George Kragie
George Kragie

George Kragie had a hunch about figs.

Fresh figs, that is. Dried figs were a popular enough commodity in the early ’90s, but the fresh market was a backwater by comparison.

“Fresh figs at that time were truly exotic,” said Kragie, president of Madera, Calif.-based Western Fresh Marketing. “Occasionally you might find one little basket (at a grocery store). And half of them would have to be thrown out.”

Kragie saw an opportunity, though, and he asked his boss at the time, Alkop Farms owner Bob Allen, if he was interested in getting into the fig business.

Allen said he preferred to stick with his specialty, kiwifruit, so he and Kragie parted on amicable terms, and in 1994 Kragie founded Western Fresh.

“I never saw myself as a guy who sold potatoes, onions or lettuce,” he said. “I like the oddballs. I’m a Food Network fanatic — my wife holds her nose at half the things I want to try.”

Beginning in 1986, when Kragie joined Alkop, the “oddball” became kiwifruit.

Then came the ’90s, and figs. Kragie knew that his one fig grower-partner in Chico, Calif., wouldn’t be able to produce enough fruit for the program he had in mind for his new company.

So he put together a group of growers and Western Fresh became a one-stop-shop for fresh figs, with product shipping from May to November.

“That’s how we started, and it’s just taken off,” said Kragie, whose company now tops $30 million in annual sales and offers a product lineup that includes kiwifruit, papaya, Asian pears, pomegranates and other specialty items.

Western Fresh also has come to include several members of Kragie’s family, including wife Susan, son Chris and daughter Carrie.

“It’s been a lot of fun,” said Kragie, 66, who has no plans to retire but is turning over more and more of the daily operations to Chris Kragie. “Produce has been very good to me.”

John Oliverio of Salinas-based Dynamic Food Group has known Kragie since the mid-’70s. Kragie’s daring, Oliverio said, is matched by his good character.

“George has been on the cutting edge of these things that no one knew what the heck they were,” Oliverio said. “But he knew who to call and what to do. And he’s one of the good guys of this world — his word is his bond.”