OPN Connect Newsletter 183 · September 10, 2020

In Their Words: Pacific Coast Fruit’s Scott Schultz and David Brugato

Scott Schultz and David Brugato are director and program manager, respectively, of the Pacific Coast Trading Company, an organic department of the Pacific Coast Fruit Company that was established about three years ago. Headquartered in Portland, Oregon, the Pacific Coast Fruit Company is one of the largest independently owned produce distributors in the Pacific Northwest and has more than 500 employees.

Before becoming director of Pacific Coast Trading, Scott worked for Organically Grown Company, Bridges Produce, Charlie’s Produce, and JBJ. David is the grandson of Pacific Coast Fruit’s founder, Emil Nemarnik, and has worked for the family business since he was 12 years old. He and Scott joined OPN for a conversation about what the Trading Company does, Pacific Coast Fruit’s new direct-to-consumer box program, and more.

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Can you provide some background about the Pacific Coast Trading Company?

Scott:  Pacific Coast Trading Company is a department of Pacific Coast Fruit Company. We sell 99.9-percent organic produce, and we’re not bound by geography. The rest of the company services primarily the Northwest out of our Portland and Kent (Washington) warehouses, but our department sells all across the US and Canada, and we source from all around the world. We sell mostly to wholesalers, and we do a little bit into retail.

Our model is a vertically integrated model where we take a small margin. A lot of times, we don’t have to pay for brick and mortar. Most of our product goes on customer trucks straight from the farms to the customer’s place, and so we’re able to return the growers the highest returns—which is totally cool. We have roughly 40 farms or so that we’re working with, and we contract product and sell it in their label or in our label. Our label is Grown Up Organics.

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Scott Schultz, director, Pacific Coast Trading Company

Can you share insight about your relationships with growers?

Scott:  Nurturing authentic relationships is a big part of why our department exists and what we do. We’re grower partners— and we’re almost a grower ourselves in a sense because I’m often helping the farmers choose the seed varieties and when to plant and how much to plant. Pacific Coast Trading also regularly has skin in the game for boxes, materials, etc. To responsibly support our growers, we sell everything they grow—the number 1, the number 2, the ugly stuff, the beautiful stuff. We’ve developed markets for everything on the “tree.”

We have a lot of growers that depend on us, and in order to ensure that we’re successful, we’ve created some year-round programs. Onions, for instance, are a big deal for us, probably one of our top items. We started with some small onion growers in Washington and helped them grow and grow—and now they’re big onion growers in Washington! They grow nine months out of the year, so there are three months out of the year that we needed to fill to be able to provide customers with year-round onions. So we put in the time and investment to develop other relationships with farms in California and Mexico so that we’re year-round. We also do year-round programs with cucumbers, zucchini, potatoes, apples, melons, and some tropical stuff like young Thai coconuts and organic pineapple.

Are the crops you just listed your primary commodities?

Scott:  Those are the bigger ones, and then we have seasonal stuff that comes up. To be conscious about food waste and about helping growers, we sell items like organic brussels sprouts leaves—the vegetative leaves off the brussels sprout plant, which are about the size of a collard leaf. They’re extremely tender, extremely flavorful; they taste like a brussels sprout. And nobody’s doing it. It’s just something that gets disked into the ground afterwards. But we were able to create a market for those—people love them! You can sauté them; you can put them in soups; you can put them fresh on a salad. They’re wonderful.

Pacific Coast Trading Company organic apples 

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How did you develop that product and create a market for it?

Scott:  Well, it was a fluke. I was out in one of my farmers’ fields, and I was just walking by and mindlessly munching on stuff—and I just grabbed a brussels leaf and started munching on it. And I was like, holy cow, this is actually really good!

At Pacific Coast, we have an in-house chef, Lacy Larson, who is awesome. She made some recipes with brussels sprouts leaves, and we started promoting them out in the world. I think it’s a really cool unique item that salvages what would otherwise be food waste and creates an additional income source for the grower.   

                                      David Brugato, program manager, Pacific Coast Fruit Company                                          

How has the COVID-19 situation affected Pacific Coast Fruit?

Scott:  The effect on our organic business has been a strong increase in business. The company as a whole took a big hit—a big loss of business because it was mostly foodservice. But our department has grown exponentially since COVID hit.

David:  In the Trading Company, we saw a really big initial spike in retail sales, and they were leaning more towards the bagged, pre-packed items. And then we saw a big increase in demand from a couple customers that do the subscription box services.

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Pacific Coast Trading Company organic red onions

Can you talk about the direct-to-consumer box service you launched in the wake of the coronavirus crisis?

David: Just to specify, that’s through Pacific Coast Fruit Company, not the Trading Company, but I’m familiar with it—and it’s a team effort all across the board. Prior to the coronavirus crisis, Pacific Coast had had the idea of doing a CSA box for a while but had just never put it into action. Then with the loss of the foodservice sales when COVID hit, our sales team and senior leadership team put it together in really a short amount of time.

Initially, we had just a classic box, which has your basic fruits and veggies, and then we added the veggie box, the fruit box, a dairy box, and a snack box. And then we eventually added the organic classic box. People were able to call our warehouse or order online, and then they could choose from a number of different church parking lots to pick up during a certain time window, or they could pick up at our warehouse.

The program was an immediate hit. I think everyone really loved it, and the organic box was a great option for people who are used to going to an all-organic grocery store or who shop in the organic section of mainstream retailers.                                                                                                    

What are Pacific Coast Trading Company’s plans for the future?

Scott:  We are focused on growing at a sustainable rate for our farms and customers. We’re not interested in being the biggest for the sake of being big. We’re interested in being right-sized to do what we need to do. We’re focused on the triple bottom line (social, environmental, and financial)—the best for everybody!

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