Each month, the Fresh Produce & Floral Council profiles a different member or a different retailer. Check back to learn more about the professionals in the produce and floral industry and the members of the FPFC.
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Vice President, Pura Vida Farms
Growing up in Upland, CA, at a young age Pura Vida Farms Vice President of Sales Jeff Liefer knew he was a talented baseball player. However, “nowhere in my wildest dreams did I ever think I’d play in the major leagues.” Yet for seven seasons, Liefer did just that
Liefer comes from a produce family. His father, Dale, is a long time produce pro, and brother Wes is the owner/president of Pura Vida Farms. Asked whether he was interested in produce or working in the industry growing up, Jeff said, “Not at all. I remember driving around with my dad as a kid. He would be talking about ‘72s’ or ‘88s’, and I didn’t have a clue what he was talking about.”
But Liefer did have a clue about playing baseball. In Little League, at the ripe old age of 12, Jeff smacked 18 home runs.
In high school, Liefer showed his ability at both Damien High School and Upland High. “As a freshman, I played second base; then as a sophomore, I played shortstop, second and center field.” In his final two seasons Liefer added third base to his resume.
When entering high school, Liefer had no idea that a Major League Baseball career was in his future. “My only goal was to get a college scholarship.”
By his senior year, however, baseball scouts were constantly knocking on his door. “It was a crazy year. In my senior year, I kept moving up the draft board, and I was selected in the sixth round by the Cleveland Indians.”
LIefer stayed true to his original objective, however, and entered Long Beach State. As a member of the “Dirtbags,” a moniker the team had earned for its scrappy play, Liefer went to the College World Series in his freshman season. Long Beach State got edged out in the semi-final game and finished third. Liefer made the All-Tournament Team.
After his sophomore season, he headed north to play summer ball in Alaska, a well-known stop for college baseball prospects. After lighting it up, “Publications like Sporting News and Baseball America started projecting me as a possible first round pick.”
Sure enough, after his junior season at Long Beach State, Liefer was taken in the first round of the 1995 Major League draft by the Chicago White Sox. Even highly-touted players have to pay their dues, and Liefer played three years in the minor leagues. One vivid memory was a trip to the rest room that ended up delaying a game 20 minutes after he got locked in. “It was very warm, and the guys were drinking lots of water to stay hydrated. There was a bathroom behind the dugout, and after the inning, I went inside. When I tried to get out, I couldn’t because the door handle was jammed.”
He continued, “Of course, we went 1-2-3 in a very quick inning, and eight players take the field … with no first baseman.” One of his Indianapolis teammates who was waiting to use the restroom was aware Liefer was stuck. The umpires were alerted, and the game was held up. “Finally, someone opened a vent above the bathroom and handed me a chisel and hammer, and I got out.”
Liefer added that when he ran out to his position, everyone knew what had happened, and someone on Louisville’s team threw out a roll of toilet paper. The next day, he was contacted by Dan Patrick of ESPN. Liefer reluctantly told him the story, and by that night, Jay Leno was using the situation as a punchline.
His first game in the Major Leagues is another memory he will never forget. “My first game was in the Kingdome in Seattle. It was the first time I had played in a dome. It was the third game of the season, and I was hitting clean up, playing first base in my first big league game, Frank Thomas hitting third and Magglio Ordonez hitting 5th. I was pretty nervous. I'd say most of the game was a blur--especially the first few innings. I got a hit in my first at-bat off Freddy Garcia, so that took some of the pressure off and helped me settle down a bit. My most vivid memory of that game was Ken Griffey, Jr. getting to first base and smelling like a bottle of Drakkar Noir (cologne), which I found very odd.”
Liefer enjoyed his best season in 2001 when future Hall-of-Famer Frank Thomas went down with an injury, and Liefer platooned with Jose Canseco. Liefer had 18 home runs that year.
He said one of the highlights of his career happened not on the diamond, but at the induction of Frank Thomas into baseball’s Hall of Fame. “I had spent a great deal of time with Frank on the White Sox, and during his Hall of Fame speech he specifically thanked me.”
Liefer also spent a couple of years in Japan playing for the Sebu Lions in 2006 and 2007. He remembers the fans in Japan were always respectful to the other team and would never leave a game early. His wife, Missy, and son, Cade, joined him over there, and Liefer said, “Cade even went to an international preschool in Japan.”
After returning to the United States, the former Major Leaguer decided it was time to hang up the spikes. “My family was always with me during the season. When we would go on a road trip, they would usually stay behind in our home city with some of the other families. Occasionally, if our road trip was close by, they would drive to wherever we went and stay with me in the hotel and go to games. In the big leagues, they would make some of the trips to certain cities like NYC. Missy and I were in New York City staying at the Grand Hyatt at Grand Central Station on 9/11.”
Liefer said his family was one of the main reasons he retired. “Cade was going to be starting school in September, and I knew if I played the following year, they would not be coming with me because of school.”
So in 2008, Jeff traded his bats and balls for pineapples and melons at Pura Vida Farms working alongside his brother and dad. He just celebrated his 10th anniversary with the firm.
Besides Cade, Missy and Jeff also have a younger son, Rocky. Jeff spends his spare time coaching his boys in various sports.
