Eight years ago, Andrew & Williamson Fresh Produce was a traditional field tomato grower selling 3% of product to retailers and foodservice operators. The bulk went to wholesalers, repackers and brokers.
That’s when Mark Munger became vice president of marketing for the San Diego, Calif.-based company, coming in with a mission to change its business model.
Since then sales revenues have tripled, and in 2009 Andrew & Williamson sold 80% of its tomatoes to end-users in retail and foodservice. The grower-shipper also expanded into strawberries and cucumbers.
“We had to do a paradigm shift to get closer to the customer,” said Fred Williamson, president of Andrew & Williamson. “Our job was not complete by putting a commodity in a box and loading it on a truck. We knew that with Mark’s relationships and understanding of the industry, we could change that. Mark knows not only what customers want but what they want that they don’t even know they want.”
Munger looks beyond retail and foodservice to the final links in the chain — shoppers and diners, said Tommy Wilkins, director of produce procurement at United Supermarkets, a 50-store chain based in Lubbock, Texas.
“Mark understands we have to be price competitive, but he worries about the flavor profile and works hard to create a better experience for the consumer,” Wilkins said.
Munger, 47, calls himself an “outspoken advocate for flavor,” a role he relished while serving as chairman of the Produce for Better Health Foundation.
“Sometimes we get stuck in the rut of trying to be the first in the season to get out there with an early variety,” he said. “Or play the markets and hold our produce in cold chains. But if you refrigerate a tomato, you kill the flavor. If we hurt the ultimate experience, then all we’ve done is hurt ourselves. If not, we’ll sell a lot more.”
Munger became a lead spokesman for the latest effort to create a national promotions board. Like similar efforts before, it came up short. He keeps an open mind to alternatives the industry might prefer, he said, but the basic values remain valid.
“If we spoke with a unified voice, we could make a big noise,” said Munger, who works out of Andrew & Williamson’s Watsonville, Calif., office. “People think regional commodity is a brand, but the reality is fruits and veggies are a brand. Consumers aren’t thinking regionally or nationally.”
Before joining Andrew & Williamson, Munger was director of marketing at Driscoll Strawberry Associates, where he worked for seven years. His other experience includes a pair of three-year stints as retail division director for the Produce Marketing Association, and as western region merchandiser for The Nolan Network.