VIVA FRESH CONFERENCE
Viva Fresh started in 2015 as a small regional tradeshow with the goal of shining a light on the importance of the Lower Rio Grande Valley. In just three years, it has become a go-to event for getting to know the who’s who of the Tex-Mex industry.
Hosted by the Texas International Produce Association (TIPA), Viva Fresh focuses on networking, education and building relationships in a relaxed and intimate setting.
Viva Fresh 2019 will take place April 25-27 in San Antonio, TX. “It’s the only regional trade show all about the Tex-Mex produce scene,” says Dante Galeazzi, TIPA president and chief executive. “Viva Fresh focuses not only on the region’s vital role in bringing more than $7 billion of fresh produce to the national marketplace, but it also high-lights the flavors and unique offerings of both the Southwest and Mexico.”
SOWING THE SEED
Behind these great produce companies are some noteworthy stories about how they began.
Though steeped in Texas tradition, several prime companies owe their foundation to natural disasters, a World War and the pursuit of dreams.
Family-owned J&D Produce in Edinburg, TX, grew out of roots in New Jersey. Jimmy Bassetti, chief operating officer and son of the founders, explains the history. “Both my parents (James and Diane) are from Vineland, NJ, and both their families were in produce there,” he says. “My father was set to head off to Villanova law school, when his uncle (my grandfather’s business partner) passed away. My dad decided to stay full time.”
The company had a solid foot in Canada, and customers were asking for product, even when it was too cold for New Jersey. “My dad came down to Texas one weekend to scout out the produce operations here,” says Bassetti. “That same weekend, a nor’easter wiped out the crops in New Jersey. My grandfather called my dad in Texas and asked him to find the products needed to fill the orders. He was able to do it with five or six different labels. Customer feedback was great, but they expressed not wanting so many labels.”
Bassetti’s father saw this as an opportunity to start a business. He and Bassetti’s mother began working out of a truck broker office, buying and selling produce for the first year and a half. “It was tough at first because not everyone wanted to sell to him, and he didn’t have the control he wanted,” says Bassetti. “A year after that, they bought a packing facility, and in the fall of 1986 started J&D Produce.”
However J&D needed a single label to take to market. “My grandfather was six feet tall, well over 300 pounds and thus nicknamed ‘the bear’ by his customers,” says Bassetti. “It was right around the time my mother was going to have me, so they decide to call the label ‘Little Bear.’ Using that label, my dad recruited some of the best growers in the valley as well as growing on his own.”
REFUGE FROM EUROPE
In business for more than 75 years, Rio Fresh in San Juan, TX, owes its start to the difficult circumstances of pre-World War II Europe. “Our patriarch, Carl Frederick Schuster, came to the United States in 1933,” says Christine Morley, Rio Fresh president. “His mother, Bertha, saw problems ahead for Europe and their native Austria with World War II looming in the future, so she decided to send her oldest son to Texas to live with her two brothers.”
Her brothers had started a farming operation in the Rio Grande Valley — and that is where Carl was headed at age 15. “In 1941, Carl married Wilma Reis, and with $900 and a second-hand truck, they started their married life farming a 40-acre plot south of Alamo, TX,” says Morley. “In 1970, a group of local farmers got together and created Rio Fresh, Inc. They wanted to be able to grow, pack and ship their own produce.“
Over the past 45 years, ownership of Rio Fresh changed and is now owned by members of the Carl and Wilma Schuster family and spouses. “We have increased the variety of crops to approximately 30 different vegetables and herbs,” says Morley. “We have 12 second- and third-generation family members working either at the shed or on the farm. Our goal is to pass our operation to the fourth generation.”
Texas also boasts success stories sprouting from Mexican roots. Cabefruit has a decades-long legacy of growing tropicals in Mexico. “We are growers in Mexico and distributors in McAllen, TX,” says Vicky Cabello, chief operating officer and third-generation family member.
Cabello’s grandfather, Jorge Cabello, began tropical fruits in 1960. His sons expanded the business in Tapachula with pineapples, cacao and mangos. In 2008, three of four Cabello brothers — Cesar, Luis and Jesus — started Cabefruit in McAllen. The company currently grows about 3,200 acres of mangos in Tapachula, almost 2,000 acres in Nayarit and about 500 acres in Jalisco.
Grande Produce has been on the McAllen market a little more than 15 years. “It started with my brother, Juan Cano, and his dream when he was very young of driving a semi-truck,” says Raul Cano, vice president of Grande Produce and Cano & Sons Trucking in San Juan, TX. “One day he decided to come to the United States and buy his own truck. He started hauling freight for other companies.”
At some point, customers began asking Juan if he could get them fresh produce. “Little by little, he started sourcing and selling produce to those customers,” says Cano. “As we celebrate our 15th anniversary, we have more than 100 trucks and 200 employees and are operating two companies.”