Mid/West Fresh Foods Inc.: The Produce People
Stan Hunt and Chuck Giller founded Mid/West Fresh Foods Inc. (MWF) in 1987 as a local supplier for fresh produce around Columbus, Ohio. The pair started with a small facility and two trucks. The first customers were five Chi-Chi’s restaurants.
As the company approaches 25 years in business, MWF has grown to service all of Central and Southern Ohio and beyond, providing customized, cost-efficient produce to foodservice chains, casual restaurants, fine dining establishments, hotels, institutional accounts, as well as independent food operations. Stan’s son, Taylor Hunt, has joined the ranks alongside Giller, who remains CEO, and is following in the family business, building and maintaining the partnerships with both clients and suppliers that have made the company successful.
“We now have 25 drivers and 20 warehouse employees,” says Taylor. “We’ve teamed up with a lot of local companies and local farmers. Our facility is the hub for their transportation. They grow the produce and we deliver.”
The staff has grown to include 65 team members with a tiered management team, and they draw on experience as regional chain consultants, fresh food processors, corporate purchasing agents, franchise owners and restaurant general managers. A single distribution center – combined with a ripening and repacking facility for tomatoes, avocados and bananas – offers 50,000 square feet for storage and processing orders. “It’s not too big, but it’s efficient,” says Taylor. “We serve all of Ohio and West Virginia.” The entire Mid/West Fresh team specializes in wholesale and distribution of produce, performing everything in house including sales, delivery and truck maintenance.
MWF is capable of managing the complete purchasing program of its clients, and it builds on each relationship to further success, turning customers onto suppliers and suppliers into customers. “We pick up customers together,” explains Taylor. “For example, we have an heirloom black bean grower who stores his products in our facility. He’s a local farmer that finds customers that want to buy his black-bean products and we distribute them for him, and he sells our service alongside his produce.”
As its name indicates, MWF distributes fresh foods, including bulk produce items, a full line of precut vegetable products, a full fluid milk line, a complete inventory of fresh herbs and baby vegetables, plus breads, cheese, frozen vegetables and fruit, salad dressings, meats, condiments and supplies. The company will go to the means necessary to get an in-season specialty product delivered overnight. And while equipment is invaluable for this sort of flexibility, suppliers are truly at the core of operations.
“Our industry is about the quality of food and where it comes from,” elaborates Taylor. “We taste it first to assure the quality. Customers want a company that offers good taste and good ethics. We promote healthy food as a way of life. Pills don’t make us healthy, our food does. There has been a big shift lately toward accountability and traceability. For that reason there are suppliers that we just don’t do business with.”
MWF is constantly working with suppliers to seek out new products for customers. “A big one right now is high-end micro-grains,” notes Taylor. “Micro-corn is one, similar to alfalfa sprouts. We have a corn variety and a radish variety. The chefs really like these new items, and the focus has shifted to trending tastes. Restaurants are the bulk of our customer base.”
MWF has continually made use of strategic partnerships and technological advances to best serve its customers; for example, the company merged with Z Produce Company in April 2009 to establish greater market exposure, and MWF offers complete online capabilities for data transfer, velocities and ordering over the Internet. Cook and Thurber audit the company’s facilities annually to assure standards of food handling and storage, the use of cold chain storage and shipping assures an optimum environment for produce, and a multistep program of monitoring and logging temperatures and conditions reinforces these best practices. Still, though well organized, MWF has faced some economic challenges through the recession.
“The economy and gas prices have been the biggest obstacles to growth,” says Taylor. “Our market is competitive and diesel gas prices are approaching five bucks per gallon. Passing this cost onto the customer is really hard. One of the best things that we’ve done over the past couple years is to revamp our fleet. We’re using a clean-idle truck now. It took our gas mileage and doubled it. It collects all of the exhaust fumes and it idles clean. It burns all of the emissions before they reach the atmosphere.”
Outside of streamlining, Taylor and the team stand behind service as the key to keeping customers. “We promise our customers that they’ll never come up short, and that we’re selling the best quality foods out there,” he explains. “If a restaurant makes a mistake and forgets to order something, we have dedicated routes that leave later.” A call system alerts customers both night and day that their order is needed, and/or informs them of any unforeseen delays and possible resolutions. The company is always focused on timely service and quality assurance.
“We manage our supply chain extensively to offer the best examples of each vegetable, and we’re always trying to do better,” emphasizes Taylor. “It happens a lot with tomatoes. Tomatoes are an emotional product. With all of our items, it’s like we’re doing the grocery shopping for you. A component of taking care of customers is always careful product selection.”
Because the team is so attentive, long-term customers are commonplace. Of course, Taylor and the team are always looking for more. “For the next few years, the most specific thing we’re looking for in terms of growth is a larger client base,” explains Taylor. “We’re talking with several potential customers right now and if we got two of them, we’d be set.”
The wheels are always turning at MWF as the team strives to offer quality service and responsible products. “We sleep pretty well at night,” says Taylor. “We’ve got good leadership and good customers. The economy looks like it’s getting better gradually.”
As growth returns to the country, MWF is ready to embrace it. Mid/West Fresh Foods Inc. is ready to go with a streamlined delivery service and an arsenal of the region’s best produce.