The 25th anniversary celebration at Cheshire, Conn.-based Coast to Coast Produce LLC may be a subdued affair.

Peter Sticco, company founder, will attend in spirit only. He lost his battle with cancer Sept. 1, 2008. His death hit the staff particularly hard, said Linda Spry, West Coast president.

“We were all very close, and he was very good to all of us.” she said.

Sticco spent the first 13 years of his produce career at Bozzuto’s Inc., a Cheshire-based wholesale distributor. Staring as a produce inspector, he quickly rose to produce director, the top post in the department.

“He built it (the department) from its infancy to one of the most respected wholesale produce programs,” Michael Bozzuto, president and chief executive officer said.

In 1985, Sticco launched Coast to Coast.

“He was pretty much a one-man show. He built the business for the first four years or so on his own,” Spry said.

Close-knit, adaptable staff

Today, the staff numbers about 35 and Coast to Coast has added offices in Boston; Monterey, Calif.; and Bakersfield, Calif., she said.

Though Sticco is gone, the staff continues to follow the business principles and guidelines he established, said Ted Kulpik, East Coast president.

“We try to adapt to the niches we see developing,” he said.

The company’s size and its close-knit staff are advantages in the ever changing fresh produce industry, Spry said.

“Because we’re fairly small, we can react quickly to those customer demands,” she said.

Another Coast to Coast advantage is staff longevity.

“We’ve all been in the industry basically our entire lives, and we’ve known one another as long as Coast to Coast has been around — and some of us longer,” Kulpik said. “We have a good knowledge and understanding of the industry.”

The ability to adapt and to react has increased the Coast to Coast inventory over the years. The Monterey office secures West Coast grown fruit and vegetables, while the Bakersfield staff focuses on table grapes, Kulpik said.

The East Coast offices source and market Southern vegetables, the company’s own greenhouse tomato and cucumber programs and some summer fruit, as well as imports from Europe, Africa, Central America and South America, he said.

Coast to Coast also works with contract carriers to assist customers in securing efficient freight service.

“For our part of the industry, we feel logistics support is imperative,” Spry said.

Continuing tradition

Coast to Coast serves nearly all of the regional retailers in New England and numerous wholesalers who distribute to foodservice, Kulpik said.

“We try to do a little something with all of the regional chains whether it be transportation, procurement or something else,” he said. “However we can fit in, we try to fill that niche.”

With its repacking of greenhouse tomatoes, tomatoes on the vine and cucumber programs — and the Coast to Coast vineyards in California, the company is both a broker and a supplier, a position that can on occasion find Coast to Coast competing with some of its suppliers, Spry said.

“Our goal is to provide a fair environment of trade for both the retail side and the grower-shipper side,” she said.

Achievement of the goal is made easier by Sticco’s legacy. He left clear direction on where he wanted to see the business continue and directed Kulpik and Spry to take care of everyone in the company as well as shippers and customers, Spry said.

“We’re proud that we’ve been able to continue since Peter’s death to honor his way of doing business, which was fair and equitable trading with everyone,” she said. “If we have to walk away from business that we don’t think is going to be fair, we will and we do.”

To help perpetuate and honor Sticco’s memory and his concept of fair and equitable business practices, the New England Produce Council, Burlington, Mass., has established the Peter Sticco scholarship fund. The scholarships will go to students seeking careers in the fresh produce industry.

The first Peter Sticco scholarship will be awarded, Kulpik said, at the council’s expo on April 14 in Boston.