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January 6, 2015

Fresh or Frozen, Muzzi Family Farms Has It Covered

Muzzi Family Farms may have only been established in 2012, but the family who owns and operates the Salinas, CA, based company has roots in agriculture dating back well over 50 years.  To hear the brother and sister team of Dominic Muzzi Jr. and Lisa Muzzi talk about their family’s rich agriculture history is to understand and appreciate how the family cemented itself as one of the top produce operations in the Central Coast region.


Company History and Background

Dominic Muzzi Sr., the patriarch of the Central Coast Muzzis, started farming operations with his wife, Martha, in 1964 in Watsonville and Moss Landing, having moved from Pescadero in San Mateo County.  Although their new home was only an hour south, the move would provide an opportunity for Dominic Sr. to leave his family’s farming operation and start his own agriculture business.  The couple began their new life and new venture by farming Brussels sprouts, English peas and pumpkins.

In 1975, Muzzi started Dominic’s Farm Fresh Produce, a produce stand on Highway 1 in the Moss Landing area, to sell some of the fruits and vegetables grown on his farm as well as product purchased from nearby farms.  Several years later, in 1984, with the business growing, Muzzi established Watsonville Produce with the intention of using the company to sell vegetables grown and packed in their own fields and ship them across the country and into Canada.  Within a few years, Watsonville Produce was not only selling a majority of their own produce, but the company was now cooling and icing produce from other growers.  During that time, Dominic’s Farm Fresh Produce stand continued its own operations.

It wasn’t until 1993 that Watsonville Produce entered the leafy green market, processing and packaging such items as fresh spinach and spring mix.  That same year, the company also made a major operations decision when it decided to move processing equipment in the winter to the Coachella Valley.

About 10 years later, in 2002, management made another major decision and moved its winter operations out of the Coachella Valley and into Yuma, AZ, where there was more business, more trucks and more availability of raw product.  In short, as Dominic Jr. puts it, “there was more action in Yuma.”  Yuma also became the new home for the Red River Fresh Produce Processing and Shipping facility.  The facility was built in 2005 and currently serves as the Arizona base for the company’s processing and shipping operations.

Up until then, the Muzzis packaged, sold and shipped fresh produce.  But in 2007, that changed.  The family ventured into the frozen produce arena when it started Blue Ribbon Frozen Foods.  Blue Ribbon vegetables are frozen and packed through an individually quick frozen (IQF) process.  After freezing they are packed in bulk cartons or tote bins and are sent for further processing.  The products do not go to grocery chains, but rather to processors who use the IQF vegetables as ingredients in products such as ravioli quiche and spinach dip.  Blue Ribbon processes IQF vegetables including conventional and organic chopped spinach, bell peppers, kale and Brussels sprouts.

Dominic Jr. concedes that starting Blue Ribbon wasn’t the easiest thing to do since the whole operation was basically developed from scratch. “We acquired a facility, purchased the necessary equipment — some new and some used — put it together and that was the start of Blue Ribbon.”  Despite its challenging birth, the company has earned a reputation among brokers and customers in the frozen food industry as one of the nicest, cleanest, well-run processing plants in North America.  ”We are proud of that fact,” Dominic Jr. added.

After decades of acting in its traditional capacity as a co-packer of other people’s products, in 2012 the family started Muzzi Family Farms.  The new entity is designed to sell more of the vegetables that are processed at the Watsonville Produce fresh processing plants and the Blue Ribbon frozen processing plant.  Allowing some of the production to be allotted to their own sales company still provides the Muzzi family the ability to maintain its traditional co-packing responsibilities for other companies — covering all of the proverbial bases when it comes to sales.  Its top products are fresh spinach, arugula, kale and spring mix.


A Family Operation

The patriarch and his two children are all very much involved with running Muzzi Family Farms and the family’s related companies.  Dominic Jr. is involved in the operations of the family’s business entities and Lisa oversees the accounting and bookkeeping for the majority of them.  With his wealth of knowledge about the industry and his companies, Dominic Sr. provides the counseling and input necessary to ensure that things run smoothly.  He is around on a daily basis, and whether he is dealing with day-to-day operations or is involved with a special project at one of the plants, he knows exactly what’s going on.

One of the family’s top concerns, regardless of the Muzzi business entity you are talking about, is food safety.  “From the beginning, our family has always invested in food safety whether it’s in the plants we run, the machinery we purchase, or in training our personnel,” said Dominic Jr.  “The last thing we want to do is make somebody sick.  Food safety is high up on the priority list of things we focus on.  So that is one of the areas where we spend the most money in order to stay up to speed with what’s going on in the industry — fresh and frozen — to eliminate any potential issues.”


Giving Back to the Community

Like many Western Growers members, the Muzzi family likes to give back to the community, especially when it comes to children.  It’s easy to see that both Muzzi offspring are proud of their parents’ community involvement.  Lisa said her dad and mom have long been involved with donating to schools as well as children’s fundraising efforts.  Beyond running the fruit stand for many years, Martha has been involved with Omega Nu, a women’s organization with several state chapters that raises money for needy children and battered women.  Lisa said, “The local chapter was responsible for donating money for a special needs hospital room at the local community hospital.”


Connection to Western Growers

Muzzi Family Farms has a long-standing relationship with Western Growers through Watsonville Produce that dates back to 1984.  Like most of Western Growers members, Muzzi relies on the association’s government affairs department to do much of the heavy lifting on key issues like immigration and water.  However, being so highly focused on other issues as well, like food safety, the company also takes advantage of the many programs, services and webinars offered by the association.