Kuwata award presentation helps highlight FPFC expoANAHEIM, Calif. — About 1,500 store-level produce and floral workers checked out new products and took another look at some familiar ones July 15 at the La Mirada, Calif.-based Fresh Produce and Floral Council’s annual Southern California Expo.

They also saw industry veteran Kent Kuwata accept the prestigious Norman H. “Buz” Bolstad Produce Award at a keynote awards breakfast preceding the expo.

The award, named in honor of one of the founders of the FPFC, recognizes distinguished leadership within the organization as well as the produce industry as a whole.

In presenting the award, last year’s recipient, Mike Casazza, executive vice president of sales and marketing for Apio Inc., Guadalupe, Calif., characterized Kuwata as a “consummate businessman” who is “approachable and friendly and always ready to share ideas.”

Kuwata, category manager for Smart & Final Corp., Commerce, Calif., got his first taste of the produce business in his grandparents’ fresh produce stores. He would accompany his father to the produce market to procure fruits and vegetables.

“He has held virtually every position there is in retail produce — produce clerk, produce manager, store manager, produce director, category manager, produce and floral buyer — and has worked at Vons/Pavilions, Gigante and Smart and Final,” Casazza said.

“He has been an active and incredibly supportive member of the FPFC for decades and is known as a standout volunteer,” Casazza said.

He is a member of the FPFC board of directors and a dedicated supporter of the City of Hope cancer hospital and research facility in Duarte, Calif., Casazza said.

Kuwata has been married to his wife, Vicki, for 32 years. The couple has two daughters.

Also at the breakfast, the FPFC Floral Achievement Award was presented to Alice Grazziani, floral director for Encino, Calif.-based Gelson’s Markets.

Keynote speaker was Capt. Richard Phillips, inspiration for the movie “Captain Phillips,” starring Tom Hanks. He recounted his 2009 ordeal when a band of Somali pirates raided the container ship Maersk Alabama that he was commanding as it ferried food aid to East Africa.

He told attendees that they can tackle challenges in their own lives by applying the same principles he did during his ordeal, like be strong, be flexible and never give up.

During the expo that followed, about 200 companies touted their goods and services.

This was the expo’s second year with an expanded floor plan, said expo chairwoman Kristen Reid, executive vice president at Mixtec Group LLC, Glendale, Calif.

“We sold out of exhibit space this year and have a bigger retail draw,” she said.

Some retailers came out from Arizona to attend the event at the Disneyland Hotel, she said.