Leslie Surber – Latitude 36 Foods
Finally, it’s lunchtime and you’ve decided to go a healthier route today. However, when you open your bag of mixed greens, it doesn’t have croutons, cheese or dressing to liven it up. Here was a gap in the condiment supply chain, Leslie Surber thought—and it needed to be fixed.
That’s among the reasons she started Latitude 36 Foods in May of 2017. Now as president, Surber heads the California-based food production company that provides portion-packaged condiments and private label snacks, like nuts for grocery chains. The business also makes salad kits for restaurants and to-go containers.
According to Surber, most people she knows think that the salad companies package pre-made salad kits. Truth is, Latitude packages most of them nationwide.
“For the past four years, we’ve been making food more interesting,” Surber says. “That means toppings—everything from bacon bits and cheese to croutons and granola.”
A portioned smorgasbord
Surber’s goal to create a reliable supply of salad condiments was akin to a premonition. According to her, during the pandemic, consumers were more willing to try healthier foods, leading to a 20 percent increase in salad kit sales since March 2020.
In addition to providing more flavorful ingredients, Latitude’s packaging allows for easy portion control, Surber says. This means consumers get enough of something, like bacon bits, instead of having to purchase a much larger quantity of the ingredients separately.
“It’s more convenient, healthier, more hygienic and reduces waste,” Surber says. According to her, portioned condiments are particularly important for to-go dining at large restaurants chains, which she hopes will look to Latitude to enhance their packaged meals as more people order to-go meals during the pandemic.
According to a survey conducted by Morning Consult at the beginning of October 2021, nearly 40 percent of people are still ordering delivery or takeout from restaurants multiple times a month.
Surber says the portioned condiments also save on waste, especially with to-go meals. When a restaurant adds tons of salad dressing or other condiments in small containers instead of using prepackaged items, diners often won’t consume everything. This adds up, according to Surber, who says up to $161 billion worth of food ends up in landfills annually.
Likewise, at Latitude, portioned toppings are pre-packaged by sanitized equipment. This means that restaurants and organizations don’t need to measure portions for dine-in or take-out orders—and that consumers can get less potential exposure to COVID-19 because machines do the packaging.
A delightfully mixed bag
Latitude has doubled in size the past three years and looks to double again within the next five years. This doubling includes everything from warehouse and packaging facility size to number of clients, according to Surber.
That’s involved a lot of hiring. Because the company is growing, team members have the freedom and flexibility to be creative in developing their roles.
New to the company or veteran, everyone’s voice is heard and valued, according to Surber. In fact, the company motto of “one team, one dream” wasn’t developed in some boardroom, she says. Instead, it was created by a warehouse production supervisor who wrote the words on a whiteboard after a production record had been broken. She liked the slogan and decided to use it.
“I love building wonderful relationships with our people, including helping them develop their careers,” Surber says. “If our employees are happy when they’re sitting around the dinner table discussing their jobs with friends and family, that joy will translate into our product and lead to happier consumers, as well.”
Harvesting an unexpected career
Though Surber has spent most of her career in the food industry, she graduated from Arizona State University with an accounting degree. Her first job was as an auditor, giving her the practical financial skills and acumen that would serve her well, especially when she started Latitude, she says.
When she joined Monterey Mushroom as a plant controller, she knew without a doubt that she had the bug for the food industry. Since then, she’s enjoyed working with a premium strawberry grower, a desserts company, a greenhouse grower and several fresh-cut vegetable processors—to name a few.
“I think I was subconsciously drawn to the field,” Surber says. “I like creating products that are wholesome in an industry the breeds a certain work ethic and humility—when the lettuce needs to be harvested and shipped to consumers, there’s no milling about or procrastination.”
Unsurprisingly, Surber is a self-proclaimed foodie, who enjoys picking new restaurants to visit with her husband and two boys. In fact, her colleagues say she’s an exceptionally skilled baker, who can pretty much whip up anything with the right ingredients and an oven nearby.
And if her family or even a complete stranger sits down for a salad, Surber knows it probably has the proper sides and isn’t just a bag of leaves and carrot shreds. After all, what fun’s a salad without the toppings?
View this feature in the Terra Firma Vol I 2022 Edition here.
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