Baton Rouge's Capitol City Produce Growing With The Times

BATON ROUGE (AP) — Capitol City Produce has launched a $12 million expansion that will more than double the size of the business, allowing it to better serve existing customers and reach out to more restaurants, schools and retailers.

         The expansion is set to open in June 2017, the same time the family-owned business marks its 70th anniversary. It comes 12 years after Capitol City Produce moved from South Choctaw Drive to its current location near the intersection of Interstate 12 and O'Neal Lane in Baton Rouge.

         Paul Ferachi, president and chief executive officer, said while Capitol City Produce had plans for a three-stage expansion, the timetable and size of the growth has been accelerated in recent years.

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         "A lot of it is just driven with what's going on in the industry right now," Ferachi said. "There's a greater focus on fresh food than ever before and a push on local produce, as well."

         The push isn't coming from just restaurants; it's coming from Capitol City Produce's other clients, which include dining halls at LSU, Tulane and Loyola, hospitals, nursing homes and offshore drilling rigs.

         Darin Arceneaux, chief operating officer, said he recently met with a hotel executive from Chicago whose company was affiliated with a New Orleans property. "He spent the first 15 to 20 minutes talking about local products," Arceneaux said. "That's what we hear. Local, local, local."

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         Capitol City Produce posted nearly $77.4 million in revenue during 2015. Arceneaux said company sales have increased by more than 20 percent over the past several years, across the whole breadth of the company's products.

         "Our product lines in categories have expanded and expanded," Ferachi said. "We use to carry one lettuce; now we've got 60 different varieties."

         The expansion will add 51,000 square feet to the existing 39,000-square-foot facility. It will triple the existing product storage area and expand office space.

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         About 200 people work at Capitol City Produce. The expansion is expected to add 10 to 15 jobs, including truck drivers, order selectors, quality assurance specialists, and sales and office staff.

         "Our inventory turns almost daily," said Vince Ferachi, Paul's father, who serves as the patriarch of the company. "That's the secret of produce. We distribute."

         Plans are to use the additional space to carry more exotic fruits and vegetables, such as dragon fruit, an edible cactus that tastes like a blend of a kiwi and a pear; Japanese eggplant, a slender, thin-skin variety; and edible flowers.

         The company has a special van that visits restaurants and offers exotic vegetables and fruits to chefs as a way of livening up a dinner plate or a cocktail.

         "What we like to do is find little niche items and introduce them to the market and excite everyone," Ferachi said. He points to micro greens, the shoots of salad vegetables such as arugula and Swiss chard, used by chefs as a visual component, as well as a burst of freshness. "Those are now a normal stock item for us," he said.

         More produce from local farmers, such as Creole tomatoes, okra and strawberries, also will be carried.

         Arceneaux said the company recently was certified as a Safe Quality Food level 3 distribution facility, the only produce distributor in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Arkansas to earn this designation. Capitol City Produce has been working with the LSU Agricultural Center to help local farmers meet food safety standards so they can sell fruits and vegetables to large clients.

         As a further commitment to food safety, Capitol City Produce has launched Double F Logistics, a subsidiary that hauls produce to the distribution center from as far away as California. The trucking company has grown from four 18-wheelers to 10 over the past year and a half. "There's no one else between our customers and the farmer touching the produce," Arceneaux said. Plus, it allows Capitol City Produce greater control over distribution, as well as assuring it always knows where trucks of fruits and vegetables are.

         The expanded space will allow Capitol City Produce to carry non-fruit and vegetable items, such as premium oils, vinaigrettes and chocolates. Ferachi said the high-quality specialty food items fit in with the company's existing offerings.

         Right now, the company sells to customers in Louisiana and Mississippi. The hope is the expansion will allow the company to do more business in Mississippi, particularly in the Jackson and Hattiesburg markets, and enter Alabama.

         "Capitol City has always had a reputation for food quality, but now that we've been certified by an independent party, it's drawn a lot of customers, particularly the big casinos on the Gulf Coast," Arceneaux said.

         – by AP/ Reporter Timothy Boone with The Advocate

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