Technology is shaping the produce supply chain of the future.
Originally printed in the February 2023 issue of Produce Business.
The produce industry is ripe for innovative technology, and software companies are designing unique platforms to assist with handling produce along its delicate supply chain.
“How do we use software solutions to solve different angles and bring technology to bear to an industry that hasn’t used a lot of it?,” says Adrish Majumdar, co-founder and chief executive officer of FreshX in New York, NY. “Each of us is taking a different approach. We are in the early stages of seeing how technology will help shape the produce supply chain of the future.”
New produce software is cloud-based, and does not require hardware. All you need is a laptop, tablet or smartphone, and a browser (Chrome, Firefox, Edge, Safari). Young software companies (often less than five years old) have hired creative professionals from produce, grocery retailing, online shopping and online food delivery industries to create dedicated platforms. These systems synch with current ERP (accounting/inventory) such as Famous Software, Produce Pro and Quickbooks.
Some systems employ apps. “Mobile apps let you engage,” says Kevin Brooks, chief marketing officer for Procurant in Watsonville, CA. “They help you move produce faster than before. An app has to be designed with much simpler usability. You can’t put everything on it that you can put on a web page. You have to think how it will work and how will it connect.”
What’s the end result of the new technology? Cloud-based platforms and apps for buying, selling, tracing, inspecting and paying. Streamlined operations for growers, shippers, wholesalers and distributors. Quality produce arriving at supermarkets and food service facilities across the country.
Here are some of the current software updates and uses. (Although this list is not meant to include every company in the produce arena, it gives an illustration of how the latest technology software is being used.)
APPS FOR ORDERING PRODUCE — DISTRIBUTORS/SUPERMARKETS
Consentio is a produce trading platform for wholesalers, distributors and supermarkets. Started in 2019 in Europe, Consentio recently opened U.S. operations. Its system is intended to improve operations with a produce company’s business partners. Its apps work on mobile phones.
Magic Orders streamlines order-taking previously done by fax, email, text, spreadsheet or EDI (Electronic Data Interchange). “If you have a stream of orders coming in as PDFs via email, we can read them directly from the email, so validation is done on the front end,” says Andy Makeham, managing director USA for Consentio in San Francisco, CA. “This reduces the cost of order administration by 50% — from typing in information, to placing orders, etc. It can save a customer $70,000 to $100,000 per year.”
A grocer can order items from a specific produce Catalog via an app. With Sales, a notification such as a special on strawberries would pop up on a mobile phone or smartwatch. The Consentio platform also offers a carbon analysis of catalog items, using government industry or supplier data.
“It is three elements — the water usage (in growing), the carbon emissions (in production), the efficacy of the plastic (in packaging),” Makeham says. “You can manage in the future if they want more sustainable lemons, if they want to know they can find the most sustainable lemons available.”
Retailers can view price, availability and sustainability information. The platform also addresses finding new customers. “This is a universal problem, getting the message out that you have the best table grapes in California. Consentio has a tool called Prospecting — you can check out all of the customers in the area and market to them immediately.”
Latin Specialties LLC, a grower, importer and processor of fresh fruits and vegetables, uses Consentio in its daily operations.
“We supply small retail stores,” says Jorge Vazquez, president of Latin Specialties LLC, based in Houston, TX. “Now we can communicate with multiple stores at the same time, both chain stores, and stores within a chain. When you have a lot of SKUs, Consentio helps you put orders together in an easy way. It is a great tool for distributors to service the stores better. That is where Consentio shines.”
“We supply small retail stores, and now we can communicate with multiple stores at the same time, both chain stores, and stores within a chain.”— Jorge Vazquez, Latin Specialties LLC
Vazquez no longer has to print weekly product catalogs, or have dedicated order takers who manually transfer faxed/emailed orders into the ERP. He avoids having unhappy customers who sent in an order, went to sleep, and found out the next day an item was unavailable.
“Now, we take pictures of the actual items we have and we put it live in the catalog. If it is not available, either we turn it off or the computer makes it dark, so customers can’t see it and ask for 10 cases of that,” Vazquez says.
Vazquez likes the chat function, “or you can actually text your sales associate for an immediate response — 99 percent of communications today are text messaging, which the new generation seems to use,” he says.
FOODSERVICE APPS — COMPLETE CATALOGS AND EASY ORDERING
Pepper, founded in 2020, offers e-commerce apps for independent foodservice distributors that supply restaurants, hotels and schools. Each custom app has a logo, color scheme, pricing and catalog with potentially over 100,000 items (dairy to fish to produce).
