Faces of our Food System: J. Kings
Get to know a local food distributor in our 2012 feature series.
This article is the second in a series highlighting distributors of New York State farm-grown products. For our second spotlight, I spoke to Joel Panagakos, the Executive Vice President for Produce at J. Kings, located in Holtsville, New York, on Long Island. J. Kings has been in business since 1974. They have over 400 employees, and a 125,000+ square foot warehouse. I wanted to feature J. Kings because they have the desire and ability to support all kinds of NYS growers. From purchasing small-scale locally-grown products to sell at their weekly farmers’ market, to distributing products throughout the New York and LI Metro area school system, they can work with farmers as they scale-up, and provide appropriately sized outlets from one level of production to the next.
Q: How long has J. Kings been working with farmers?
A: Since 1989 – that’s the date that we started the produce division within the company. In the company I ran before I started at J. Kings, I had developed relationships with a variety of Long Island growers. It was customary in the summer to purchase local corn, tomatoes, etc. and I brought this practice with me to J. Kings. What started off as small purchases really blossomed as time went on. Originally, most of the purchases were for sales to food service customers, and not for retail. But recently, retail sales have really increased – particularly with Stop and Shop supermarkets. Stop and Shop begins their locally-grown program in April with asparagus and ends in November with cauliflower and broccoli. There are about 50 Stop and Shop stores participating, mostly on Long Island and in Queens.
Q: How much of the produce that you sell is grown by NYS farmers?
In season, products such as green peppers, squash, cucumbers, tomatoes, and lettuce, are sourced primarily from the east coast. The only time that we don’t get product from the east coast is when there is a weather event. The local products coming from Long Island are really our main source of those products. About 70-80% of the products I mentioned come from Long Island during the summer months.
In addition, we work with apple growers in the Hudson Valley and the Western part of the state. We also purchase squash, onions, potatoes, and cabbage from Western NYS. We can get NYS apples from Sept-June (growers have made huge advances in terms of their ability to store products). We sell NYS apples to 85-90 schools in the Long Island area, as well in the Connecticut and West Chester school districts. We can actually get potatoes from Long Island through Feb. The schools are really demanding these locally-grown products.
Q: How many growers do you work with?
We work with 22 independent Long Island farmers. We pick up product from them 7 days/week in season and we deliver the product the day after we pick it up. It is all based on purchase orders. We ask growers a week in advance for their best guess of the quantity that they will have available. We do all pick ups and back hauls, and store everything at our warehouse. As I mentioned, we also have relationships with growers in the Hudson Valley (particularly apple growers) and in Western New York too.
Q: Are all the producers you purchase from GAP (Good Ag Practices) certified?
Yes. We are also one of the owners of a company called Proact (America’s leading food service distribution system of fresh produce, a cooperative owned by 38 companies) and there is a “greener fields” initiative through that company to help producers become nationally certified. We started working with about 5 of our producers to help them go through Proact’s certification process. The growers are taking online classes, and then the auditor comes and checks them out. The certification really helps to elevate these producers to another level. These producers can sell anywhere once they go through this level of certification.
Q: Have you seen an increased demand for locally-grown products in recent years?
The demand has been increasing dramatically for the last 5-6 years. It is on the front burner of everyone’s thought process. In my opinion, it is what will save the produce industry in NYS.
Q: How have you responded to this demand?
Well, luckily, we had these relationships with farmers established. There are limitations based on the acreage in production. The farmers can lease more land and try to plan accordingly. We hold a meeting with farmers right after the holiday season (Christmas/New Years) and we give them predictions of what we need for the summer. So we work together in the planning. For example, if we didn’t have enough green peppers of a certain size last year, we work with a grower to make sure they can meet our customer’s specifications and demands. Our customers have become much more specific about they want (for example, size, color, packaging), so we can work with growers to ensure these needs can be met at affordable prices.
Q: What are the challenges you face working with NYS farmers?
If we talk about the Long Island farmers, the land is precious here and very expensive. It is also more difficult to put together a work force here. The costs of farming are just higher than farming in more rural areas. Customers do expect to pay more for the product than they would out of NJ, and luckily as transportation costs increase for West Coast product, we can keep costs fairly consistent between the Western US and LI grown products. But land costs and labor really remain a challenge on Long Island.
Q: When I visited this summer, I noticed the farmers’ market in your parking lot. When did you start the farmers’ market and how successful has it been?
A: We started the farmers’ market about 4-5 years ago with the intention of using it as a showcase for our chefs about what would be available for their weekend menus. We thought a handful of chefs would show up and take a look at the products. What we found is that yes, some chefs came, but so did regular customers. So after the first few weeks, we got our act together and got a register. It has grown steadily each year and we keep it open to the public. I should mention that J. Kings runs the market. We purchase all product from producers in advance, so it isn’t farmers who are physically at the market. But this gives us a nice opportunity to help small producers find additional markets so they can expand to the next level. For example, we work with a producer who makes fantastic goat cheese. We purchase her product and sell it retail at the farmers’ market. A few chefs tried it, and though the price is high, they are now using it in their restaurants. This has enabled her to expand production.
Q: Are you looking for additional growers?
A: We have multiple companies in addition to the distribution company – for example, we have a manufacturing company that does slicing and dicing of fruits and vegetables, we also have a meat company that processes meat, and there is also a company called Green Apple Foods that provides a one stop shop for smaller retailers interested in purchasing locally-grown products. So, we are always interested in working with more growers. Even if they aren’t the right fit for J. Kings distribution, they might be able to provide product for us to sell at our farmers’ market or through one of our subsidiaries.
Q: If farmers are interested in participating in the farmers’ market who should they contact?
A: If there are farmers’ interested in being a source of supply for the farmers’ market, they should contact me via email and I will connect them to the right person/department. My email address is email@example.com