The story of McEntire Produce dates back to 1938 when R.C. McEntire, Sr. began a tomato repacking company in Columbia, South Carolina. Well-known at the local Columbia State Farmer’s Market from 1955 to 2005, McEntire Produce has since grown to become an important presence throughout the Southeast, producing some of some of America’s freshest fruits and vegetables.
In 1975, the company was purchased by R.C.’s son, “Buddy” McEntire, Jr., which at the time included one employee, three ripening rooms, and a single delivery truck. Under Buddy’s leadership, the company soon added cucumbers, lemons, sack onions, and case lettuce to its menu.
The late 1970s saw another landmark for McEntire Produce when a customer asked what was viewed at the time to be a simple request. In fact, this inquiry turned into an innovative and business-launching aspect of the company’s services.
“One day, a customer asked if we could pre-cut the lettuce for them. The next day we bough Hobart cutters and got to work. From there we added that to our business,” explains Vice President Carter McEntire, Buddy’s son.
McEntire got his first glimpse of the family business as a child, working alongside his dad during the summer. “I still remember pulling up to the [original] facility when my father took over and, being a child, having to stand on the back seat to look over and out the front,” McEntire recalls.
As an adult, McEntire joined the company full time in 1993, taking a short break in 1998 to work for the investment firm Smith Barney, and returned to the family business in 2002.
Before the days of chain restaurants, McEntire Produce worked mainly with local food service businesses. As chain names began to take shape, McEntire Produce adjusted. Its focus shifted to these larger chains and the company adopted even more innovative services such as pre-washing shredded products. “Our primary customers are in the foodservice business - quick service chains - and we’re starting to move into other categories,” McEntire explains.
Working for McEntire Produce today are approximately 250 full-time employees and 75 seasonal employees who handled between 75 and 80 million pounds of product last year alone, making it a mid-sized but important player in America’s produce industry.
With the invention of new and automated processes such as bagging and sorting, the numbers of employees required for McEntire Produce have decreased, but this is, according to McEntire, better for the all-around business. “In general, any system or any equipment that allows a processor to extract foreign objects out of finished products or allows the processors to include food safety is money well-spent and a good investment for the processor.”
The distribution list for McEntire Produce is ever-growing and includes wholesale vegetables and fruits, fresh-cut products such as salad mixes, shredded and chopped lettuce, onions, slivered green peppers, tomatoes, cabbage, and carrots. As healthier eating habits take hold across the country, McEntire is seeing a shift in trends: though iceberg lettuce used to be “king,” romaine and green lettuce are more in demand along with red onions and sliced tomatoes.
As the company’s list of offerings grew, so too did its need for space. Previously spread across two packing facilities, McEntire Produce in 2006 moved into a 165,000 square-foot processing plant. “What’s unique about our company is we have fresh cut, wholesale and repacking all under one roof. We just celebrated our second anniversary and expect to have 50-plus years more here,” says McEntire.
Longevity of the company’s presence is also reflected in its employees. “We’ve got a good group of folks. We’ve had employees here for 30-plus years and a lot at 20-plus years,” McEntire notes. He attributes this, in part, to the company’s recognition program with safety and attendance bonuses for hourly employees and incentive bonuses for those on salary.
With its 35 tractors and 70 trailers, McEntire Produce offers faster delivery than much of the competition, giving the company a competitive edge. “We’re different in that we can take an order at 10 a.m. and make a full-load delivery anywhere in the Southeast in a 24-hour period. Normally we’re inside of 12 hours,” says McEntire.
The company also has the ability to cater to the unique needs of clients, delivering orders that may not take up the entire truck. In today’s greening and environmentally friendly environment, McEntire produce is figuring out the best ways to be more efficient in this area of the business. Lighter and more fuel-efficient trucks are likely in the near future.
Feeding America can be a daunting task. Not only are we picky, but there is always the risk of disease spreading through our food supply. McEntire Produce goes to great lengths to prevent any such hazard from plaguing their company, beginning at the loading dock and continuing throughout the process.
“For the fresh-cut process, we receive the product and inspect it for quality while it’s still on the receiving dock. All the traceablity numbers and information are added to the batches and follow the product in case there’s a problem,” explains McEntire.
Learning from past crises, McEntire Produce elevates the importance of tracing produce back to its source. “What we learned during the tomato salmonella scare was tracing was the greatest safety measure…Food safety is so important that $1 spent on prevention is worth $10,000 of reaction,” says McEntire.
To that end, the company follows Good Manufacturing Practices and is certified by the Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP). McEntire Produce also has a quality assurance team whose responsibility it is to test products and ensure that its growers are complying with Good Agricultural Practices.
After initial inspection, the rest of the process is completed with 48 hours. First, all produce is washed in a water flume. It is then dried and placed in product-specific packaging that lowers the respiration and slows down the decay process, allowing for fresh delivery.
McEntire Produce as the Explorer
As the company takes on the challenges of the crumbling marketplace, it is still enjoying a rather steady growth rate of more than 12 percent. Not completely immune, the cost of gas is an ever-present challenge. “But we still do good business because people are willing to pay for convenience,” says McEntire.
Relying mainly on word-of-mouth advertising and networking at industry conventions, the company also invests in its Web site and partakes in trade publications to spread news of its service. Tackling the market from all angles, McEntire Produce is looking to new horizons.
“In addition to doing a better job with our current customer base, there are different markets and different product categories to explore,” comments McEntire. “There are a lot of opportunities out there.”
Thanks to McEntire Produce’s seasoned staff and experience, these opportunities are bound to soon become a part of its success.