Over the course of the year, we pay tribute to 35 living Vanguards and 12 departed heroes. This month’s featured Vanguard is Michael Muzyk of Baldor Specialty Foods
Originally printed in the August 2021 issue of Produce Business.
With a work ethic second to none, Michael Muzyk has made an indelible mark on the produce industry. Strategic, innovative and determined, Muzyk has a knack for solving prickly problems with the same gusto he brings to life itself.
Muzyk is president of Baldor Specialty Foods, the Bronx, NY-based produce distribution juggernaut with roots dating to 1918. He leads a workforce of 2,200, complemented by a fleet of 350 trucks, which is on a mission “to deliver quality ingredients, innovative solutions and seamless experiences that ensure the successes of our partners.”
Since joining Baldor in 1995 as a sales representative, Muzyk has achieved enviable feats, including explosive geographical reach, exponential growth, laser-focused responses to the 9/11 attacks, Great Recession and COVID-19 pandemic, as well as elevating the bar on food safety and digital technology in warehouse management, customer service and satisfaction.
Muzyk has also led the United Fresh Produce Association’s response to the coronavirus in his role as chairman; serves as a survey panelist for the Federal Reserve Bank of New York; is an adviser to U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, a member of the Senate Agriculture Committee; and serves on the advisory panel for the Marketing and Branding Subcommittee for New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s NYS Certified High Quality Foods Initiative.
A graduate of the Culinary Institute of America (CIA), Hyde Park, NY, Muzyk followed a career path in fine dining and cruise ship kitchens to a consulting gig for a Belgium quick-service conglomerate before family concerns in 1991 thrust him in a new direction — sales.
“When Michael was seeking a position with a new company in New York, I called Kevin Murphy, founder of Baldor Specialty Foods, and told him I had a ‘superstar’ for him,” says Charlie Eagle, vice president of business development at Pompano, FL-based Southern Specialties. Eagle had hired Muzyk at Atlanta Culinary Herbs, an Atlanta-based company he later sold.
“His passion for the industry is contagious,” notes Eagle.
Widely recognized in the produce industry, Muzyk casts a big shadow. “Michael is bigger than life,” says Mayda Sotomayor-Kirk, chief executive of Seald Sweet, based in Vero Beach, FL. “Whoever knows Michael will tell you that he pushes and pushes, and he does not accept the ‘it can’t be done’ attitude. He truly believes it is our duty to support this industry and those around us.”
Muzyk’s ascension to the Baldor president’s post included stints as sales person, sales manager and vice president. “I climbed the ladder because I took my job very seriously,” says Muzyk. “By graduating from the CIA and working in the restaurant business for 15 years, I know how to prepare ingredients and can take the fear away when selling to customers.”
When the coronavirus gripped the United States, Muzyk sprang into action, knowing 89% of Baldor’s business was about to go dark. He instituted a daily “war room” meeting with an 11-member management team.
“We looked at our assets and what we could do to survive,” says Muzyk. “Realizing one of our greatest assets was our website, we began offering product to consumers. The first day we took two orders and we messed them both up, but by Day Three, we were at 500 orders.” Muzyk also sought opportunity in retail once Baldor’s foodservice sales were decimated.
Jim Perkins, president of the Mid-Atlantic Division for ACME and Eastern Safeway, a Malvern, PA-based chain of 275 stores, began working with Baldor during the pandemic. “Mike and Baldor were the primary catalyst for keeping Acme’s produce business running.”
“Mike and his Baldor team were able to give us seven-days-a-week service to our stores,” Perkins says. “In addition, he was able to give us a dedicated sales person to take care of orders for each district, with the flexibility to keep our orders adjusted as the business was evolving. Mike is a make-it-happen professional.”
“We pivoted and were able to survive COVID-19,” confirms Muzyk, who once purchased an airline seat to guarantee delivery of a bag of potatoes. “You have to develop the trust factor. Integrity is not an easy road, but it is the right road.”
“I have seen Michael battle his own company issues through the pandemic while also working endlessly for United Fresh in his role as chairman,” notes Seald Sweet’s Sotomayor-Kirk. “Even when times are difficult, he always pushes forward with his famous slogan — ‘Produce will win.’”
“He is a leader who is totally invested,” notes Eagle of Southern Specialties. “He will not ask you to do anything he would not do himself. I think folks recognize this in Michael and work harder to stay in lockstep with him to achieve the goals they set.”
As Muzyk looks forward to meeting new goals in a world of unknowns — he is sure of one thing: “Food will win, and we are on the winning team.”