Dos Palos, CA
WG Member Since 1999
AN NYC BEGINNING: Back near the beginning of the previous century, Edward Zwillinger led generations of his family to the produce industry by first pushing a produce cart in New York City and then eventually opening up Zwillinger Company as a produce brokerage. He was the first in a line of produce people that have basically made their living selling fruits and vegetables—mostly cantaloupes—for the better part of the past century.
Edward was the father of Willie Zwillinger, the grandfather of Marty Zwillinger and the great grandfather of Barry Zwillinger, the co-owner and sales manager of Legend Produce.
CALIFORNIA BOUND: Willie Zwillinger worked with his father in New York City as a produce broker in the first half of the 20th Century, which is where his son Marty was born. During the 1940s, Marty joined the service during World War II, serving as an airplane mechanic, while Willie headed out to California to establish a West Coast brokerage office in El Centro. Marty, who participated in the Normandy invasion, got his discharge when the war ended and headed out to California to join his dad. “He and three of his friends broke down in Texas,” said Barry. “They couldn’t find any rubber to change their tires. My grandfather had to put some tires on a fruit truck and have it stop in Texas so they could fix the car.”
Marty Zwillinger finally made it to the California desert and began working with his father. By the early 1950s, Willie was still brokering in El Centro, while Marty was offering the same service in Salinas to East Coast buyers.
AN AFFAIR WITH CANTALOUPES: The Zwillinger family’s fascination with cantaloupes began in 1955. By then Marty and Willie were in the San Joaquin Valley, where they built a melon packaging shed, Keith Packing Company, in Firebaugh. For the next several years—under the Popsy and Keith brand labels, the duo grew, packed and shipped cantaloupes from California’s San Joaquin Valley. The “Keith” label was named after Marty’s first son (Barry’s brother), while “Popsy” was the name the grandkids called Willie. In one way or another, the Zwillinger name has been in the cantaloupe business ever since.
As a point of reference, Barry has his grandfather’s old accounting books when he first planted melons. “Back then, he had a budget of $146 per acre and used four acre-feet of water to produce the crop. Today, it costs more than $1,500 per acre and we use less than half that amount of water. In fact, we have one variety—Origami—where we only have to use about one acre-foot of water to make a crop.”
BARRY’S PATH: After a few years of growing their own melons, both Willie and Marty settled into careers of selling melons. Willie continued to operate as a broker through Zwillinger Company, while Marty worked for Tri-Produce and High Value Processors for most of his career. Willie retired in the early 1980s while Marty exited the produce scene in the early 1990s.
By that time, Barry had already taken up the family business. “I actually started working packing melons in 1976, when I was 16 years old.”
In fact, throughout his high school and college career, he worked in cantaloupe sheds in either the desert or the Central Valley. While attending Arizona State University, Barry envisioned a music career and served as concert coordinator for ASU for about 24 months. “After that I realized I wasn’t cut out for the music industry. I started with Tri-Produce in 1980 during the summer and from 1982 to ’86 I worked full time with them.”
From 1986 to 1999, he practiced his profession of selling melons for High Value and Gold Rush Produce. It was during that 1999 summer season that Barry Zwillinger—like his father and grandfather before him—took a crack at being a grower-shipper-packer as well as a salesman. “With my partners, Pat Tucker and Jack Cancellieri, we opened up Legend Produce and we have become the largest U.S. supplier of cantaloupes. We grow, harvest, pack and market them 12 months of the year.”
Barry takes care of the office, sales and marketing while Pat is the outside guy in charge of growing, harvesting and shipping. Cancellieri helped put the deal together and continues as one of the partners in the operation.
Besides growing districts in California and Arizona that keep their coolers full from May into November, the firm also sources from Guatemala and Honduras from November through April. The company has a sales office in Glendale, AZ, which is where Barry calls home, as well as the San Joaquin Valley and right outside of Cincinnati in Covington, KY.
THE FAMILY BUSINESS: The big question today is whether a fifth generation of Zwillingers will continue the family business. Barry has two sons—one in college and the other in high school. The older son, Mason, is studying finance at Barrett, The Honors College at ASU. He is gearing toward a career in mergers and acquisitions in the financial industry. However, his younger son Carson, who is in high school, currently does show an interest in the family business. And Barry said he does have a nephew working alongside him on the Legend sales desk.
For fun, Barry and his wife, Melanie, and their two sons enjoy watching and participating in many sports activities with golf topping the list. The sons have been active in many sports including basketball, baseball, volleyball and skiing.
Barry met Melanie in the spring of ‘92 when he was farming corn in eastern Arizona, though he said she is a city girl, not a farm girl. They did live on a California ranch 60 miles from the nearest grocery store in the early years of their marriage, pre-children. But the kids, and his wife’s desire to return to civilization, led to the move to Arizona as their full-time home.
THE WESTERN GROWERS CONNECTION: Since he began selling cantaloupes on the Tri-Produce sales desk 35 years ago, Barry Zwillinger says “Western Growers has been my ‘go-to’ organization for legal help, insurance, food safety or any industry needs. And Matt McInerney and Tom Oliveri have been my ‘go-to’ guys. For anything and everything I have to do in the produce industry, we turn to them.”
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