“Our platform works very well for produce distribution,” says Wes Finch, vice president, produce operations for Pepper, based in Houston, TX. “The end user, whether it is chef, etc., knows their food distributor has an app. Instead of calling and waiting on hold or looking at an email, they can explore the app.”
Finch says the platform is easy to use. A chef can create dishes from in-stock, in-season items found on the app — and request specific brands and ripenesses.
“This allows a rep to become a sales consultant, rather than an order taker. They can walk into a restaurant and look at the cooler, and say we have a new upstate New York apple to offer you,” Finch says.
The Pepper platform includes: Order Guide (sorts items ordered), Catalog (shows what a distributor carries), Orders (splits by delivery date). Chat increases communication and is used for troubleshooting. And starting in 2023, users can track a truck delivering their order.
A system benefit is that online ordering may lead to an increase in drop size: A buyer who orders tomatoes, peppers and cilantro, may see rice recommended, too. And distributors can offer promotions.
“Say I have more diced onions inventory than I can use. Instead of calling and emailing customers, I can send a push notification to say, ‘Special: Two days left for yellow diced onions at $7 per case,” Finch says.
ONLINE MARKETPLACE AND REAL-TIME DATA
FreshX is building an online marketplace for fresh produce transactions, and plans to roll out the pilot by second quarter 2023. Its open market platform will include real-time market data/prices.
“We have access to analytic data — if you are a really large player, you already have peak systems and resources and dollars to do some of these things. But for most players in the industry, it gives them access to the kind of tools and technology that they don’t already have access to,” says Majumdar.
The cloud-based platform is accessed via laptop or tablet, and works upstream/downstream from the produce distributor. A grower/shipper can post available products on the platform, and buyers can make offers. A wholesaler/retailer who needs local product can put out a request, and multiple sellers can reach out.
The FreshX landing page has a “Produce Ticker” with real-time market prices. New Request shows product requests by variety, size, packaging type or shipping mode. Product Hub shows activity, including seller locations. Analytics includes USDA price trends for produce products.
“We plan to add AI (Artificial Intelligence) forecasting for supply and demand for our customers, in near-real time. This will provide more accurate forecasting,” Majumdar says.
The platform also shows distance from shipper to buyer, and helps decrease food miles.
“As we were starting our company, our mission was trying to build something that increases profit and reduces waste. Both of those things are linked,” Majumdar says. “Let’s say I want tomatoes. They are grown in greenhouses, and I can buy from my regular suppliers all over the U.S. If I am based in New York, I can see there are other tomato growers in New York state. I can buy from them, and the time from harvest to store shelf is shorter.”
FINANCING FOR THE PRODUCE INDUSTRY
Silo, founded in 2018, developed a cloud-based ERP system for those who grow, ship and distribute food. It works on desktops, laptops and mobile phones.
“This is an on-the-go industry,” says Lauren Contreras, director of product marketing for San Francisco, CA-based Silo. “In a space that wants to attract more people to it and make it more flexible for families to continue to build that foundation, that flexibility is necessary.”
Silo connects the physical and financial sides for a produce company. “With our accounting, you get insight into the profitability all the way down to the lot level. And that is because it is tied directly to the inventory. We are making sure all the breadcrumbs connect. We are eliminating a lot of the steps — where were they profitable? With who?,” Contreras says.
Silo says one of its differentiators is its finances. In an industry that runs on credit, Silo offers produce companies affordable rates for making/receiving payments. Cash Advance allows companies to buy equipment/supplies and meet demand/cost, by securing capital that they repay in three to six months. “There are a lot of family-owned businesses in produce. A lot of them go out of business or are being bought up by those that have access to capital,” Contreras says.
Instant Pay is a refresh of factoring (i.e., debtor financing). It can pay in three days, and bridges the gap between payments received in 21 to 30 days, and vendor amounts due in 15 to 21 days. This can help customers increase volume and revenue.
Silo says its platform shows what’s going on at your produce company so you can quickly take action. “This industry is a very risk-averse industry for a reason. But what if you could test your infrastructure by pushing more volume, identifying opportunities and breaking into new markets?,” Contreras says. “We try to absorb some of this so produce companies can focus on strategy, which is hard for them to focus on. The industry can feel reactive. But we have access to data and information that is actionable.”
