Consistent Values; Flexible Business Model . . . from an interview with Mark Curran of Black River Produce

Black River Produce (BRP) delivers Vermont fresh produce, meat, and other value-added food products to over 2000 wholesale customers throughout Vermont, most of New Hampshire, and parts of New York and Massachusetts.

Mark Curran

What started out as two twenty-somethings wanting a better eating experience for themselves while skiing Vermont in the late 1970s, became one of Vermont’s premier socially responsible businesses.  In fact, it is their core value of serving the local market, both by importing and exporting food, that has ensured their success.  Mark Curran and Steve Birge fill a big gap in the local market by supplying the area with quality fresh fruits and vegetables and by bringing local produce outside the state.

 

Serve the community; serve yourself

“What are the best things to eat? Fresh fruit and veggies. Meats. Fish. Locally raised eggs,” Mark quipped. Back in the 1970s, with a used VW Bus and $600 between them, they hatched Black River Produce. Painting “Give Peas a Chance” on the side of the bus, they were in business, bringing fresh produce from the Boston wholesale produce market to Vermont during ski season.

Soon after, they also started supplying and delivering Vermont products both within the state and to outside markets. In 1977 a friend started a natural food store, but his customers complained about the vegetables. “I had another friend in Westminster, Vermont, who grew corn and tomatoes. I would go down and get my friend’s corn and tomatoes and bring them to my other friend. It made his natural food store kind of a farm stand without a farm,”  Mark shared how they began cultivating relationships with growers.  

“At the time, a lot of my business was tourist-related.  Iceberg lettuce was the mainstay at 98% of sales.  Green leaf lettuce was exotic.  Kiwi, watercress, et cetera was all exotic, and, because we liked the stuff, that’s what we delivered.”

In truth, it was not convenient for Mark to get fresh produce. From central Vermont, he or Steve would drive to Boston’s wholesale fresh produce market, then stop at local southern Vermont farms on the way back, sometimes even helping to pick.

“It was the corn thing,” Mark said of Vermont Sweet Corn, one of his favorites. “No one could compete against local growers, especially when it came to Vermont corn.  The sales for Vermont sweet corn in mid-July were amazing.  We could get people to come to our store because people knew we had corn that was picked that day.”

To help fill their van at the produce market, they contacted a few local restaurants for orders. Local chefs spread the word and within a year Steve and Mark were supplying more than 30 restaurants.

 

Consistency vs. flexibility

Over the years, Black River Produce has stayed consistent to its mission, vision, and values, while adapting its business model to the market.

Black River Produce spent a lot of time putting together their Mission, Vision, and Values Statements. “We did it in-house as we wanted to make sure it was us, part of what we do. Some things are harder, but being community-oriented, that’s easy to do.’’

Mission, Vision & Values “People read these!” Mark emphasized, talking about staff, suppliers, and customers who enter Black River Produce’s new state of the art facility.

Once, when money was tight, they were they were asked to carry dishwasher detergent. “That’s a big business for hospitals, etc,” Mark remembered.  “‘Why not put that on your truck?’ I was asked. However, we always returned to our Core Vision to be “the produce, seafood, and specialty food vendor of choice in our marketplace.”  Detergent and janitorial supplies just did not fit our niche.”

VALUES

Soon after, they were trucking other local food products besides just produce. Mark remembered how it began: “Baba-a-Louies Bakery also started around 1977.  It was a small bakery in Chester where he (the founder and baker John Louis McLure) sold this amazing bread for 99¢ a loaf.  He wanted to have his bread in Ludlow as well.  One day I was at Kennedy Airport, headed to Europe.  John was taking the same flight to France where he grew up.  He went back to visit his Mom every November and May and, at the time, was closing his business for those months.  We got to talking and realized he could make the bread, freeze it, and we could deliver it while he was gone so he did not lose sales!”

 

The market catches up

Over the course of the past 20 years, the demand for local product changed to support what BRP was doing.  BRP was set up to get a variety of local food, both fresh produce and also value-added food products, to markets outside the state. In 1996, the business expanded to include fresh and frozen seafood as well as cut flowers.  Now they also include meat.

BRP’s diversification into transportation services (they don’t buy or sell the product, they are paid simply to transport) is how they started in Beefalo.  With Beefalo, they added straight shipping of local food to their business model. “We started transporting Beefalo for a rancher, charging him for delivery.  Next came the Bean guy.  I would get people to sell their own product, and I would simply deliver.  If after some time I felt confident with the product, I would add it to the BRP inventory.”

BRP also started moved Vermont product out-of-state for growers. They were not involved in the selling, but in connecting Vermont producers to out-of-state buyers.  “We go to Whole Foods three times a week in Cheshire, CT with all this Vermont product,” said Mark.  Mark is clearly proud of his role in the Vermont community, and pleased to now be bringing Vermont produce to other markets.

“It is a balancing act.  BRP makes more money when we own and sell a product.  But rather than simply hauling air, it is better to cover the cost of the trip by delivering for someone such as Stonewood Farms.  Paul Stone raises turkeys and 98% of his sales are the week before Thanksgiving.

