A summer job helping his father deliver boxes of vegetables to Fresno restaurants has turned into a growing and specialized enterprise for Mike Kahaian over the last 26 years.
His company, 1st Quality Produce, provides school districts, restaurants, hotels and other food-service businesses statewide with fresh cut peppers, zucchini, and fruit including pineapple, mangoes and melons.
While some of the vegetables are diced in machines, the fruit is still cut by hand. In the company’s new 38-degree production facility in southeast Fresno, a worker slices the prickly skin off a pineapple and cubes the fruit in about 12 seconds.
“We’ve had everybody under the sun try to tell us how to mechanize,” said Kahaian who owns the business with his wife, Rita. The fruit is hand cut “because it gets bruised up and then your yield is different … there’s ways to automate it, but it hasn’t made sense.”
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After 14 years of squeezing employees and cold storage refrigerators into a 12,000-square-foot building south of downtown Fresno, 1st Quality has expanded into a new facility nearly two miles away in southeast Fresno.
The move — three years in the making — consolidates the entire company including the production operation, which has operated in Dinuba, into a 35,000-square-foot building that once housed a pipe company at Orange and Church avenues.
The expansion allows the company to increase its statewide distribution operation, to add up to 9,000 square feet of cold storage and to create a quarter-acre vegetable garden on the 3.5-acre site for educational use in the future. In the last six to eight months, the company hired about 20 new employees, increasing its staff to more than 75 people who work year-round.
20,000square foot refrigerated processing room
Other plans include finding ways to recycle the water the company uses to wash and chlorinate fruits and vegetables.
One option is to collect the runoff water, filter it and pump it back into a holding tank, said Kahaian, who comes from a family of grape and raisin growers. The second method is to use evaporator coils to capture the moisture in the air, he said.
“We’re spending a lot of money on water,” Kahaian said. Then the drought popped up, he said. “It’s just getting tougher and tougher.”
1st Quality Produce started in a small cooler in downtown Fresno, with only one employee delivering produce to restaurants, but the competition was heavy “so we knew we had to get out of that market,” Kahaian said.
The company decided to take an extra step in food safety certification to get business from large customers like school districts and hospitals, which require distributors to have high standards when handling food.
40,000pounds of fresh-cut fruit and vegetables that can be processed a day
One of its first large clients 14 years ago was Table Mountain Casino. Then, the company secured contracts to provide healthy snacks and food to local school districts like Fresno Unified and Clovis Unified. About 30% of the company’s business is with school districts. 1st Quality also contracts with area hospitals and distributors in Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay Area.
“We’re looking at getting into other markets,” Kahaian said, but “it’s hard with the fresh-cut piece because it’s only good for a few days so you got to get it in and get it out.”
On a recent Monday morning, workers on one side of the 20,000-square-foot processing area, where 40,000 pounds of fresh-cut fruit and vegetables can be produced daily, were busy cutting and packing red onions, zucchini and jicama sticks for an afternoon delivery to Southern California. The order was expected to arrive by 6 a.m. Tuesday.
On the other side of the room, employees were slicing fruit and others manned a conveyer belt of broccoli. Two florets were packaged in a small plastic bag with a perforated end for school lunches. The raw vegetable is served with a side of ranch dressing.
2 millionsmall school lunch packs of fruit and vegetables processed in a month
Kahaian joked that he’s heard the broccoli isn’t real popular with students. But customers are calling for the jicama sticks, he said, which are increasing in demand.
The last two years have been whirlwind for Kahaian, who said he never expected his company to grow so fast.
“We realized with our growth mainly in California schools, we would be over-capacity soon, so the decision was made to begin a search” for a new building, said Kahaian, who expanded the downtown facility three times.
“We’ve been real fortunate. A lot of things really happened for us.”