File photoMike Aiton, Prime Time International It is a relatively short list: the men and women in the fresh produce industry whose careers in retail have brought nationwide respect and admiration. Just as short is the list of fresh produce suppliers who are viewed in a similar light.
The names of an elite few, however, appear on both lists. Among them is Mike Aiton, director of marketing for Prime Time International, Coachella, Calif.
To hear Aiton tell it, his 40 years of success are because of good luck and good colleagues.
“I give all the credit to the people I’ve worked for and the people I’ve worked with,” he said. “I learned from all of them.”
Not all of his colleagues are willing to accept credit, though.
“He has a very unique perspective on what it takes to supply and promote produce,” said David Marguleas, chief marketing officer for Bakersfield-based Sun World International LLC.
“He’s earned the respect of countless retailers and grower-shippers as well as dozens of produce buyers and salesmen who worked with and for him.”
Aiton’s retail career began on a part-time basis with King Soopers during his days at the University of Colorado. After graduation and a tour of duty with the military, Aiton returned to the Denver-based chain, now a division of The Kroger Co., Cincinnati, where he found a mentor in Russ Dispense, now president of King Soopers.
“I was lucky enough have him pick me to learn the produce side,” Aiton said.
At one point, the company deliberated sending Aiton to a year of study at the American Institute of Baking. Aiton decided to stick with produce.
“I can’t imagine how much I’d weigh now if I’d gone the other way,” Aiton said.
As director of produce and floral, a position he held for a decade at King Soopers, Aiton became a mentor to others. Among them was Armand Lobato, now western foodservice promotion director for the Idaho Potato Commission, Eagle, Idaho and a columnist for The Packer.
“Mike was on the cutting edge of quality,” Lobato said. “He always was looking for enhanced maturity, sugar content and proprietary varieties. When everyone else was concentrating on price, Mike was looking for fruit that tasted good — a premium product that would bring customers back again and again.”
That commitment to premium products led Aiton to work with Gil Henry, a founder of Henry Avocado Corp., Escondido, Calif., to launch a new concept: “Ripe for Tonight” avocados.