Over the course of the year, we pay tribute to 35 living Vanguards and 12 departed heroes. This month’s featured Vanguard is Bruce Taylor of Taylor Farms.
Originally printed in the January 2021 issue of Produce Business.
Bruce Taylor didn’t intend to enter the produce industry, never mind be on the forefront of change that has driven what had been a commodity business to one increasingly capable of meeting specific consumer needs.
That’s just how it turned out.
Over the years, Taylor has combined what his family learned about the challenges of the produce industry and the course of his own career to establish a philosophy that incorporates striving, building, occasionally stumbling, learning and advancing while always keeping in mind that the produce industry is a community of common interests, best served by working together.
When he was starting out, Taylor’s family already was established in the produce business after his grandfather started a lettuce operation and his uncle and father built it further. But he got hooked after doing a summer job, then taking the opportunity to work in Italy, where he applied carbon dioxide to peaches being shopped to Marks & Spencer in the United Kingdom. The idea didn’t work out so well, but the experience set him on his career path in the produce business and as an innovator in his eventually chosen field.
With the goal toward finding innovation, particularly as a way to differentiate product offered, the stage was set for the development of what became Fresh Express.
The idea to add value to produce by using technology, in this case by adding breathable films to deliver a fresher product, started in the restaurant business and eventually translated into the Fresh Express enterprise after a series of innovations, improvements and modifications. By the late 1980s, Taylor says Fresh Express was dealing not only with the challenges of getting fresh prepared salad to stores but getting the product through to the consumer. That meant working with retailers on new fixturing that could maintain constant temperatures in open cases and so ensure freshness and ultimately consumer approval.
Even as it was providing a new way for consumers to enjoy salad, Fresh Express was helping change the model of how growers operated particularly in California, Taylor notes. Fresh Express brought a fixed-price approach to the Salinas Valley. “Salinas was all free-market growers,” says Taylor. “They never knew what returns would be. With the value-added business, we knew what the finished product price would be. We worked with the restaurants that wanted a fixed cost. So we would guarantee growers a market. It really stabilized the economics of the Salinas Valley. Growers could devote a certain amount of a crop to something they knew they could make money on and decide what to risk.”
The Fresh Express phase of Taylor’s career ended with a difference of opinion about the sale of the business. At that point, Taylor pondered the next phase of his professional life and began to take the measure of the possibilities before him.
“When I started over again, everyone said no one needed another packaged salad company,” he said. “I thought the opposite. A group of friends helped fund me, and that was gratifying. I was thinking about what I can do best, and these folks came to my rescue.”
Although it was also an element of the Fresh Express success, a key driving factor in the establishment of Taylor Farms was its customer-centric approach, Taylor says. From its start in 1995, the company actively reviewed and appraised what was in the marketplace and looked for gaps where need couldn’t connect with available product. As a consequence, Taylor built his new business by exploring avenues others didn’t want to tread, such as one to a plant in Florida nobody wanted, but his new enterprise rehabilitated.
Indeed, he started out initially identifying a couple of facilities he could use to serve the foodservice industry. As it turned out, Taylor Farms kept on picking up businesses so that now it has 17 plants in the United States.
Taylor also says he has been willing to change ownership structure strategically during the course of Taylor Farm’s evolution as a way of growing the company and bringing in new resources. Growth has been such that Taylor Fresh Foods/Taylor Farms is the largest fresh vegetable company in the world with annual revenue over $4.5 billion, he claims.
When considering his opportunities and contribution in, and to, the produce industry, technology is one of the key elements Taylor cites as applied to producing a fresh and convenient ready-to-eat product. However, it isn’t just the success of the product in and of itself that gives him satisfaction. Rather, Taylor says the introduction and acceptance of packaged produce was a help to his own enterprises, restaurants, and food retailers, but also to the produce industry in a broader sense. “Produce consumption increased,” he says, “and consumer demand for convenient, ready-to-eat salads increased. We helped build a more stable industry.”
The other major area where Taylor has played a leading role is food safety, particularly in his work launching SmartWash Solutions and as co-founder of the Center for Produce Safety. He says the work to ensure the safety of the products the produce industry offers, in all their various forms, is critical. “The produce has to be not only fresh and flavorful, but also has to be as safe as possible both for the sake of the industry and for the consumer. That’s what lets me sleep at night,” he said.
Another Vanguard, Bryan Silbermann, formerly of PMA, cited Taylor as instrumental in the initial funding of the Center for Produce Safety. “Bruce is a great strategic thinker,” he says. When a salmonella outbreak was linked to tomatoes, Silbermann noted, Taylor participated in a meeting of the PMA board where a discussion of the need for an industry-wide traceability initiative began. The participants agreed that the organization needed a senior retail leader. According to Silbermann, Taylor insisted that PMA and the United Fresh Produce Association reach out to a senior retail leader, more senior than a vice president of produce, who had organization-wide authority.
As a result, the first chair of the Produce Traceability Initiative leadership council was Cathy Green Burns, now PMA CEO, who at the time was Food Lion senior vice president of fresh merchandising and distribution, and later president of the banner.
Among other contributions, Silbermann also pointed to Taylor’s willingness to twice take a seat on the PMA board, once as chairman, as evidence of his dedication to the produce industry and the environs in which it works. Taylor also has been deeply involved with the Western Growers Association as a member of the board, including the 2021/2022 board, and as chairman.
In addition, Silbermann noted Taylor’s dedication to the city of Salinas, including his moving the company headquarters to the downtown area to help with its revitalization.
So, Bruce Taylor has been, throughout his career, a deeply involved member of a produce community that he has helped advance such that, today, it provides consumers more options and, so, more reasons to purchase fruits and vegetables, businesses, all the while boosting the produce industry’s prospects for the future.