C.H. Belt & Associates Inc.: Offering New Approaches to ‘Old World’ Food Distribution

Kevin Eggert’s grandfather Carle H. Belt founded C.H. Belt & Associates Inc. (C.H. Belt) in 1968. In the four-plus decades since, the family business has carved out a niche in fresh and frozen produce distribution throughout the United States and into Canada, Mexico and Puerto Rico. With over 40 years in the business, C.H. Belt has built long-standing relationships with customers that have allowed the Lake Forest, Calif.-based company to expand significantly.

“We’re a family business, I’m the third generation, and that’s not a unique feature, but what does set up apart is that people like doing business with us,” explains Kevin, who is currently president of C.H. Belt. Kevin has spent nearly a decade successfully reinforcing the positive, customer-focused reputation of C.H. Belt, which spent some time out of family ownership. In 2006 the Eggert family and another key investor bought the company back from a conglomerate that had owned the business since 2002.

“The buyback was really beneficial,” explains Kevin, who owns 25 percent of the company, with the rest split between the other shareholders. The partnership has grown C.H. Belt into its current form, which includes distribution coverage facilitated by two offices in California and three warehouses and a managerial desire to become a true one-stop shop for customers in the food service and retail manufacturing industry.

Diverse Markets

C.H. Belt specializes in offering a wide variety of produce to clients of all sizes, packing for supermarkets, food service distributors and operators, wholesalers and product marketers of all kinds under company labels C.H. Belt’s Worlds Finest and C.H. Belt’s Ready Fix. “The food trade is an old world industry and really diverse,” says Kevin. “We’re able to cater to all companies – smaller operators, too, including second- and third-tier distributors buying commodities.” The company works with retailers, manufacturers, global sourcing agents and chefs to offer quality produce that meets the needs of their clients.

“We actually buy, store and back the product we distribute with the highest quality standards in the industry,” says Kevin. “We then turn around and sell it to our clients. It’s not a unique business model, but we believe that if you are selling a commodity to somebody, you should stand behind your product. Taking possession of it does make us unique in our industry. Putting our name on the product we sell further differentiates us from our competitors.”

Kevin describes his product list as “A to Z: apples to zucchinis.” All products meet the high standards of food quality assurance and consist of mostly fruits and vegetables individually quick-frozen (IQF) to preserve flavor, texture and nutritional value. The list includes staples like broccoli, peas and strawberries. The company also offers specialties including fire-grilled corn and unusual blends inspired by world cuisine.

The company uses proprietary software to efficiently manage a large operation with minimal staff. “We’re enormously small,” laughs Kevin. “We have seven people working here full time, and family members make up half of that.” A robust computer system keeps orders organized and helps Kevin and the team track incoming and outgoing goods. The company relies on several partners with whom the family has built long-standing relationships. “We partner with third-party warehousing, brokers and truckers,” says Kevin. “Our real strength is in our relationships with our business partners that we’ve cultivated over many years.”

Market Management

Working in commodities has benefits and setbacks for the company. “Speculators and environmental catastrophes tend to disrupt our industry,” says Kevin. While prices in the produce sector can fluctuate sporadically, the benefit to working in the food industry is that people have to eat. Kevin and his team are focused on providing desired products to customers at competitive prices, despite the challenges this can pose to a small, family-owned business.

Commodity shortages and pricing all take a toll on business for C.H. Belt, which Kevin says is part of the territory. To better facilitate growth, the company is reaching out to new sources for products. “At this time, the recent weather related events in the U.S. have really affected the food industry,” he says. “Supply is short, so we’ve been focusing on expanding globally.” C.H. Belt has imported foods from overseas, but we pride ourselves in supporting domestic processors who grow fruits and vegetables as close to our warehouses as possible. “It’s hard to persuade people that imported food is just as good,” says Kevin. “We carry a lot of domestic product, but there are some things you can’t get year-round in the U.S., so to keep up with the demand we have to import from other countries.”

Environmental factors have made securing U.S.-grown food even more difficult, however. Kevin is concerned with changing weather patterns and the droughts that have hit much of the country’s farmland over the last few years. “There are products we try to find for people, like boysenberries, where there just isn’t enough supply for the demand globally,” he reflects. “It can be a real challenge, but my family always like to take a on a challenge.”

C.H. Belt is filling the void with new products that are growing in demand and not yet shrinking in supply. “The latest trends for us are fire-grilled commodities like corn and veggies, and enrobing,” explains Kevin. This “spray on” technology coats the food in a medium such as oil or a seasoning, which, in turn, offers value-added flavor for vegetables, fruits and grains. The process has grown in popularity abroad, and many companies in Europe are better equipped than those in the U.S. Kevin and his team are focusing on value-added products, working closely with our clients’ chefs, and research and development groups to get this introduced to their retail clients.

On top of seeking out state-of-the-art technologies, Kevin says the company’s mission objective is to continue to diversify. “This industry is changing all the time,” he explains. The excitement for opportunities to innovate helps keep his passion alive in the business. C.H. Belt is helping clients develop new skillet meals, as well as new ways to supply various components with complementary flavor profiles. Growth does not stop with products for the team, however. Kevin would also like to see his company improve on its ordering systems.

“We want to develop tools to make it easier on the customer,” he says. “We have implemented such communications, like live chat on our website, as we are always looking to be more responsive to a customer’s needs. We are also using social media to further open our dialogue between C.H. Belt and our clients. We value any way our customers or potential customers wish to communicate with us, as it makes us a better company in this ever-changing environment.”

The greatest contributor to C.H. Belt’s success is the passion that Kevin and his family continue to hold for an “old world” business. Genuine customer concern builds a great system of customer care. C.H. Belt & Associates Inc. continues to offer quality products and service backed by family values, and the Eggert family has a lot of fun doing it.