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November 2011
Greetings from Tropical!
By Sheila Neisler

     Whatever the occasion, there’s no better greeting than a selection of tropical nuts and fruits, by themselves or in freshly baked goods or healthy snack mixes, from Tropical Nut & Fruit Co., headquartered right here in Charlotte.

     Picture these routine scenarios…A South Carolina grocer restocks the shelves of his holiday baking candy and nut shop for novice and experienced bakers alike. A D.C. mom scratches off her children’s suggestion of ‘cookies’ and writes in ‘healthy snack mix’ to the grocery list for their soccer games. A Charlotte office assistant swings by the Healthy Home Market on her way into work, picking up containers of nuts and dried fruits for an intense year-end budget meeting, a welcome alternative to the mood-spiking donuts of the prior day. An Atlanta college cafeteria worker puts out high-protein nut mixes anticipating an early rush for the mid-term crunch.

     Central to all these activities, employees of Charlotte’s Tropical Nut & Fruit—starting with the 5:00 a.m. shift of roasters—make sure this food service manufacturer runs smoothly. Annually, some 2,500 tons of nuts will flow through their Charlotte and Orlando facilities. The roasters are part of a small community—some say “family”—of 220 employees working in 13 different locations, generating $55 million in revenue.

     Clearly Gerald York’s vision of starting and building a company wasn’t ‘nuts.’ And now a second generation is leading the business to the new markets, new distribution channels, new products, and to a new level of success.

 

Planting the Seed

     Tropical Nut & Fruit’s beginnings were relatively modest. Gerald York was a nuts salesman going back to the mid-’50s. After the company he worked for was bought out, he relocated to Orlando to wait out a two-year non-compete agreement. In 1977, with a partner, he started Tropical Nut & Fruit, and returned later that year to Charlotte to build a facility here.

     In the 34 years since, the growth has hardly been modest. In addition to the corporate facilities, Tropical Nut & Fruit has sales offices/distribution centers in Atlanta, Dallas, Memphis, Columbus, Ohio and Washington, D.C.

     Intuitively, York felt a critical need to stay connected to one of his primary target markets, the Tropical consumer, be it the seasoned baker or the homemaker. As wholesaler, he also knew that having a company-owned store, he would start out with his first ‘customer.’

     In concert with the Charlotte operation, York opened Home Economist retail stores, providing a natural, health-food alternative to standard grocery store fare. Reflecting a more modern lifestyle, the stores have been renamed Healthy Home Markets and now have five locations: three in Charlotte with one each in Hickory and Davidson.

     Additionally, the company has ‘The Nut House’ retail outlets adjoining their office park facilities in Atlanta, Charlotte, Columbus and Memphis, and has recently opened an online store, Tropical’s Nut House.

     The company name, Tropical Nut & Fruit disguises the full depth and breadth of its operations. The company offers some 3,000 items including signature snack mixes, spices, beans, grains, flours, candies, roasted nuts and seeds.

     The product list reflects the diversity of clientele, too. The consumer will find Tropical’s products on the shelves at grocery stores, health food stores, coffee shops, and ice cream and candy shops. However, some 50 percent of their business is through institutional distribution: hospitals, hotels, colleges, restaurants, airlines, cruise ships, even at your favorite theme parks.

 

A Family Affair

     Today, Tropical works like a finely tuned machine with a familial corporate culture. In the leadership positions are sisters Angela Bauer and Carolyn Bennett, who co-own the company along with their mother and Angela’s husband John who leads the company as president and CEO.

     This leadership talent is based more on knowledge and know-how than merely good genes. Carolyn began full-time in the business immediately following graduation from Queens University in Charlotte. Initially she started on the retail side and rose through the company’s ranks. Today Bennett heads the purchasing department, a crucial position given the slim margins and pricing volatility food manufacturers face today. She’s also considered the resident “Mix Queen” as she’s always on the look-out for changing tastes and trends to develop new snack mixes.

    John and Angela both climbed the company ladder first by learning the ropes in other companies and later through the eyes of Tropical’s customers. A former engineer, John joined the firm armed with a Georgia State MBA and hit the streets of Atlanta as an outside sales rep. Angela, following a stint selling cable with Scientific Atlanta, got her MBA from Chapel Hill’s Keenan Flagler School of Business and later joined the Atlanta outside sales team.

     When both relocated to Charlotte, John took over the operations side and managed the transition to the new facility on Continental Boulevard and Angela took over the marketing side of the business. Angela has now turned her focus to leadership and organizational development as well as strategic planning.

     As a matter of fact, the company values family relationships down to the production floor; there are numerous instances of immediate and extended family members working side by side.

     “At one point we joked about a palace coup,” laughs Angela, “because we had so many other families’ members working together and they outnumbered us.”

     But in reality, it’s that close-knit protective attitude that helps strengthens the team and implement changes.

