Traditions are maintained, but Millennials make their mark in myriad ways.
When Stefanie Katzman, executive manager and a fourth-generation family member at S. Katzman Produce, Bronx, NY, conceived the idea of a grab-and-go cup of pomegranate arils for the Bloom Fresh brand, her research took her to India. There, where pomegranates grow year-round, she sourced fruit with deep, dark red seeds and just the right level of sweetness. She found a manufacturer to produce a resealable plastic container that would fit in the palm of a hand. Then she added a differentiator: a foldable plastic spoon — created on a 3-D printer — to lodge just inside the lid.
These small spoons, the result of cutting-edge technology, are a symbol of a big shift under way at the Hunts Point Produce Market, Bronx, NY, where the sons and daughters of time-honored produce houses are stepping up to make their mark. They are bright, hard-working innovators of the Millennial generation who have grown up at the market learning from their parents, uncles, aunts and grandparents.
Innovation has always been a hallmark of the produce industry. But in an era of explosive digital growth, it’s not surprising that many of the changes these next generation leaders are championing are technology-based — from the wonder of spoons mass-produced on 3-D printers to apps and software fueling traceability efforts and GPS tracking of delivery trucks.
“Technology is becoming a major factor in the way companies operate and grow, especially when it comes to efficiency,” says Craig DeMarco, a third-generation family member at LBD Produce, where he works as assistant office manager.
Chelsea Armata, office manager at E. Armata, is one of the fourth generation that includes siblings Nicky and Michael. She remembers one of her early contributions: replacing a “stone-age” time clock with a biometric version. “I told my dad (Chris Armata, president), this has got to go,” she says.
“We use features like Google Drive and cloud-based email services and computing to share information and documents across the company,” says Thomas Tramutola Jr., a manager at A&J Produce, a business helmed by his father, Thomas Tramutola. “Ten years ago, we might have had to print and pass along a million copies of everything.”
Tramutola, who along with his brother, John Paul, represents the third generation, says these changes were “kind of difficult at first” for some employees. “They were cards they weren’t used to playing. But once they were comfortable and realized the benefits, the functionality of the process started to be realized.”
Technology is also changing, for some, the tactile nature of the industry. At A&J and some other produce houses, buyers can receive photos of fresh produce via text or email and then place their orders without visiting the market. These and other tools to improve efficiency and increase revenue are embraced and promoted by members of the next generation, many of whom grew up with cell phones as a routine part of daily life. At D’Arrigo Bros. Co., the company uses Facebook messaging to communicate with truck drivers.
“The business has done well; but even now, within the last four to five years, we’ve seen changes. Change is catching up and the market has to evolve with it quickly,” says Tom Palumbo, vice president of business development at Top Banana and a member of his family’s third generation. Palumbo sees his contemporaries, like his sister Nicole, who is also part of the team, as being “generally more open to new ideas.”
“A lot of people my age, we always talk about it — at least in passing. ‘How’s business doing? Anything new?’ We’re in it together. We’re going to try to help each other if we can,” he says.
To that end, Sasha LoPresti, director of business development at A.J. Trucco Inc., and chair of the market’s PR committee, teamed up with Gabriela D’Arrigo, marketing and communications director at D’Arrigo Bros. and a PR committee member, to bring young leaders together. Myra Gordon, executive director of the Hunts Point Terminal Produce Co-Operative Association, worked with the duo to plan the “Next Generation Party,” which drew 50 people in May.
LoPresti, second generation at Trucco and a newly elected member of the co-operative board, says the event was for people to meet and mingle, and to start a dialogue about how “next geners” might get involved in market issues in the future. It’s important, she says, “to utilize all the resources of the many bright young people here that we haven’t tapped into.”
“I thought the Next Generation Party was an amazing event,” says Matthew Park, managing director of C and J Brothers, where he and his cousin Emily Park represent the second generation. “I got to see and meet a lot of people I’ve never met before. It was very beneficial.”
