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February 5, 2016

Foodservice Focus Drives Sales

Tim York
Salinas, CA

BETTER THAN MILITARY SERVICE: As Tim York was graduating from San Diego State University in 1977 with a liberal arts degree, he was considering a career in the military.  “My paternal grandfather was career cavalry, my maternal grandfather was a lieutenant colonel in artillery and my father was also a lieutenant colonel in artillery.  So I thought I would join the Army.  My dad didn’t want me ‘scrubbing out garbage cans’ and my mom was afraid I’d be sent to Asia.”
Instead, they asked Tim’s uncle, Howard Hall, to find him a job in the fresh produce industry.  He had done that before as Tim spent the summer of ’75 loading trucks on the Dave Walsh dock in Salinas.

A CAREER IS LAUNCHED: In that 1977 season, H.Hall & Co had just begun operations as a strawberry shipper and consolidator.  York remembers that in those days, many of the Salinas shippers specialized in only a few commodities: Mann did broccoli; Dole was celery and lettuce; Oshita was green onions; Mills was leaf lettuce and iceberg.  “Most grower-shippers specialized in specific niches,” he said.  “We offered one-stop loading.”

THE MOVE TO MARKON: York stayed with Hall until 1985 when he joined Dave Eldredge and help to launch Markon.  Five broadline foodservice distributors started Markon as a co-operative to purchase the fresh produce that they were selling to their foodservice customers.  “It was a two-person office,” York said, that operated relatively autonomously.  “One reason it worked is that from the very beginning the co-op members knew they were experts in foodservice and hired us as the produce experts.  They let us run the ship.”
Eldredge stayed in the top spot for five years before moving on in his career to Tanimura & Antle.
It was 1990 and York became the top executive at Markon.  It is the position he has held ever since.

THE EARLY FOODSERVICE YEARS: When York started with Markon, foodservice was definitely a step-child of the retail business that most grower-shippers focused on.  York said in buying produce for foodservice buyers, he and his colleagues had to convince shippers to create specific foodservice packs.  There weren’t too many restaurants, for example, that wanted to purchase a 40-pound box of lemons.  Foodservice customers desired smaller quantities and it was Markon’s job to convince shippers to cater to these customers’ needs.  “The more progressive companies saw the potential and were easy to work with.  Some of the others took longer to come around,” he said.
But in the 1990s, value-added products were coming into vogue and many of those companies started creating packs specifically for their foodservice customers.  Of course, York said respiration rates of packaging had not been thoroughly vetted and there were many missteps along the way with inedible packs arriving at destination.  Quality control, he said, was a huge part of the function of the Markon team.  In 1996, Markon launched its “Ready-Set-Serve” line which took foodservice prep out of the kitchen and back to the point of origin.  This greatly enhanced the use of fresh produce in foodservice.

MARKON’S EVOLUTION: Over the years, the number of members of the co-op has fluctuated a bit growing to as many as 11 firms.  Today it sits at seven, which York said represents a good amount of business.  There are now 46 employees buying product from around the world, and making sure its gets to the dozens of distribution centers that its members operate throughout the United States and Canada.  York said those seven members cover all of Canada and have pretty much saturated the eastern half of the United States.  They have less coverage in California and the Pacific Northwest, but York said the seven co-op members are each growing their businesses, including expansion in the West.  Each of those seven members are family-owned companies represented by second, third, even fifth generation owners.
The functionality of Markon has evolved over the years as besides being a purchaser of fruits and vegetable, the firm’s representatives also help to create new innovations in packaging, work on food safety issues and develop marketing and branding programs.

THE WESTERN GROWERS CONNECTION: “I have been working with Western Growers since I started in the business,” said York.  “We work with Tom Oliveri and Matt McInerney on credit issues just like I did when I was with Hall 40 years ago.  We’re all still here,” he quipped of the WG duo and himself.
He said though Markon is not a grower and not directly involved with the regulations and battles WG fights for its grower members on a routine basis, it is peripherally impacted by those many decisions, and very much appreciates the work the organization does.  Markon has also worked with Western Growers’ Hank Giclas on food safety issues and was materially involved on the development of the Stewardship Index.