SALINAS, Calif. — Chieftain Harvesting Inc. came to a crossroads in 2008.

After more than six years of handling the custom iceberg and leaf lettuce harvesting for Mills Family Farms, a longtime fixture in the Salinas Valley, the grower closed its doors.

“With our many years of experience and expertise in farming and harvesting, it was time for us to become a grower-shipper,” said David Mills, vice president of Salinas-based Chieftain Harvesting.

Mills and his partner, Chieftain Harvesting president Jerry Esquivel, targeted the foodservice industry. Opening their new doors came nearly simultaneously with the start of the recession. The timing could not have been much worse, but the company celebrated its second anniversary in early July.

“We’ve been told if we could survive the past two years, anything’s possible,” Mills said. “But we have been lean enough and mean enough to handle the tough times.”

As foodservice staggered under the weight of the recession, Mills and Esquivel fashioned a company that “offered customized service and a quality product,” Mills said.

“We’re small enough that we have the ability to turn on a dime,” he said.

Chieftain Harvesting concentrates on specialty items such as green onions, parsley, kale and romaine hearts. But lettuce is the big seller.

“Iceberg and leaf lettuce varieties account for up to 70% of our volume,” Mills said.

Among the company’s specialty items is its patented romaine and red and green leaf lettuce Wholeaves.

“We hand tear the leaves from the core stem for naturally extended shelf life,” Mills said. “Our goal is to give a 100% usable product that is defect-free.”

Wholeaves are shipped in 5 and 10 pound cartons. As the customer directs, the cartons are either plastic lined or contain a vacuum sealed bag, Mills said.

The line could include an iceberg hybrid in the not too distant future. The company is closely watching experimental cross breeding of leaf and iceberg lettuce varieties, Mills said.

Chieftain Harvesting works with growers in the Salinas Valley and in the California/Arizona desert.

“We contract with them and we own the crop,” Mills said.

As for the future, Chieftain Harvesting is here to stay, he said.

“We’re young, small and looking to grow,” Mills said. “Starting off in two of the most difficult years that we’ve seen in a long time, we think we have the ability to satisfy our customers’ needs and move forward.”