Black River Produce
Steve Birge and Mark Curran established Black River Produce (BRP) in 1978 with the vision of supplying the local market with high-quality, fresh fruits and vegetables. The partners worked together in Vermont restaurants before founding the business.
“We found a hole in the produce industry to fill,” explains Birge, president of BRP. “We noticed that the restaurants weren’t being served well with fresh products and they needed better suppliers.”
In a style befitting a small, Vermont-based company, the pair started out with $600 and a Volkswagen bus painted with the slogan: Give Peas a Chance. The partners supplied their small retail operation by taking turns driving to the Boston Wholesale Market and stopping at farms in southern Vermont along the way to pick up locally produced edibles.
However, BRP has come a long way since the early days of cruising through New England to pick up veggies for the small retail operation. “We bought a barn in our second year of operation and started getting a great response from area restaurants,” Birge elaborates. “We took on seafood about 20 years ago and since then, we have kept moving the boundaries out so we can expand into many more products.”
The company has grown into a broad-line specialty wholesaler in the years since. BRP now employs approximately 175 people, working from a state-of-the art facility in North Springfield, Vt. The business serves as a wholesaler and distributor, as well as a processor. Furthermore, about a year ago, the crew added processing capabilities for high-quality meats. The company’s headquarters includes two buildings for offices and warehousing, as well as a brand-new slaughterhouse.
BRP services restaurants and universities in Vermont, as well as most of New Hampshire, western Massachusetts, eastern New York, Rhode Island and northwestern Connecticut. “We distribute our products everywhere in New England, except Maine,” Birge explains. “We are a distributor, but we are a little different from the larger companies, such as Sysco. We are not as big and we source and procure items that they do not have. We also service differently than they do.”
It is evident that Birge is proud of all BRP has accomplished. “For instance, you can call until 10 p.m., six days a week, for any product,” he continues. “We work with local growers and manufacturers. Consumers are becoming more interested to know the source of food and we are all over that. We also hire a lot of chefs who buy and sell and know the language of the products in produce, dairy, meats and dry goods.”
One such chef-turned-distribution partner is Sean Buchanan, BRP’s business development manager. Buchanan worked in the restaurant industry for 10 years and has known Birge and Curran for a long time. He has contributed significantly to the company’s growth over the last four years and has been integral to the team’s incorporation of new meat products.
With the opening of the company’s new slaughterhouse facility, Birge and Buchanan are looking forward to supplying locally raised meats, including classics, such as beef, pork and lamb, as well as possibly some less traditional meats, such as buffalo, deer and goat. The transition will not be easy; however, the BRP team is dedicated to the task at hand.
“Our meat expansion is a huge project,” Buchanan explains. “There are a lot of regulations. You have to clean between breeds and species, perform USDA testing and provide traceability. We need to utilize our space wisely.”
Another challenge is finding the right people in the local labor pool. Reportedly, Vermont has the second lowest unemployment rate in the country, which means there are not as many people looking for work.
Therefore, the company is looking at ways to provide incentives for the skilled labor needed to operate the new meat division of the business. “We are looking into scholarships for meat cutters and butchers,” Buchanan elaborates. “We could have a private independent loan fund for livestock producers if approved by the board, so we will not have to go through the banks.”
Building up this skilled labor will allow the company to better serve the market. While many of the company’s suppliers have slaughter and butcher facilities, BRP will be able to perform these tasks on a larger scale.
As the business grows, Birge, Curran, Buchanan and the BRP team maintain a focus on community responsibility. Birge is proud to note that BRP reinvests capital in solar energy. Last year, the business completed the installation of a 650 kW solar array that covers 50 to 60 percent of the business’ energy costs. “We also put in a wood-fired pellet stove that helps, as well,” Birge notes. “That reinforces our philosophy: Take care of the land, work with your neighbors and do the right thing.”
At the end of the day, BRP strives for quality and community. “We know we have done well when we can provide good jobs to people,” says Birge. “We are a business woven deeply into the fabric of Vermont and its economy. Growth is good and we are proud of our success in that.” Over the coming years, Black River Produce will have even more to be proud of as the team continues to provide healthy, local foods to a growing market.