S. Katzman Produce’s Katzman agrees. “I was expecting it to be good, and it was even better than I thought it would be. A lot of people came, and everyone was super friendly. I ran into people I’d never met or heard of in the market before. I can’t wait for the next one.”
“Hopefully it’s the beginning of much more to come,” says LoPresti. “We’re definitely going to keep trying to get together, whether it’s on our own or as part of the market co-operative.”
LoPresti also has been part of the Hunts Point co-operative team reimagining the market’s website. Top Banana’s Palumbo welcomes the relaunch, which is scheduled to happen this summer. “It helps to get our name out there. It gets more eyes to the market,” he says.
As produce houses consider the merits of business-to-business and business-to-consumer websites and social media marketing, next generation leaders are natural-born enthusiasts.
D’Arrigo, representing the fourth generation, puts it this way: “Social media and the whole digital online platform are ridiculously important. If I Google you and you don’t come up, I’m not going to give you a second glance.”
She and her cousins — Kevin, Brian, Peter, Dillon and Nick D’Arrigo — are strong proponents of a robust social media presence. Today, she oversees social media marketing for the Andy Boy brand, which is represented on social networks from Facebook to YouTube. “It’s a brand we obviously have ownership in as a sister company,” she says. “It’s a family label, and it’s in our minds all the time.”
D’Arrigo uses an annual content calendar to plan social media posts and schedule sweepstakes and other contests. “We do a lot of partnerships, so we have the ability to cross-promote.”
Trucco’s KiwiStar brand division shares recipes and mouthwatering photographs of colorful fruit through its Instagram, Twitter and Facebook pages. There are contests and recipes, and the platforms offer an educational component as well. Katzman’s Bloom Fresh consumer brand is also well represented on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.
In talking about focus areas, many members of the next generation of market leadership mention the environment and sustainability as topics important to them and customers of all ages, but particularly to Millennials. In the 2010 census, Millennials were 83.1 million strong, making up more than 25 percent of the population.
New York-based Nielsen confirms Hunts Point’s next generation is on to something. Sustainability Imperative, a 2015 Nielsen survey, found Millennials “continue to be most willing to pay extra for sustainable offerings — almost three out of four respondents in the latest findings, up from approximately half in 2014.”
“Brands that establish a reputation for environmental stewardship among today’s youngest consumers have an opportunity to not only grow market share, but build loyalty among the power-spending Millennials of tomorrow, too,” says Nielsen’s Grace Farraj, senior vice president of public development and sustainability, in a press release.
On the KiwiStar website, for example, customers learn clamshells holding KiwiStar fruit are made using between 70 and 100 percent post-consumer recycled water bottles. Organic pouches use up to 65 percent less material than a clamshell, which the company notes “reduces the product weight and thus, carbon emissions.”
The next generation also stresses the importance of reducing truck emissions and waste, which are ongoing efforts at the market across the board. Recycling bins are everywhere in 2017 as the market powers toward New York City’s goal of “zero waste to landfills by 2030.”
There’s also a desire to reduce waste while offering the healthful benefits of produce to as many people as possible. Emily Park, accounts receivable manager at C and J Brothers, would like to see more of the blemished produce, often passed over by the large chains, make its way to the people “that need it most; that can’t afford it,” she says. “It’s all edible. I think it’s important that we make all the produce that comes in here useful.”
Many members of the next generation are passionate about organic produce, more widely available today than ever before at the Hunts Point Market. S. Katzman Produce’s Katzman sees it as a growing commodity. While organics represent a small percentage of the company’s revenue, she says sales almost doubled in the past year.
As the next generation looks to the future with these and other ideas, members hold tight to the hard-won wisdom of their parents, other relatives and role models.
“The most valuable thing I’ve learned is to always be fair, and you get what you pay for,” says John Paul Tramutola, who works in sales and alongside his brother Thomas at A&J. “It started with my grandfather and Al Weiler always repeating that over and over, and it continued through my father and his brothers. You do the right thing and the people that matter will never forget it.”
