Lancaster Foods LLC: A Fresh Approach to Produce

Unlike many produce suppliers, Lancaster Foods LLC (Lancaster) has the ability to service the entire Eastern Seaboard. “We can supply retailers from New England to Florida,” details Jerry Chadwick, vice president of sales and marketing for the Maryland-based company. Lancaster started as a small operation, but now serves some of the largest supermarket chains in the U.S.

Lancaster didn’t always have the extraordinary capability to cover so much territory. Founded in 1986 by brothers John and Dave Gates, Lancaster began with a single truck. The Gates brothers are no strangers to the industry, as John and Dave grew up in Altoona, Pa., working in two family-owned and-operated produce businesses.

In 1992 Lancaster was acquired by Guest Services Inc., a private hospitality management company headquartered in Fairfax, Va. With the acquisition came big changes. In 1993 Lancaster moved into a larger facility located in Jessup, Md., and continued to significantly expand the company’s trucking fleet.

Growing Into an Industry Leader

In less than 20 years, what started out in the back of John’s pickup truck, became a full-fledged supply company, employing about 500 people. Today Lancaster has a fleet of 100 delivery trucks that travel up and down the East Coast.

The company operates out of a new 220,000-square-foot LEED-certified distribution facility from its single Maryland location. “As they say, ‘Location, location, location,’” jokes Chadwick. “Our location allows us to serve any state on the East Coast. That’s very unique in the produce business, which tends to be more regionally specific. We go beyond that.”

Lancaster operates as a produce wholesaler, selling all varieties of fresh fruits and vegetables from around the world. In addition, the company has a niche in fresh-cut processing, producing products such as Mott’s sliced apples and Glory bagged greens. “We process our own bagged spinach, salads, sliced apples, collard greens and kale,” says Chadwick. “Kale is probably the hottest produce item we sell currently.”

Due to Lancaster’s pristine selection, the company is fortunate to work with major supermarket chains like Giant, Stop & Shop, Wegmans and Weis. “We generally don’t service restaurants; we are focused on supermarkets,” says Chadwick. “We provide fill-in demand for supermarket chains. This is where we’ve built our business.”

Products Consumers Want

Produce from Lancaster provides the best eating experience, which is what fresh food is all about. The company offers superior varieties, including organic and specialty ethnic products, along with cut-to-order and fresh-packed items.

Product safety is a focus at Lancaster. The company is HACCP and third-party certified. “Food safety is an enormous focus,” stresses Chadwick. “When there’s a problem or recall we rely on the Produce Industry Traceability Initiative (PITI), which tracks where produce comes from.”

Lancaster buys from hundred of growers, shippers and importers with products coming by land, air and sea. The biggest challenge is to ensure that produce coming into the warehouse has been grown according to the standards of Good Agricultural Procedures (GAP).

“Everyone has to be very vigilant in making sure the growers and shippers are following these guidelines,” details Chadwick. “We make sure we inspect everything, rotate our stock and get it out the door as quickly as possible so it’s guaranteed fresh.”

Freshness is always a demand, along with a selection of organic products. Lancaster employs a dedicated organics buying and service team with over 55 years of combined experience. The company operates under the Maryland Department of Agriculture’s Organic Certification Program and the USDA National Organic Program. Well-established relationships with the best certified organic growers and brands ensure Lancaster has access to the highest quality products.

As far as new products on the horizon, Lancaster has recently made an effort to try new packaging solutions and investing in the growing fresh-cut produce segment. As consumers increasingly look for healthy options, time is also a factor. Consumers want a product that is easy to prepare without sacrificing nutritional benefits.

In the cut-vegetable sections of grocery stores it’s typical to find the industry standard overwrap packaging. The packaging mainly consists of pre-cut veggies placed on a foam tray and wrapped in plastic. Based on retailer statistics, Lancaster is transitioning many items to stand-up bags with colorful graphics, offering a nicer presentation and added convenience for consumers. “They look like little tote bags,” jokes Chadwick. “You will start seeing this packaging more and more in stores.”

Chadwick has been with Lancaster for over seven years and has witnessed the company take its position at the top of the industry. “The growth opportunity for us is in fresh-cut processing,” details Chadwick. “The fastest growing segment of the produce department is fresh-packed, bagged fruits and vegetables. Our goal is to develop products that are exciting and stand out in the supermarket.” On top of the company’s expansion into new markets, Lancaster Foods LLC continues to serve a massive footprint and some of the largest retailers in the United States.