A true immigrant success story, Jay Rodriguez came with his parents from Cuba to Florida in 1967.
Rodriguez was only four years old at the time his family fled the Fidel Castro regime.
His working life in South Florida began with the fresh-cut flower business. As Rodriguez recalls, the owner of the business was one of the first importers to start growing and importing Peruvian asparagus.
“He asked me if I wanted to move into the produce company instead of the flowers because I was real motivated in the sales side and I think he recognized that,” he said.
Rodriguez responded that he didn’t know anything about produce.
“He goes, ‘Well, I’ll make you a sales manager.’ And I said, ‘What?’”
Fast-forward a few years, and Rodriguez saw success in the position and wanted to try his own hand at the business.
“I realized the potential of the industry (was) a lot bigger than the flower industry,” he said.
“And I saw the potential back then, because I think that’s when imports were really just starting to take off. So I took a big chance, and I started from scratch."
Rodriguez founded Crystal Valley Foods in 1994. The company was first focused on importing and distributing specialty products from Peru and Guatemala and growing core products, including asparagus, French beans, baby vegetables and snow peas.
Rodriguez said he remembers importing and scrutinizing his first pallet of produce.
“I probably did, I don’t know, 20 circles around that one pallet,” he laughed.
“Now, almost 25 years later, we are moving in the millions of cases,” he said.
“So it has been a long ride — and not an easy way — but it is definitely paying off,” he said, noting the company’s expansion to the West Coast and its 2017 acquisition of Team Produce.
“We can do some of the things I always dreamed of doing,” he said.
Rodriguez said he cares about doing the right job for everybody, for both the grower and the customer.
“I strongly believe in handling my own products in my own facilities and have our eyes on it at all times, and fix problems before they leave here,” he said. “That’s always been a big, big thing of mine.”
Rodriguez said Crystal Valley has invested in farms in South America and has invested in operations with associated companies in exporting countries.
That investment has given the company great visibility into its supply chain, boosting both quality and food safety standards in exporting countries.
Crystal Valley has experienced strong growth in the past few years and he expects that trend will continue.
“We have really invested a lot of money in the infrastructure,” he said, noting a soon-coming expansion of the company’s Miami facility and additional staff in the company’s logistics supply chain and food safety operations.
He believes the company could grow 50% in the next five years.
Crystal Valley also has invested in domestic blueberry deals to secure year-round supply.
“I felt you have to be in a year-round, you know, because you never want your customers to go away and then you have got to get them back, you know, so this year we aggressively went into the domestic deal,” he said.
“We established really good deals in Florida, Alabama, Georgia,” he said, also noting the company’s imports from British Columbia.
“We can have that year-around production (now) and that’s also enabled us to see other opportunities of other items in growing possibilities, so all that’s been a very positive,” he said.
He also has found time to give back to the industry, currently serving as co-chair of the Peruvian Asparagus Importers Association.
Rodriguez is a rare combination of personality, intelligence and integrity, said Rick Durkin, director of business development for Crystal Valley Foods. Durkin has known Rodriguez for 30 years.
“Of all of Jay’s qualities I would say the most important one that he exhibits in spades is integrity ... and that is so critical in establishing and maintaining long-term relationships with both growers and customers,” Durkin said.