In 1907, the Shapiro brothers founded a small potato and onion house, purveying the popular root vegetables in the heart of the Los Angeles produce corridor. What began as a small business out of a horse and buggy has now grown into a large produce business, selling high-quality produce of all kinds from the same neighborhood. Today, that business is Shapiro-Gilman-Shandler Co. (SGS).
Gilman soon became a partner and today, his nephew, Morrie Shandler, serves as part owner, alongside his daughter Carole Shandler. At 97, Morrie is still involved in the business, though Carole serves as president and oversees daily operations. Carole’s daughter, Talia, is also involved with the company as general manager of fruit and COO.
Now in the fourth generation of family operation, SGS employs approximately 100 people with some variance between seasons. Based in southern California, the company has warehouses along the West Coast. The team distributes a full line of fresh fruits and vegetables throughout California, as well as in Utah, Colorado, Arizona, Washington, Nevada and New Mexico.
Keeping it fresh
“We offer direct delivery to our customers,” Carole explains. “Everything we sell is fresh. We partner with local suppliers and those further away. We are very good at sourcing product, whether it is a specialty item or a local organic product.” For the most part, the company serves retailers throughout the region. The selection is constantly changing. SGS will always carry the basics, but specialty items tend to flex with consumer demand.
“We have seen a recent upsurge in demand for local, organic produce,” Carole notes. “We also offer some value-added products. We manufacture some specialty items in jars, but we don’t process cut vegetables. We have been experimenting with new packaging that reduces waste and spoilage for the retailers and makes it easier for the consumers to store.”
“We are importing a lot of ethnic items, too,” Talia adds. “We import many Asian specialty items, as well as source other ethnic specialties, such as sour cherries. We are working with growers in China, Thailand, Korea, Vietnam and Taiwan to bring different products. We have always worked directly with growers, but typically in the past we worked with growers in traditional growing regions. The decision to bring in more Asian products is motivated by high demand.”
Talia details that more mainstream grocers are using Asian produce, which increases crossover and blurred market lines. “We don’t close our eyes to emerging trends,” Talia continues. “We keep track of where our customers are located and what they buy. Historically, we service Hispanic supermarkets, ethnic and independent markets. We take a look at emerging demographics in our areas, and ask our customers to try new products in their stores to see how they do.”
SGS works closely with customers on a retail level. By helping these clients to better gauge trends and adjust merchandizing, the company has been successful in helping these stores grow. When the stores do well, more produce is purchased from suppliers.
While demand has remained steady throughout the recession, SGS has faced growing competition from other suppliers. With rising costs of transportation, it can be hard to stay ahead of other businesses while maintaining a profit and a good value for customers. “Everything is price-driven now and this industry is heavily competitive for pricing,” Carole explains. “There never use to be as many retail stores as there are now, but a lot of independent stores are now becoming independent chains. That can open up opportunities for us.”
One of the greatest advantages SGS has in the industry is experience. “We know our product, we are very reliable and very consistent,” Carole explains. “We keep longer hours than most industry wholesalers. If we have to work on Sundays to keep a customer’s business, we work on Sundays.”
In order to maintain that high level of reliability, the company has developed customized software. The team utilizes a proprietary system for tracking, which is personalized, so that the crew knows what needs to go where and when. “We can trace our product backward and forward in a matter of minutes if there are ever any recalls or food safety issues that come up,” Talia elaborates. “As food safety becomes more important, in an industry that is sometimes slow to adopt new technology, the main thing is that we move forward and innovate. That is an aspect where we can stand out and stay ahead. We are always working to stay on the cutting edge of technology, because it really matters. This traceability software is mandated for growers, but not for suppliers. We have taken it on.”
In the coming years, Carole, Talia, Morrie and the team plan to expand both the product line and the company’s geographic footprint. While growth is always a good sign, Carole says she considers success along a different gauge. “We measure success by how happy our customers are with us,” she explains. “If they are they getting value the value from us instead of buying straight from growers, we are doing well. We make sure our delivery system is sufficient and our ad pricing is good. Retention and growth of our customer base is paramount to our success as a business.”
Talia explains that the company’s grower/shipper vendors are also an integral part of SGS’ success equation. “We are loyal to them and take our responsibilities to them with the utmost sincerity and integrity,” she says. “Since early last century our motto has been: Service, Professionalism, Integrity.”
Shapiro-Gilman-Shandler Co. continues to grow, delivering customer satisfaction, as well as fresh fruits and vegetables.