Retailer Profile – John Fujii

John Fujii

Supervisor of Produce Buying
Gelson’s Markets

There have been numerous fulfilling challenges John Fujii, Gelson’s supervisor of produce purchasing, has faced and accomplished in his lifetime, from his quick ascension in his produce career to climbing major peaks to marathon bike rides. However, his most rewarding experience has been a father to a world class swimmer, who has overcome some challenges of her own.

Fujii grew up in Los Angeles, and from early on he seemed destined for a life in the food industry. “My grandparents owned a large chicken ranch in Riverside, where we had more than 7,000 chickens,” he said. “They also grew produce such as strawberries, watermelons and tomatoes, so I had an early start with produce.”

At the age of 17, John realized he had better find a career, and knew working as a box boy wouldn’t provide for a good future. “It only took one month, and I transferred to the Mayfair produce department. Within two years, at the age of 19, I became the youngest produce manager at Mayfair.”

(Mayfair Markets were gradually sold or converted to Gelson’s after the two chains merged under the Arden Group.)

Fujii was a produce manager for 33 years before he transitioned into produce buying. Even though his jobs have required long and arduous hours, his “hobbies” have been just as arduous, and some, a tad more dangerous.

As a young man, Fujii decided to take up rock climbing. We’re not talking about those little hills at your local climbing gym. “I like to free-style rock climb and have scaled 14 peaks in the Sierras as well as climbed in England and the Dolomites in Italy.”

A goal of many rock climbers is scaling the nearly 3,000-foot face of El Capitan in Yosemite. Fujii has free-styled El Capitan on more than one occasion, sometimes in just one day. Describing the potential perils of his hobby, Fujii said matter-of-factly, “Well, one time I fell 25-feet and crushed both my heels when I landed.”

His rock-climbing days came to an end not due to injuries, but when he adopted his daughter Samantha in 2005. It was then Fujii thought to himself, “Do I want to keep climbing?”

John and his wife, Lynn, flew to China to pick up their newly adopted, nine-month old daughter, but were met with a surprise. Samantha did not seem to respond to loud noises. “An ambulance would be blaring its siren,” Fujii said, “and she seemed oblivious to the noise.”

John and Lynn would clap from behind and Samantha would not respond to the noise. “Not even a flinch.” They realized she was deaf.

Undaunted, the family moved on and communicated by touching and using “basic sign language.” By the time Samantha reached pre-school, the family had reached out to the famed John Tracy Clinic in Los Angeles, a private, nonprofit education center for infants and preschool children with hearing loss.

Samantha was educated in the Los Angeles Unified Deaf and Hard of Hearing program, which Fujii calls, “Great.” Samantha has a hearing aid and an implant, which helped her learn how to speak. “She speaks just like you and me,” he added. “Samantha had to learn how to hear by electric implants on one side while naturally on the other side.”

In the second grade, John and Lynn realized Samantha really liked swimming … and was good at it. By the time she was 10, she was swimming competitively.

Now, at the age of 14, Samantha will be swimming in the World Games in Brazil this August against hearing-impaired and deaf participants. The start of the race can be a challenge but there are vibrating kick boards that start at the same time the sounding buzzer goes off.

She is hopeful of making the Olympic team one day. “Everything depends on the World Games, which are put on by the Olympic Committee,” Fujii said. “Samantha is proficient in the Butterfly, 200 Freestyle and 200 Fly.”

Fujii is very proud of Samantha, not only for her swimming feats, but as “an advocate for herself and a mentor for others. She did a video for the John Tracy Clinic that basically says ‘if you work for it, you can have a future’.”

He added, “I wish the world could understand what it’s like to be hearing impaired, and the challenges Samantha needs to overcome.”

Although not scaling peaks any more, that doesn’t mean Fujii is living a sedentary life. He and Lynn have bicycled around British Columbia, and he is planning a San Francisco to Los Angeles bike ride with a buddy (a trip Fujii has made a few times) this summer.

“It’s a vacation, so we don’t try to kill ourselves. We ride down Highway 1, and it takes about seven or eight days. Our main goal is to have fun.”

When it comes down to it, however, Fujii admitted that being a proud father and member of “Team Samantha” is his most cherished activity. “Our journey has opened our eyes to a world of experiences and brought us lots of plusses.”