FOOD SAFETY AND TRACEABILITY APPS
iFoodDS has specific apps for large suppliers (packers/shippers), processors, inspectors and grocery retailers, with a goal to protect public health. By January 2026, the FDA will begin requiring supply chain partners assign Key Data Elements (KDEs) for Critical Tracking Events (CTEs). KDEs include field location, quantity received, commodity cooled, date packed, lot code assigned.
“Let’s say you are Del Monte making fruit cups of chopped mangos, pineapples,” says Alyson Sharron, vice president of marketing for iFoodDS in Seattle, WA. “You are responsible for recording and maintaining KDEs when you receive produce into your facility, and when transforming produce into a fruit cup, and when you ship that product out to your customers. So every element in the supply chain has different KDEs. It is the same thing for retailers.”
iFoodDS can connect that traceability to food safety and quality. Trace Navigator tracks the product backward/forward in the supply chain. Supplier Scorecard ranks performance of suppliers. Quality Solution improves efficiency and consistency for inspectors at packing/shipping/distribution centers.
“We have millions of pictures in our image library. What do different types of defects look like? Without the software, it can take them quite a bit of time to file rejection reports. With our software, they can share reports instantly — this applies to suppliers and buyers up and down the line,” Sharron says.
With iFoodDS, category managers and buyers can monitor trend data and supplier performance, and make the best sourcing decisions possible. They can determine if a fruit should be shipped to Whole Foods, the Dollar Store or a juice bottler, based on quality.
“Putting high quality grocery products on shelves will help increase sales. Most shoppers choose stores based on quality of produce. Customers are more likely to stay loyal to you if quality is what they expect,” Sharron says.
MOBILE APPS FOR ORDERS AND CRITICAL CHECK
Procurant, started in 2018, has a produce trading platform with a mobile app. Primarily for retailers and foodservice operators, it works for growers, shippers, warehouses and buyers.
“We cover many parts of the chain. We do touch a wide range of players and that is deliberate. We are solving some of the systemic problems that require data and collaboration,” says Brooks.
The platform handles pricing, shipping, order management and more. “In produce, an order is the beginning of an ongoing dialogue. There are about seven to eight changes on an average purchase order: price points, quantity, availability. You may need 500 pallets and suppliers can only provide 200. There can be transportation issues with trucks, drivers, weather — so you need contingency plans. For years, it was phone calls and emails. Our mobile app lets you take action immediately.”
Procurant’s apps can track produce data, improve efficiency and increase profitability. “If a supplier can let you know you have a shortage in one category, you can move faster than competitors in the commodity. Product availability is a big thing in produce and keeps buyers up at night,” Brooks says.
With Procurant, inspectors and buyers have more data. “If you are an inspector, you can inspect a load of apples. But you might not have known the supplier, order, truck and price point. With an application tied to more information, you might have a heads up before you unload the truck that three other warehouses had a problem,” Brooks says.
Procurant Task manages critical checklists, facility/food safety and regulation compliance. Grocery employees can check temperatures of prepared food, follow opening and closing procedures, and receive alerts. In a highly dynamic environment, this simplifies tasks for entry-level workers.
APPS FOR VARIOUS USERS IN PRODUCE
GrubMarket creates food industry apps, with produce as one of its specialties. The software sits on top of and synchs with ERPs, and has custom integration to Quickbooks.
“We are fully cloud-based, so gone are the days where you have to manage your own system,” says Bryan Barsness, vice president of sales and marketing for GrubMarket in San Francisco, CA. “Last year, several companies had ransomware attacks, and when you manage your own server, you have to be a hacker whiz — and most produce people are not.”
With Orders IO, small retailers and foodservice customers put in requests, and sales persons confirm them. With the WholesaleWare app, growers can list quantities and pre-sell. Wholesalers can manage orders, traceability and transportation, when selling to retail or foodservice.
“Any food wholesaler, broker, distributor, importer would use WholesaleWare. I’d say 75 percent of our customers are in produce,” Barsness says.
Hours make a difference in produce. With the app, a user can learn a load is arriving at 10 p.m., and another one is coming earlier at 5 p.m. “As they say, ‘produce happens.’ Things come up. You need every minute of the day. You want to get the order in and done. Then you can address whatever issues come up: pricing issues, rejections,” Barsness says.
GrubMarket also keeps track of age/type/value of inventory. A distributor can locate avocados rated #1 for retailers, and rated #2 for foodservice, so there is easy product searching and reduced food waste.
“The nation’s food supply is important. We want to play an active part in helping to grow produce and manage produce consumption,” Barsness says.