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How a Greensboro produce company wins $93 million in government contracts
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How a Greensboro produce company wins $93 million in government contracts

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COLFAX — Martin Dones dodges a forklift loaded with red-netted bags of golden New York state onions as nearby workers unload boxes of fragrant herbs from California.

His company’s bright, flavorful products are enough to turn the most committed meat eater into a vegan.

The people who run this loading dock are bundled up against the perpetual 45-degree chill of the refrigerated warehouse, where produce from around the nation and the world moves through hour by hour as the burly Dones, the corporate director of operations for Foster-Caviness, keeps an eye on the 24-hour operation that keeps some of your favorite chain and local restaurants stocked with fresh fruits and vegetables.

Foster-Caviness is a 115-year-old produce company that is now so adept at using technology for quick delivery that its 60 trucks serve many national restaurant chains throughout the Carolinas.

And this fall, the company was awarded $93.7 million worth of federal contracts dispersed for five years to supply the state’s five military bases and scores of schools with fresh fruits and vegetables.

It’s their third contract to supply Camp Lejeune, Fort Bragg, Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, Pope Air Force Base and the Marine Corps Air Station at Cherry Point for the U.S. Defense Logistics Agency.

These massive contracts are a part of the multimillion-dollar business that has grown from a small operation with five unrefrigerated trucks off Spring Garden Street into this high-adrenaline business where the inventory turns over completely twice a week, said Paul Lieb, the president and co-owner .

“We’re a one-call solution,” he said. “If they (a customer) have more than 50 restaurants, and they have an issue with quality, if a hurricane hits and they want to know if they’re going to get their supply, they make one call,” said Lieb in his modest corner office at the headquarters/warehouse at the Piedmont Triad Farmers Market.

A bigger job

Providing produce for The Olive Garden, Red Robin, Jason’s Deli or Applebee’s in North Carolina is no longer just a potatoes-and-tomatoes job. It’s work that requires rooms of varying temperatures stocking everything from blackberries and pineapples to baby spinach and giant carrots.

As Lieb guides a tour through a warehouse, his breath showing in the 38-degree cold, he moves from room to room, popping a grape into his mouth here, a cherry tomato there. The perks of quality control.

Lieb and his brother-in-law Jeff Gorelick of Charlotte have built their business for 30 years after buying it from Greensboro’s Caviness family, which founded it in 1902. Lieb has been a Greensboro resident since 1968, and he always has wanted to build his business here.

The company now operates its fleet of trucks from Greensboro and distribution centers in Charlotte, Raleigh and Myrtle Beach, covering those major franchises and smaller restaurants throughout the region.

Quality control

Whether major restaurant chains or military bases, his customers typically buy their food the same way — through a highly automated system that dispatches deliveries weekly, several times a week or even daily.

Even the simple act of getting the right avocado to a restaurant is a carefully regulated art. Is it going to be mashed into guacamole? Does the restaurant want to slice it? Keep it fresh through a long weekend?

An answer guides where the avocado rests before it ships out. One recent day, a box of ripened avocados was sitting in the coldest section of the warehouse for safekeeping to reach a restaurant quickly with the right firmness.

Lieb, a trim man of calm intensity, takes an interest in every berry or bag of shredded carrots that passes through the warehouse. He looked at a pallet of strawberries and mentioned he had been having a little trouble with one supplier’s quality — a problem that wasn’t clear to the casual onlooker.

With so many people putting a priority on the quality of fruits and vegetables they eat, restaurants and food-service operations are pressuring companies like Foster-Caviness to deliver the most fresh and diverse produce in its history.

Preferring local

Though its products can come anywhere from California to Costa Rica, the company is embracing the local-food trend, sending its trucks to pick up Carolina produce from farms near its delivery locations .

It’s Lieb’s way of integrating artisanal and small farms into his mix of factory farms that are a part of the national co-op that supply his business.

  • Lieb is wrapping up his third and final year as chairman of PROACT, a Monterey, Calif.-based group that includes farmers and 50 distributors working from 71 distribution centers processing a million cases of produce a week on 1,950 trucks across the country.

His involvement with such a big organization is a long way from the days when he and his dad opened a deli and wholesale company in Greensboro in the mid-’70s.

During the 1980s, Lieb decided it was time to go into business for himself. Salad bars were bringing a new emphasis to fresh produce in restaurants, and Foster-Caviness was for sale.

Automation

The company’s workers were taking orders on brown paper bags when Lieb introduced early computer systems to track inventory.

In those days, nobody refrigerated produce for delivery. Now it’s hard to find a major producer who doesn’t scrupulously guide vegetables and fruits through a careful process that keeps them fresh and appetizing, especially since “produce has almost become the center of the plate,” Lieb said.

The key to his success today, Lieb said, is “I still run the company as a young entrepreneur,” with his staff of 160 full-timers. “We have large company capabilities with a small company mentality.”

And if produce is the product, providing a reliable way for restaurants and food service operators to run their businesses easily is his service.

He’s the guy keeping track of where the best potatoes or apples come from this week — “where we buy constantly moves” — so The Cheesecake Factory can make its food the same way with the same quality every day of the week.

In the end, Lieb’s company solves the problem of finding the fruits and vegetables so his customers don’t have to fan out across the country or haunt the supermarkets to keep their recipes consistent.

“We’re in a very difficult business,” he said. “We’re in the perishables business. My average customer receives a delivery from me four-to-six times a week. If you like a highly adrenalized environment, this is it.”

Contact Richard M. Barron at 336-373-7371 and follow @BarronBizNR on Twitter.

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