E. Armata’s Armata says she’s learned “to keep your relationships with people, and to be trustworthy. Treat people appropriately so they want to grow and stay with you. Be approachable.”
At LBD, the importance of building strong relationships with shippers and customers is crucial, says DeMarco. “I’ve been told this by numerous people, and it is a value that runs deep in the overall operations of LBD Produce.”
Treating every customer the same, whether they’re buying one box or one truckload is a value C and J Brothers’ Matthew Park has learned from his father and uncle. “That sentiment always has to stay, without a doubt.”
Along with absorbing these and other teachings through the years, these young men and women are well steeped in the culture of the produce business. It’s an ethos of hard work, which in a family business can often be 24/7.
“You’ve got to love the business. It’s not a textbook business,” says Joel Fierman, co-owner of Fierman Produce Exchange and co-president of the Hunts Point Terminal Produce Co-Operative Association. His nephew Joe, the son of brother William, is a member of the fourth generation.
“The culture of the market is so ingrained,” says Top Banana’s Palumbo. “It’s a culture of work, and most days you’re working overtime.”
“It’s a very different lifestyle and mentality,” says Katzman. “It’s a different way of thinking; there are hundreds of moving parts and it’s our job to streamline the chaos so we can serivice our customers they way they need it.”
Armata agrees. “We try to warn people in interviews that it’s fast-paced. People want it 5 minutes ago. It’s that kind of environment in general.”
But these leaders wouldn’t have it any other way.
John Paul Tramutola says if he hadn’t joined the family business, there was only one other career he would have wanted: jet pilot. “Obviously, produce won,” he says. “I idolized my grandfather, father and uncles. I wanted what they did. The action was the most appealing.”
Added to the daily rigors is the sometimes delicate balancing act of working alongside relatives. But these familial links are quite often the deciding factor in the longevity of a produce house. For example, Mike Cochran, vice president at Robt. T. Cochran & Co., represents the fifth generation in a firm with roots that date back to 1893.
“It’s a very generational kind of business,” says Katzman. There is no worry about family investment at Katzman, where Katzman is joined by brother, Samuel, brother-in-law Paul Jaffa, and Joey and Anthony Andreani, the son and nephew of Mario Andreani. Like family, Mario is company president and Stephen Katzman’s “right-hand man,” who for almost 30 years has “helped him build the business into what it is today,” says Katzman.
Evan Kazan is director of business development and a second-generation family member at Target Interstate Systems Inc., where he works alongside his father Paul, and company president. Kazan joined the company full-time after college. “I was always interested in the business growing up,” he says. “I was fascinated when listening to my father on the phone at night and on the weekends, and had a desire to learn everything about the business.”
Kazan prizes their close working relationship. “It’s great. My father and I work directly next to each other every day. Being in such a close working relationship, I am given the unique opportunity to learn from his nearly 40 years of experience in the business, which has helped me grow personally and professionally.”
“It’s very rewarding, but it also has its challenges,” says Top Banana’s Palumbo. “Sometimes it’s hard to separate your personal and business life. It does bleed over. But you’re always family. They have your back. So it’s the best of both worlds.”
As D’Arrigo Bros.’ D’Arrigo puts it, “You have to separate church and state here. My uncles have done a very good job of instilling that in us. We might yell and scream, but we’re still going to have the barbecue.”
As these freshly minted leaders move into positions of greater responsibility in the coming years, they will inspire and train many of their successors.
At 44, Jim Margiotta is the fourth generation of a family with more than 116 years in the produce business. At the helm of J. Margiotta Co., he is one of the youngest business owners at Hunts Point Market. He and his wife are also busy raising four young children — the potential fifth generation in the produce business. “Unfortunately, they’re too young now,” he jokes about his children, who are all under the age of 10. “But they’re growing too fast. It’ll only be a matter of minutes before they’re ready to be in here.”