Case Studies

John Colapinto – Garden-Fresh Foods

Healthy foods and happy workforce keep CEO’s career ‘Garden-Fresh’

John Colapinto is at a point in his life where his biggest concern could be his golf score.

Indeed, the resident of south-central Pennsylvania enjoys chasing birdies as well as spending time with his family, especially his grandchildren.

But there’s another family in Milwaukee that Colapinto cares deeply about. That’s the Hughes family, founders and owners of Garden-Fresh Foods, which celebrates its 45th anniversary in 2023.

John Colapinto | President and CEO | Garden-Fresh Foods

John Colapinto | President and CEO | Garden-Fresh Foods

As president and CEO, Colapinto could appear to be an interloper in the Hughes family tradition of providing fresh-cut vegetables as well as premade salads, dips, sides and desserts to customers throughout the Midwest and Northeast.

But Colapinto, who splits time between his York, Pennsylvania, home and working in Milwaukee, has more than 40 years of experience in nearly every aspect of the food and beverage industry. That’s made him a key ingredient as Garden-Fresh Foods grows by adding healthier options to its staple products.

“Garden-Fresh Foods wants to make every meal a memorable one,” Colapinto says. “My role as CEO is helping the organization continue to grow through focusing on the basics. I also spend a lot of time talking to our customers about what they are looking for—and suppliers about providing the best ingredients and solutions.”

Fresh from the family

While working as a produce merchandiser for a Midwestern food chain, Tom Hughes saw a need to supply fresh-cut fruits and vegetables conveniently for a diverse customer base. So, he and his wife, Vicki Hughes, founded Garden-Fresh Foods in 1978.

Initially, the company provided produce to supermarkets, schools and other institutions, before the couple expanded into making prepared food. Today, Garden-Fresh Foods offers those branded items and more while also supplying them to customers for their private label needs. The company currently has more than 100 employees who work in a 178,000-square-foot facility in the Milwaukee area.

Garden-Fresh Foods ships most of its products with a fleet of nine refrigerated trucks equipped with thermostats that are monitored at the facility. During the busy summer season, the company uses third-party carriers, too, because its larger customers such as Costco, Walmart, Kroger, Ahold and others may get 12 trailer loads of Garden-Fresh products per week.

John Colapinto | President and CEO | Garden-Fresh Foods

Colapinto works with Tom and Vicki Hughes’ sons. David Hughes directs operations, including warehousing and purchasing. Michael Hughes is director of services—including transportation—and Jonathan Hughes is director of business development.

Business volume has doubled since Colapinto joined the company—he says sales will approach $50 million in 2023. But that success hasn’t come without its challenges, including keeping the supply chain strong and attracting and retaining workers.

Colapinto says the company has addressed supply shortages by stocking up on ingredients for prepared foods and ensuring sourcing for fresh produce. Shipments arrive multiple times per week, from local sources or California, depending upon the time of year.

He says retention was addressed with four across-the-board pay increases in 2021 and 2022, as well as by acting on employee suggestions that improve efficiency, productivity and customer satisfaction.

“The best suggestions usually come from your front-line employees. We greatly value their insight and opinions,” Colapinto says. “‘I can’t,’ isn’t a good answer. We need to be solution-based. The people offering solutions are the ones who are working every day. They’re best equipped to suggest them.”

Less is more

One factor driving sales is what Colapinto calls the “better for you” model of healthier foods using less, or no, sodium, preservatives or other chemicals. For instance, Garden-Fresh Foods offers salads and slaws without high-fructose corn syrup in the dressing as well as loaded baked potato products with only natural ingredients.

The new options have been created in response to customers looking to provide their customers with healthier choices. However, creating those foods isn’t as simple as just cutting back on measured ingredients.

Garden-Fresh Foods operates an industrial kitchen where the fruits and vegetables are processed and pasta and potatoes are cooked. The kitchen also becomes a lab space where Executive Chef Tom Sterle creates and tests recipes.

John Colapinto | President and CEO | Garden-Fresh Foods

In addition to being tasty, new salads and sides must be viable for large-scale production and be shelf stable. For example, dressings must have the right viscosity so they don’t separate during shipping, Colapinto says.

In addition, Garden-Fresh Foods products must comply with U.S. Department of Agriculture and Food and Drug Administration standards, and Colapinto says USDA inspectors are frequently on-site to inspect products.

Every spring, the company gets audited on a surprise date by the Safe Food Alliance, and the resulting safe quality foods, or SQF, scores are shared with customers, Colapinto says.

The taste and test of time

During his career, Colapinto has touched a variety of foods and operations. Born in New York City and raised in northern New Jersey, he earned his bachelor’s degree in economics from West Virginia Wesleyan College and returned to the New York City area to work for Coca Cola in 1981.

He served as director of chain store sales for the area until 1987. Then he went west, joining Pillsbury in Minneapolis-St. Paul as a division sales manager for the company’s Häagen-Dazs ice cream brand until 1997.

Colapinto then moved south to become vice president for sales and distribution for snack food maker Wise Foods in Atlanta from 1998 to 2003.

John Colapinto | President and CEO | Garden-Fresh Foods

He did divert from the food industry from 2004 to 2008 when he served as vice president of field sales and distribution for technology and publishing company Rand McNally. However, Colapinto’s next role as vice president and general manager of Hanover Foods/Bicknell Snack Foods brought him back to the industry and to the York, Pennsylvania, area.

Colapinto also served as a consultant for companies including Werther’s Candy and Savor Street Foods and was vice president of sales for Medora Snacks before joining Garden-Fresh Foods.

After 40 years in the food and beverage industry and despite a weekly 1,500-mile commute by air, Colapinto relishes guiding Garden-Fresh Foods into new markets while launching new products.

“One of the greatest rewards is when you see a consumer pick your product in a store and tell you they like it,” he says. “That never changes.”

View this feature in the Terra Firma Vol. I 2023 Edition here.

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