Produce Buyer, Grocery Outlet
Daniel Bell believes he had the talent to pursue his dream of playing professional baseball but not the maturity when it came to a crossroads in his life. Instead, he quit baseball and joined the ranks of the working class as a night clerk in the produce department of a North San Diego County Vons.
But he has no regrets as his life and career have dealt him a full hand of opportunities and advancement.
The journey began on Camp Pendleton Marine Base in 1967 as the newly born son of a Marine, who had served three tours of duty overseas, two of which were during the Vietnam War. In fact, Daniel was the only one of a group of four children who was delivered while his father was not out fighting wars. Daniel grew up in nearby Carlsbad, CA, playing ball and living an ordinary life. “I was the typical confused teenager,” he said. “I played sports, surfed and fished.”
He was not an especially good student, and though he was an excellent baseball player, his lack of “due diligence” to his studies caused him to continue his post-high school baseball career at the local junior college. A crossroads decision came when he hurt his knee and he disregarded the coach’s suggestion to redshirt (sit out) a year two before returning to the active roster.
“Though he was a good coach, I didn’t agree with him, “ Bell said. “I was just too young to know what I should do.”
Bell said one of the hardest things he had to do was tell his dad he was quitting baseball.
But opportunity opened another door. It was in 1990 that he started working at Vons. To say it was love at first sight would be an exaggeration. “I was told I wasn’t going to make it,” he said, speaking of one of his earliest evaluations. “It was an older store staffed with slow starters and people on their last leg. I was getting about 24 to 28 hours a week.”
His life changed when produce manager Fernando Terrazas took him to lunch. He gave him a pep talk and made him a promise. “He told me, ‘I’ll make sure you get the hours and you better come in whenever I call you.’”
The partnership worked. “He gave me plenty of hours and I worked every time he asked.”
He got promoted to assistant produce manager and after a temporary setback because of a company-wide layoff, Bell found himself at the Del Mar store working with both Terrazas and Hector Avila, another produce manager that was instrumental in his job progression. “That’s where I learned the craft of being a produce manager,” he said.
Over the next several years, Bell worked hard, shifted stores a couple of times and in 1996 was named produce manager of the store in Clairemont, a community within the city limits of San Diego.
He continued his upward mobility and eventually being named a produce manager in the La Jolla store. “That was the crème de la crème,” he said, noting that it was a high-end store with lots of business and experimentation.
As the century turned, Vons soon became part of the Safeway family and Bell was very happy in his position. “I had been talked to about being a merchandiser, but I was never interested.”
However, in 2006, Mil Mijanavic, who had worked with Bell at Vons and was involved with the Tom Thumb division of Safeway in Texas, gave Bell a call. “He offered me a merchandiser position with the Texas division and explained exactly what he wanted to do and why I was the right guy for the job.”
Daniel and his wife, Aida, discussed the opportunity and decided it was the perfect time to take on a new challenge, as their three sons were all still relatively young.
In 2010, after close to five years in Texas and getting a great produce education, Bell was offered a position back in California with Grocery Outlet Bargain Markets in Northern California. Again, the ages of his sons factored into the decision: “My oldest son was about to enter high school so it was the perfect time to move.”
Bell was hired as a merchandiser/buyer and now is the produce buyer for California and Nevada. “I manage sales margins, pricing, ads and selection for those stores,” he said. “I also ‘own’ several commodities, including avocados, berries, grapes, citrus, tropical, pears and cherries, among others.”
Since soon after he came to California, Grocery Outlet has been in a growth spurt. From 137 stores in 2010, there are now about 309 stores in six states: California, Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Nevada and Pennsylvania. It is growing at a clip of 30 or more stores per year. The company’s produce buying philosophy is the “deal always wins.”
While the retailer uses regular suppliers for its everyday needs, it also is always looking for that value buy that it can pass on to its owner-operators. In the Grocery Outlet business model, each store is owned and run by an on-site and in-house owner. It is typically a husband and wife team, who hires their own staff. The contract with Grocery Outlet calls for the parent company to build the store and supply these owner-operators with merchandise. “Our job is to buy, their job is to sell,” Bell quipped.
Grocery Outlet does allow the operators to manage their quantities, but they are encouraged to take advantage of the deals that the buyers come up with on a daily basis. Bell said the produce team is constantly looking for that off-size piece of fruit or vegetable pack that can be bought at a discounted rate with the savings passed on to the consumer. “We’re always looking for the deal,” Bell said, offering that recent sales include two-pound packs of rainbow peppers and organic strawberries. Each could be sold at store-level for well under normal pricing.
Though Grocery Outlet is a discounter, Bell said its customers still want high-quality produce and are big buyers of organics and other specialty items. Each store has a NOSH (natural, organic, specialty, healthy) section that features the latest on-trend organic category.
Daniel and Aida live in Roseville, CA and have three sons. Twenty-two year old Xavier just graduated from St. Mary’s College in Moraga, CA, while Conor, 18, and Aidan, 14, are still in high school. For fun, the family does a lot of outdoor activities, including hiking. Bell heads down to San Diego every once in a while for 8-12 day fishing excursions, leaving from the local port. “I love to fish,” he understates.