“On November 18th every year, we park an empty refrigerated tractor trailer at his farm.  We pick up and drop one off every day for a week.  Within five days the whole problem is solved for $9,000 – refrigeration, storage, etc.”

BRP’s delivery service helps many Vermont companies grow, both Vermont Soy and Vermont Fresh Pasta in Killington. For example, “Vermont Fresh Pasta has a 10-day shelf life. They wanted to sell in other places, but it was hard for them to deliver. Twice a week they would load up pasta from their basement and we would deliver. Once they had a bit extra, we started telling our restaurants about their product and doing a bit of developing their market on our end as they developed their market on their end.  They have their original accounts we deliver for, and we have the accounts we developed for them. For example, we were in the right place when the pasta buyer for Whole Foods changed and the new person wanted to buy pasta from various vendors. Our sales made up the difference for Whole Foods and established a new market for Vermont Fresh!”

 

Commitment to Vermont drives success

There is one other element embedded in BRP’s mission that has stayed consistent and served the company well — a commitment to Vermont.  Ironically, neither the mission statement nor the values statement names this and yet it is a consistent and core element of their success.

Originally from Pennsylvania via college in Boston, Mark came to Vermont for a winter.  He never made it back to school. “Steve and I knew we wanted to do something different. We did not move here to get rich. There were many people all moving through.  A lot of us stayed.  We had grasped on to the sense of community.”

At the time, there were six produce companies in Vermont, four in Burlington alone. Undercapitalized, Mark had no salary for three years. “We were 23 and had low expenses,” he smiled.  “We survived because we had the service.  We were delivering six days a week. We had transparency with our growers.  The other companies all sold out. We are the only local company now.  We were never really for sale.”

One of the key factors of BRP success has always been knowing their suppliers.  “We know them.  We play poker with them.  First we bought close to home; then throughout Vermont.  Next we moved into New Hampshire and Massachusetts.  It was a way to set ourselves apart.  We are part of a community in Vermont and we take care of that community first.”

Another difference has been that BRP services small orders of local produce while keeping their prices competitive.  “If you are The Equinox or Sheraton you can use raspberries from Sysco (one of the world’s largest food supply companies). Most restaurants are not buying cases of stuff.  They have small orders.  A typical order in Vermont . . . well, big companies do not do that very well. That’s where Black River Produce can make a difference.  We will fill the smaller orders with quality product.”

As a long time Board member for Vermont Fresh Network, Mark is knowledgeable about the produce scene throughout the state. “Restaurants are now struggling.  They say to us ‘Sysco’s peppers are $2 cheaper’, so then we match that price and they buy from us. There is not a big difference between peppers, but with cheeses there are. Once we agreed to the Sysco pepper price, they would then add on the local cheeses making a difference to their customers, and we could make up the $2 lost on peppers. Now with local meats we have another great success. Although we tried selling local meat seven or eight years ago, the mind-set was not there. Now the mind-set has changed which has made the big difference.”

 

Serving employees served the business

“Being in Vermont, we are socially responsible but don’t even think about it,” said the Board Member of Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility.  “We take it for granted.  They sort of joke about us:  ‘Oh, there’s the organic guys from VT. Oh, there’s the local guys from VT.’ For Black River Produce, being socially responsible turns our product. We have a local, native way of running the business and it is always socially responsible.”

blackriverlead

Black River Produce leaders Mark Curran and Steve Birge

“We never made a conscious decision to be socially responsible with our employees, it just happened.  A large part of that is transparency in all aspects of our business. We are more transparent than most. For example, employees were just allowed to take whatever they wanted, until we got to 60 employees. There was a time we realized $60 of blueberries were going home for employee’s kids’ Cheerios.  We had to change that program. Given the numbers we shared regarding the profit loss from giving away $60 of blueberries a day, the employees understood. But, we had health care for all in the early 1980s and started 401(k)s as soon as we could in 1988.

“We didn’t think we were being socially responsible. We were just treating people the way we wanted to be treated. We are the same.  I say, ‘I work at Black River,’ same as my employees would say.”  BRP now has over 170 Employees.

“Diversity is a challenge for us, although we do have two people of color working here.  We’d like to have women truck drivers.

“Your parents set your moral compass,” the college philosophy major mused. “I was  brought up to do the right things whether it came to employees, customers, vendors.  My mother didn’t call it social responsibility, but my mother would be proud of what I am doing.”

Finding the balance between consistency and flexibility

Mark would say that knowing when to be consistent and when to be flexible wasn’t hard.  His mission, values, and vision stayed the same: bring fresh food to Vermont; but the products he carried, the states he went to, the stores he sold to, and more, changed and adapted and have varied and grown over the years.

True, the market caught up with his value to serve his community.  Could a competitor catch up?  Perhaps.  But the relationships developed over almost 40 years of doing business continue to serve him well.  His decision to stop skiing, settle in Vermont and serve Vermont mean that he is well positioned.  And, he still isn’t carrying laundry soap.

Julie Lineberger & Ellen Meyer Shorb

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