Rick Lejeune is CEO and co-owner of Heath & Lejeune, a CCOF-certified organic produce wholesaler based in Los Angeles County. Operating out of an 83,000-square-foot warehouse, Heath & Lejeune currently distributes well over a million packages of organic produce a year and also offers storage, logistics, and consolidation services. Rick joined OPN to talk about his passion for organic farming, his company’s transition from conventional to organic, how the COVID-19 situation has affected business, and more.
How did you get started in the produce industry?
My dad, Pat Lejeune, was in the produce business, so it was a family thing, but I never ever thought that I would be doing this. After I dropped out of college, I wound up in Santa Cruz and did some apprenticing in organic gardening and organic farming and eventually became a back-to-the-lander with a bunch of like-minded folks. I was really planning on being an organic farmer, but that didn’t work out. I came back to LA and got a job in the terminal produce market building orders and loading trucks.
Eventually, I joined the family firm, Heath & Lejeune, in 1981. We were conventional produce brokers at that time, but I always wanted to get back into organics, so I gradually found ways to do that. By the early ‘90s, we were pretty much exclusively dealing with organic produce.
Pat Lejeune and Harland Heath, founders, Heath & Lejeune
What was the transition like from being a conventional distributor to becoming an organic-only distributor?
The late ‘80s and early ‘90s were a time when the fabric of the organic farming and distribution network was very regional, and it hadn’t gotten connected up yet. There were people all over the West Coast that were farming organically and starting to build organic companies, and there were a few companies that really needed to find a way to grow—they needed to get product moved from their farms and their businesses to other places. Los Angeles has always been an ideally located nexus for produce, so I found a warehouse and became a consolidator of organic produce for a number of companies.
Rick Lejeune, CEO and co-owner, Heath & Lejeune
What is the percentage breakdown of national versus international in terms of the organic produce you distribute?
Well, it depends on the time of year. But I would say that over the course of the year, probably 25 percent is imported. One of the reasons for that high number is that we have a specialty in organic ginger root. Thanks to our amazing partners in Peru, we have one of the few 12-month organic ginger import programs. We’re a full-line distributor of organic produce, but we do have some specialties here and there, and that’s one of them, so it adds to our international volume.
In addition to ginger, what are some of the other items that you specialize in?
We sell quite a bit of turmeric root as well as papayas from Hawaii. We have an Idaho potato and onion deal, where we represent the grower directly, so we sell 90 percent of his potatoes and onions. And it’s the same thing with the Peruvian deal—we sell probably 80 or more percent of all the ginger they export. So that’s a big part of our business—finding and representing growers who want to have long-term relationships.
Heath & Lejeune turmeric
Do you get to spend a lot of time visiting your growers’ farms?
Not as much as we would like because we’re so busy in the office and in the warehouse everyday. We do go to a lot of the organic produce shows like EcoFarm, Organicology, the Organic Produce Summit, and the Organic Grower Summit. So we get to rub shoulders with growers at those conferences and shows.
Can you tell us a bit more about the growers that you work with?
We really gravitate toward smaller regional growers, and we especially like to support the heirloom growers who’ve been working at it for 10, 20, 30 years. We also like working with the larger growers who have started to embrace the deeper values of organic agriculture.
Our goal is to support organic farmers in a way that makes them sustainable. Often the bigger growers have a more conventional business model, which is all about volume, and it sometimes tends to depress prices. I think organic food actually should cost more all throughout the supply chain, and we really don’t want to support efforts to make it cheaper because that eventually falls back on growers.
Rick Lejeune, CEO and co-owner, Heath & Lejeune
Who are your main customers?
Our customer mix is roughly 60 percent retail, 20 percent other distributors, 15 percent industrial users (who are buying ingredients to make a finished product like juice products or other items that require organic ingredients), and about 5 percent food service (which is generally the restaurant trade).
Our business ranges from large national chains to smaller regional chains to a large number of individual retail stores. We’re proud to have what I would call a healthy mix of small businesses because they generally wear their organic allegiance on their sleeves—they’re the true believers.
Heath & Lejeune buying team
How has the COVID-19 situation been affecting your business?
Because our customer base is so heavy into retail, we’ve been very busy during the crisis. March and April were big months for us. We sold record amounts of ginger, and demand was very heavy for garlic, along with "hardware" items like onions, potatoes, and yams. We also sold a significant amount of bananas. Our business increased by a large percentage, which is nice, but what’s been especially heartening for us to see is the way that our team has responded under really difficult circumstances so that we could remain open and serve our customers. It’s amazing how everyone just embraced it—I don’t know of anybody who said, “No, I want to stay home.”
Heath & Lejeune distribution
As a longtime believer in and supporter of organics, do you have any thoughts on the future of the industry?
When I’m asked a question like that, I almost always say that we need to be looking to the farms and the farmers. They’re the ones who are embracing new ways of doing things, searching for new ways to produce healthy food in harmony with natural processes. Everything that’s good about the organic world flows from their efforts—they are the force that is inspiring a healthy, ecological food system. So that’s my focus. Other people might care about building better stores or building better distribution companies; I just want everything to be seen through the lens of what keeps our farms healthy. Because if we don’t keep them healthy, none of the rest of it’s going to matter.