(Jan. 16) SPRINGFIELD, Mo. — A coast-to-coast network of tomato repackers and a pair of affiliated grower-shippers have combined to form a new company offering a nationwide tomato marketing program. NationFresh, with its national sales office in Springfield, is a new company consisting of 10 wholesaler-repackers and grower-shippers Pacific Tomato Growers Ltd., Palmetto, Fla., and Triple E Produce Corp., Tracy, Calif. All are partners in the firm but will otherwise continue to operate their own businesses independently.

The idea behind NationFresh is to provide a one-stop shop for tomato buyers in an increasingly consolidated marketplace, said Steve Phipps, the firm’s national director of sales and marketing.

“This company is very attractive to companies with a national presence, but there will also be companies that maybe operate across three or four states that will be very interested in what we offer as well,” Phipps said Jan. 15. “We are already actively talking to potential customers.”

NationFresh — an alliance nearly two years in the making and the brainchild of the Comito family at Des Moines, Iowa-based Capital City Fruit Inc. — should appeal to buyers in either the foodservice or retail sectors who want services such as centralized billing, crisis management and third-party food safety programs with consistent specifications throughout the U.S., Phipps said.

Collectively, the partners in NationFresh shipped more than three-quarters of a billion pounds of tomatoes last year — the equivalent of 38 million 20-pound cases — and have 550 years of combined experience in the tomato trade, said Phipps, an industry veteran with 25 years of experience.

NationFresh could become a brand name itself, but the company will pursue branding opportunities with individual customers as they arise, he said. That includes other national brands and private-label arrangements.

None of the sales staffs at the partner firms will be affected. The individual companies will continue to operate regionally the same as before.

“But now they’ll have a national offering in addition to their regional expertise,” said Phipps, who left Combs Produce Co., Dallas, as its marketing director in December. Combs Produce is a partner in NationFresh.

Although Phipps for now is the sole salesman in the national office, though staff at NationFresh repackers may assist in the process.

The company could grow with additional partners in the future, he said. And while tomatoes remains the singular focus for now, other commodities could be added to the NationFresh program.

“This vision is bigger than any of the partners,” Phipps said. “It makes each one of these regional players stronger because they can offer so much more as part of a group. When you streamline anything, you provide value.”

Brett Combs, president of Combs Produce, sits on the firm’s operations committee. He said the alliance should appeal especially to national buyers like Albertson’s or Sysco.

“I think everybody has seen the consolidation in the industry, and the effects of that,” Combs said. “I think this is something that goes right along with that consolidation. These companies that have consolidated and have one buyer sitting in an office buying for the whole company — it certainly makes their job easier to buy from a single source.”

Although Pacific Tomato Growers and Triple E Produce are the only grower-shipper partners, their tomatoes will not be the only ones sourced for the NationFresh program. The repacker partners will continue to handle product from multiple firms in numerous growing regions, both foreign and domestic.

“One thing we insisted on was that the purchasing practices weren’t going to change,” said Joseph Esformes, chief executive officer of Pacific Tomato Growers. He pointed out that existing relationships his firm has with repackers not included in the NationFresh alliance won’t change.

Esformes said Pacific and Triple E have been concerned about the continued viability of independent wholesalers and repackers in the age of consolidation.

“We thought this was an opportunity to support that philosophy,” he said.
An appealing aspect of the NationFresh partnership, Esformes said, is that it didn’t require a huge cash infusion or accumulation of debt.

“We have a group of highly successful and owner-managed companies who are regionally strong, who are binding together to do business on a national basis,” he said. “That vision was very important for us.”

— Additional reporting by staff writer Chris Koger