In a nation beset by an obesity epidemic, it is imperative to introduce more healthy eating options. In California’s San Joaquin Valley, 1st Quality Produce delivers fresh fruits and vegetables to the foodservice industry and a growing number of California schools. Celebrating more than thirty years of business, the company is now expanding its services to embrace the growing demand.
1st Quality started when Chief Executive Officer Mike Kahaian and his wife Rita began selling produce using a single truck. “We basically grew out of a farming operation,” he recalls. In those earlier years, the pair delivered vegetables directly to restaurants. “We basically survived back then by knocking on doors and selling to restaurants, small taquerias, and retail establishments, and that’s how it started,” Kahaian relates of its humble roots. “It was survival.”
Today, 1st Quality delivers its produce to restaurants, school districts, and warehouses all across the San Joaquin Valley and beyond, serving the Western United States west of the Rocky Mountains. Its 35,000-square-foot facility, situated on 3.5 acres, has room to grow and handles every aspect of the company’s food processing and preparation. The company’s trucks deliver six days a week, every week, ensuring its clients consistently receive the fresh fruits and vegetables they need.
As a food processor and distributor, 1st Quality is firm in its commitment to food safety and security. The company’s leadership takes pride in being able to trace every food product back to a single twenty-acre area close to its Fresno headquarters. It has developed a reputation for quality and rapid delivery, both of which are essential qualities in food processing.
The company’s versatility and professionalism have allowed it to create a wide range of products and product lines over the years, from mixed greens for restaurant salad bars to fruit blends for luaus. “In California, we’re lucky to have most of our [produce] grown pretty close by,” Kahaian remarks, and 1st Quality is able to capitalize on this proximity to ship its produce all across the state.
Over the decades, the company has outlasted its competition and has expanded due to its enduring high quality, and this has not gone unnoticed. “Year-after-year, we are recognized as one of the top produce/foodservice distributors by the California Restaurant Association,” says Director of Sales Victor Wilcox. 1st Quality has earned acknowledgement from its peers within the foodservice industry and has remained devoted to its twin goals of quality and service.
In addition to providing quality fruits and vegetables to its business clients, the company has long provided healthy, locally-grown fruits and vegetables to school districts across California. To this end, the company has launched its Snack Buddy line of products, which provide a single serving of fresh produce for school meals.
“We really like to work with individual school districts, and specifically nutritionists, to develop and introduce seasonal and fresh options for school meals,” Kahaian says, elaborating that the company uses California’s fine weather to provide local options year-round.
Sales Manager Victor Wilcox notes that the Snack Buddy line includes far more than apples, oranges, or other foods with which students may be familiar. He explains that the packs contain “stuff that they’re not going to go into a store with their parents and really see, but they might try it, and actually like it, and ask their parents to try healthier vegetables.”
The company’s efforts in this sector have also earned it recognition by the California Department of Education. This state agency has administered the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program in the Golden State since 2002 and intends to provide a fresh snack to public school students at least three times per week. 1st Quality is stepping up to provide this public service through its Snack Buddy products, ensuring a healthier future generation of American students.
While the Snack Buddy product line has met with considerable success, this is not the only means by which the company works to boost nutrition among California’s students. Flowcharts and pamphlets teach students about where their food comes from, illustrating every step in the food production process from farm to table.
“These things are important,” Kahaian affirms, “not just to kids at school, but to all our customers, that they understand the value there.” Through these inviting and easy-to-read materials, 1st Quality can help educate students on the value of healthy diets and buying their food locally.
But 1st Quality’s educational efforts do not end there. The company is in the process of launching a full-scale Food Show Marketing Program, showcasing its latest products and production methods to its fellow food producers and other Distributors. The company also promotes community activism, such as employees making appearances on local morning television programs to highlight fresh seasonal dishes. Via these outreach efforts, 1st Quality hopes to raise the food standards of Californians of all ages.
1st Quality’s efforts also extend to the less fortunate. The company has partnered with Fresno-based non-profit organizations such as Poverello House and Fresno Rescue House to donate fresh produce to homeless shelters and to those who suffer from food scarcity. Additionally, the company processes an average of 1,000 pounds of food by-products daily for the City of Fresno.
All this work requires significant labor, which Kahaian admits is a perpetual problem. “We’re constantly on a talent hunt,” he admits but notes that employees embrace 1st Quality’s cooperative atmosphere and enjoy being part of a company engaged in true social improvement as well as being able to create new products and methods.
“We’re small enough and locally known, so we’re able to make changes, and it’s really exciting for a lot of our team to be involved in those new ideas and expedite them,” he states. “For them to be able to see that, I think everyone here really enjoys it.”
To combat the company’s labor issue, 1st Quality is looking at automation but to a limited degree. The company’s high-speed equipment can chop and slice 30,000 pounds of produce per hour, but each fruit or vegetable must still be prepared and hand-cut. “There are certain items where the best way to do it is still to cut it by hand,” Wilcox admits. Kahaian says that the company has been approached with automated solutions for fruit peeling, but “when we looked at some of these peelers, it just didn’t seem right.”
Instead, 1st Quality is investing in better and more sustainable policies, such as environmental friendly delivery trucks and solar power to offset its high electrical draw during processing. With the company’s food waste, as much as possible is converted to livestock feed through partnerships with other businesses looking to develop more sustainable outlets for byproduct. “It’s actually a little more costly, but we think it’s worth it,” Kahaian states.
As America’s appetite for food, particularly fresh and healthy food, continues to rise, 1st Quality is growing to respond to this trend. The company is currently planning to open a second processing facility and expand its existing grounds. It is also growing still more selective about the commodities it chooses to process.
“There is a lot of volume out there today, especially as the industry and society, in general, focuses more on healthy and fresh food options,” Wilcox explains. “Our goal is to scale-up our team and facility in order to increase our capabilities and meet the rising demand throughout the industry.”
As 1st Quality enters its fourth decade, its prospects are bright. Thanks to its innovative and caring staff, the company will be able to bring more and better produce throughout California and all across the Western United States. And with its high production quality and service bolstering its ongoing innovations and social activism, 1st Quality Produce is sure to keep growing strongly for years to come.