     “Regularly we have a ‘State of The Business’ meeting, bringing in groups of 20 of our leadership team to talk about ‘the good, the bad and the ugly’ in the challenges they face. Because of the familiarity, we’ve built up the trust of team members so they tell us what we need to know, not what we want to hear,” says CEO John Bauer.

     Likewise, Tropical strives to engender the same long-term partnership relationships with their corporate customers, facilitating their successes.

     “Tropical was there with me at the very beginning, some 18 years ago,” declares Gerald Tucker of Gerald’s Holiday Baking Candy & Nut Shop in South Carolina. “My customers, whether they know their way around the kitchen or can’t turn their oven on without directions, count on me to offer the best products available. Their baked goods are gifts to their families and friends; it’s a reflection of who they are. Tropical’s been there with me and my customers every step of the way—giving the best quality, the best prices and the best service.”

 

Going Nuts!

     With such a diverse product line, Tropical Nut & Fruit is constantly juggling to meet customers’ needs. The cashews come from Brazil, Vietnam and Africa, pecans from Texas, and pistachios and almonds from California. Combine this worldwide supply chain with various cultivation methods. Peanuts, pistachios and almonds grow in orchards and Brazil nuts grow wild in the forest, requiring a harvester to climbing 200 feet in the air to cut down the fruit.

     Mix in the quality standards they demand for their customers. For example, Tropical only accepts super extra large peanuts, which is usually only the top 3 percent of a peanut crop. Throw in a few challenges from Mother Nature: droughts, floods and temperature changes, and oh, increased demand from a rapidly growing Chinese middle class—and you’ve got a business “mix” which changes rapidly.

     Consumer demand is also in flux. “People are becoming more aware of the health and antioxidant benefits of nuts, which is redefining our business,” notes Angela. “Additionally, American’s palates are changing. There are more people choosing vegetarian and vegan lifestyles. Others are simply looking for bolder flavors and different tastes. Fortunately, we’ve got the experience to adapt to new appetites.”

     As evidence of these taste trends, several of Tropical’s best selling products and mixes include: Re-charge (a health-inspired snack mix), Wild About Wasabi, Mango Tango, and Kona Coffee Crunch (betcha can’t eat just one—handful). A new addition to the line, Buffalo Wing Flavored Nuts, has been a real a hit at tailgating festivities.

     Recently, after several attempts at trial and error, the Tropical team was successful in creating chocolate dipping disks that duplicate the taste and consistency of a chocolate fruit fondue at restaurants and catered parties.

 

Giving Back

     The Tropical family believes in translating their mission statement beyond their walls and into their community. Aligning with their food profession, they are regular sponsors and participants of Charlotte’s CROP Walk and donate to Second Harvest Food Bank. They support children’s causes too, from the Boy Scouts to children’s hospitals throughout their company footprint.

     One particular company passion arose initially out of a team brainstorming session. Bauer explains, “We all agreed that we wanted to get behind a cause at the grassroots level where we could make a true impact. Listening to our customers at the Healthy Home Store, we learned that gluten-free products really helped the quality of life for individuals with autism. We also heard that because of the unique needs of autistic children, they always didn’t have the opportunity to participate in regular camps.”

     Tropical’s solution: Get behind the efforts of The Parker Autism Foundation, a locally based all-volunteer not-for-profit serving North Carolina children and their families. Tropical donated $5,000 to support the Parker Autism Camp and raised another $ 5,000 in through the Puzzle Piece fundraising initiative.

     Also, when a customer brings their own bags to shop at the Healthy Home Market, 10 cents is donated directly to the Foundation. Shelley Reilley, Parker Autism’s president and founder speaks glowingly of Tropical’s involvement: “Their support is being used is so many ways. It enables us to expand our own camp, extend more scholarships to our camp and to other higher level autistic-focused camps. It provides the funding to help community education initiatives about autism. It helps underwrite the fees for families to attend autism conferences and provides additional family support so parents can give their children the help and care they need.”

     Recent economic challenges haven’t stopped the Tropical team from growing. The company has just completed the purchase and integration of the sister organization started in Orlando and is readying its resources for a robust future.

     Notes Bauer, “Company executives know that even in the best of cases, like the one we just completed, a successful merger and acquisition is arduous. We’re gratified the Orlando deal went so smoothly. Now, we’re taking a breath, celebrating that success and regrouping a bit for a westward expansion.

     “We’re already selling to a number of Midwestern firms; a geographically closer location to these companies seems like a logical next step.”

     Angela chimes in, “Internally, there’s also lots of forward movement. We’re expanding our online presence through social media, we’re working to increase our own line of branded products as well as private label lines for our customers, and we’re focused on increasing the depth of our talent bench.”

     Given its broad range of nut and fruit products, well established organizational structure, core of family strength and leadership, and new direct-to-consumer e-commerce online, there’s no telling what the future holds for Tropical Nut & Fruit Co.

     One kernel of advice, though…if you get the opportunity, you’ll surely delight in the cornucopia of fruits (and nuts) of the Tropical family’s labor.

 

Sheila Neisler is a Charlotte based free-lance writer.
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