As it marks 70 years of supplying the Gulf South with fresh produce, Capitol City Produce is positioned to be a Baton Rouge mainstay for generations to come
Capitol City Produce President and CEO Paul Ferachi. Photography by Marie Constantin
2017 Baton Rouge Business Awards and Hall of Fame
COMPANY OF THE YEAR [100 or more employees] • CAPITOL CITY PRODUCE
Capitol City Produce celebrates its 70th anniversary in April, but the company’s roots in the produce delivery world reach back more than a century, to when founder Vincent Charles Ferachi arrived as a young boy with his family from their native Sicily.
Part of the wave of Italian immigrants who landed in south Louisiana in the 1890s, Ferachi’s father worked on sugar cane farms in Iberville Parish and sold home grown vegetables on the side. His neighbors asked him to sell their backyard produce, too, and the elder Ferachi soon realized he could make more money by distributing fresh produce than raising it.
The Ferachi family continued to dabble in fruit and vegetable sales over the ensuing decades, relocating to Baton Rouge after World War II. Vincent Ferachi, by then an adult, converted his father’s informal operation into a bona fide business that he named Baton Rouge Produce. He sold the young company in the mid-1940s, but was never bound to a non-compete clause and quickly opened a competitor, Capitol City Produce, in 1947.
Over the last seven decades, the family-run business has grown into a 200-employee enterprise whose long reach impacts chefs, restaurateurs, shoppers and diners across Louisiana and the Gulf South. Revenue for 2015 was roughly $77.3 million, a 2.7% increase over the year previous, placing Capitol City Produce at No. 64 on Business Report’s 2016 Top 100 private companies list. Managing relationships with growers, achieving high safety standards and keeping current on culinary trends have been consistent goals of the company, says president and CEO Paul Ferachi, grandson of the founder and the third generation to lead the business.
“Produce is tricky,” he says. “It’s different from any other commodity because it can’t be frozen. You don’t have that option, so you’re working constantly to move it. And then you’ve got Mother Nature throwing curveballs at you.”
Throughout the ’40s and ’50s, the local market for produce distributors was crowded. Capitol City Produce competed with about eight other companies for customers and supplies, recalls Ferachi’s father and predecessor, Vincent Anthony “Vince” Ferachi. Capitol City Produce decided to bring in a small retail line to offer more options to grocery stores. The company also expanded its produce delivery to institutional customers, such as hospitals and colleges.
In the ’80s, a surge in interest in healthier eating prompted the company to expand its produce inventory. Vince Ferachi decided to liquidate the grocery line, which represented a significant investment and took longer to move than fresh produce. Meanwhile, some competitors were getting out the produce distribution business entirely. Capitol City Produce bought Baton Rouge-based Bano Produce, strengthening its holdings as consumers continued to demand not just fresh fruits and vegetables, but a growing variety within each produce subset.
“Produce demand has really changed,” says Paul Ferachi. “Think about lettuce. It used to be just iceberg—now it’s all kinds of greens like arugula and kale.”
The company pays close attention to emerging produce trends—such as microgreens a few years ago—and locates sources for customers eager to make them available to diners and shoppers, Ferachi says.
By 2005, the company had outgrown its offices and distribution center on South Choctaw Drive and moved to a new facility at Interstate 12 and O’Neal Lane. Last year, Ferachi announced the company’s decision to invest $12 million in a major expansion, a move that more than doubles the warehouse capacity and office space. The new facility, which should be completed this spring, will help Capitol City Produce reach more customers across the Gulf South and continue to expand product offerings to include exotic and specialty produce as well as niche grocery items made by artisan Louisiana producers—items like honeys, cheeses, pastas and sauces.
A given day at the company is a whirlwind of accepting customers’ orders, which they often tweak up to the last minute. These orders trigger the company’s procurement team to source items from farms within and outside the region. Priority is placed on local farms, but consumers expect their favorite fruits and vegetables to be available no matter what. If strawberry growers in Louisiana experience uncooperative weather, the company taps sources from Florida or California to meet demand.
Speed, quality and safety are top priorities, says Ferachi. A six-person quality assurance team checks the quality and appearance of inbound produce, and then checks the same produce again as it’s outbound for delivery, even if it’s just hours later. The same is true when it comes to food safety. An internal traceability system allows the company to know exactly where its produce was grown and what safety requirements its farmers have met.
In 2016, the company earned a prestigious Level 3 safety certification and “excellent” rating from the globally recognized Safe Quality Food Program, a respected standard administered by the Food Marketing Institute. Capitol City Produce is the only fresh produce wholesaler and distributor in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama to have earned an SQF Level 3 certification.
“We’re constantly micromanaging,” Ferachi says. “It’s always been important to take extra steps, and we’ve always believed in going beyond what’s required of us.”