business with Chile in the ‘60s, Mexico in the ‘70s and Asian countries in the late ‘70s.

Pandol said a desire to further international trade has been a product of his imagination.

“I always felt that if anybody can do it, by God, we’re going to do it. And we’re going to do it ahead of them,” he said. “Of course, that can be dangerous because it can backfire on you and you can lose your butt.”

However, his company doesn’t seem to have taken any major hits. Pandol Bros. was the ninth-largest North American importer of Chilean fruit in the 2002-03 season, shipping 3.21 million packages.

This year, the company reported its Chilean grape production would increase by 200,000 boxes. About 150 acres of production were added in 2003.

The company’s success is largely due to Pandol’s vision, PMA’s Silbermann said.

“Even though the base of the company has been a California valley grape-growing and tree fruit-growing operation, they are very much global traders,” Silbermann said. “That really set him apart in the early days, and it continues to do so for the company.

“Jack used to regale us all with stories about his trips to China and working with the Chinese importers to get California fruit or fruit from other parts of the world into Hong Kong. He was always out there before most other people.”

Pandol’s leadership in the grape industry contributed to a significant increase in table grape shipments and helped the commodity become an everyday item at retail, said Bruce Obbink, former president of the California Table Grape Commission, Fresno.

Obbink said California shipped about 20 million boxes of grapes per year in the ‘70s, but that has since grown to 100 million. Obbink worked with Pandol in the grape industry for more than 30 years.

Obbink said he remembers Pandol as an industry-minded businessman and a good persuader.

“His theory was that what was good for (Pandol Bros.) was good for everybody,” Obbink said.

“Jack would go in like a bulldozer and take his product in and offer it for sale and use his oral selling abilities with just about anybody. He’s the only guy I know of that could adapt an accent of a country wherever he was within 15 minutes of being there.”

ADAPTATION

And more than 40 years after Pandol Bros. was incorporated, Pandol and his company continue to find ways to adapt to a global marketplace.

In addition to Chile and Mexico, Pandol Bros. is working to open up trade in Japan, Taiwan and China, but trade laws and other restrictions have delayed the process.

Jim Pandol said the Japanese tend to save money for future generations and therefore can’t afford imported table grapes. In addition, competition and currency fluctuations have limited market share in Taiwan.

China, too, has become a major player in the grape industry, Jim Pandol said. The country is producing a less expensive grape that is popular in Asian markets, but he said the fruit’s quality is subpar.

“The trade generally recognizes that the Chinese producers will continue to improve and learn how to do the job better,” Jim Pandol said. “China’s biggest challenge is feeding their own people.

“China probably produces six to eight times the volume of California in table grapes, but they’ve got a huge population they’ve got to feed.”

PASTIME

Though it might be a while until his grapes make it to China, Jack Pandol is no stranger to feeding people.

It has been his preferred hobby throughout his life, he said. His trips to foreign countries often ignited his passion for cooking, as he would watch other cooking techniques and try them out when he returned home.

When Jim Pandol was a teenager, he said one of his older brothers drove his car over a snake and announced it to the family. That gave Jack Pandol an idea.

He told his son to bring him the snake — the family would dine on a snake recipe he had picked up in Singapore — but his wife never let that idea leave the ground, Jim Pandol said.

One thing Jack Pandol still enjoys finding on the ground is money.

More than 15 years ago, his doctor told him he needed to start walking for his heart, and on those walks, he decided he would start something new — a coin collection.

After years of gathering loose change in the U.S. and in other countries, Pandol had about 27,700 coins in early January.

“I look at that box and maybe when I get to 30,000 I won’t go any further,” he said. “It takes a mule to pick the thing up as it is.”

Some of Pandol’s most prized coins are from Venezuela and Panama, where he has found gold and silver currencies. He said he’s saving one of his most valuable gold coins for one of his company’s most successful growers.