Thinking outside the bin

A local fruit and vegetable wholesaler transitions to dockside sales after its primary market — restaurants — is temporarily tabled.

From the pages of In Business magazine.

Business owners have been wrestling with difficult decisions ever since the coronavirus (COVID-19) took hold of the global economy. Recent surveys across Wisconsin suggest that as many as 35% of small businesses may not survive.

By government and public health decree, nonessential businesses including dine-in restaurants, bars, and food services were forced to close in mid-March until further notice to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Almost overnight, one Madison-based wholesale distributor catering to the restaurant and food service industry saw a 90% drop in its clientele due to circumstances beyond its control.

Wind out of its sales

R.E. Golden Produce was founded in 1978 by Robert (Bob) Golden, whose roots stemmed from the cooperative food industry. These days, the second-generation family business — President Devin Golden is Bob’s son — provides fruits and vegetables to restaurants and local institutional kitchens (commissary/cafeteria), including Epic Systems’ culinary division in Verona. It does not sell to chain restaurants.

When COVID-19 disrupted what had been a booming economy, R.E. Golden Produce was suddenly faced with an unscheduled fight for its viability. Nick La Luzerne, vice president and one of four co-owners, describes the first few days in March: “Just like everyone, at first we were ignoring the coronavirus. Then reality set in and the governor shut down the economy. A couple days later, there was a feeling of the air coming out of the restaurant industry. I sat in my office — usually the phone rings off the hook — but the only calls I got were from people cutting off their deliveries.”

For a growing company that had been increasing sales year over year for at least 15 years, it was stunning. “Just last week, we were dealing with normal problems, like not having enough product because items were sold out, or not having enough drivers for delivery,” La Luzerne says.

Suddenly, all bets were off. “We had some employees just standing around or going home early, and it became clear we needed to do something.

“We were hearing about people having to wait for days for pickup service at grocery stores, or stories about people getting their orders canceled, so we decided to try to alleviate that problem.”

With schools closed and farmers markets shut down temporarily, the owners decided to sell directly to the public from the company’s Gilson Street location.

Word traveled fast, with many supporters coming from Epic. “That helped a lot,” notes La Luzerne.

Still producing

Pre-COVID-19, the company routinely sent a semitruck down to the Chicago International Produce Market four times a week to pick up orders of fresh fruits, vegetables, and other items. Those trips have since been cut in half and the semi has been reduced to a straight truck. “We’re working a little harder for half the sales, but that’s where we are right now,” La Luzerne says, happy to be in business.

During the Midwest growing season, the company works with many local food producers and farmers, but consumer demand for out-of-season fruits and vegetables has transitioned over the years to a more global marketplace. “Things like berries, varieties of mandarin oranges, or even Brussels sprouts never used to be available year-round,” La Luzerne explains.

“There are a lot of restaurants that promote local, but the idea that you can completely support restaurants on local produce isn’t reasonable. In Wisconsin, you’d be eating only potatoes and root vegetables all winter long.”

In mid-April, he was feeling somewhat optimistic. The company was deemed an essential business by Gov. Tony Evers because of its importance to the local food supply, it applied early and quickly received notification that it had been accepted to receive CARES Act funding from the U.S. government, and most importantly, its 20 hourly employees could remain employed.

In fact, when the safer-at-home order first took effect, some employees volunteered to be laid off so others could keep working. “It was humbling,” La Luzerne recounts, when asked how staff reacted to the news. “Our initial concern was keeping people employed and yet some were volunteering to be unemployed.”

The business owners quickly recognized that they couldn’t keep everyone busy full-time, so they split the staff into two shifts, each working every other week. It was enough to keep employees off unemployment and still meet staffing requirements for government funding.

Going dockside

“Everyone wants to get back to normal, and now that our employees are on board, our next concern is for our really small clients … ” — Nick La Luzerne

Until further notice, R.E. Golden Produce will accept orders from people interested in purchasing fruit or vegetables, with one caveat: Orders must be taken over the phone or submitted via email.

Calls take a little more time as staff explains how the company operates and what may be available when. In other words, there is no online shopping cart.

It’s not a perfect solution, La Luzerne understands, but it’s keeping the company in business and providing the public with healthy, fresh, restaurant-quality produce at prices that typically average between wholesale and retail.

The company also offers limited selections of nonperishables such as spices, whole grains, canned goods, and frozen foods. But buyer beware: Quantities may be restaurant sized. At about 100 ounces, a can be about as large as a gallon of paint.

“We need to explain that to callers who may think they want four cans of something. Do they really need 400 ounces of beans?” La Luzerne laughs.

R.E. Golden Produce is a small, nimble company that has never had a minimum purchase requirement for deliveries, and it allows small businesses and coffee shops to break cases, which La Luzerne says is unique in the industry.

“Many restaurant clients or sous chefs need only a few pieces of fruit or just a portion of a case of something for that evening’s dinner menu. Some pretty small orders go on our trucks every day, and that, I believe, has made it easier for us to transition to retail.”

Daily sales are averaging between 40% and 60% of where they would be in a normal year, but 2020 is certainly not a normal year. La Luzerne says selling dockside is just a stopgap while the company adjusts to economic conditions. “We figure we can stay at full employment for six weeks and get enough sales to keep us going. If it lasts longer, no doubt there will be more decision-making.”

So, until further notice, R.E. Golden Produce is accepting telephone or email orders between 9 a.m. and 2 p.m. Monday through Friday for next-day pickup. Customers have been supportive despite some inconveniences. When they pick up their orders, staff weighs items, accepts payment, loads the car or trunk, and practices all the rules of COVID-19’s social distancing requirements.

“Everyone wants to get back to normal, and now that our employees are on board, our next concern is for our really small clients who may not be able to pay their rent, especially if they’re located downtown,” La Luzerne laments. “Many could close, so we need to work with the community to make sure we get this restaurant economy healthy again.

“Not being able to go out to eat is crazy for a city like Madison! Even as we heard reports that the virus was sweeping across Asia, nobody thought this could happen. It’s just a shock.”

R.E. Golden Produce Co. Inc.
1337 Gilson St.
Madison, WI 53715

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