At 8am, the Sprouts produce warehouse in Colton, California, is buzzing. Then again, that’s when we arrived for a tour. It had actually been buzzing since about 4am.
Warehouse staff push forklifts into 18-wheelers weighed down with pallets of fruits and veggies, then pull back to put the produce into their proper storage rooms. Quality Control Clerks move from cooler to cooler inspecting each shipment for freshness, color, size, shape and taste. As they weave through the maze, they dodge a forklift shuffling 800-pound bins of watermelons and a new shipment of mangoes that didn’t make the cut. The mid-morning frenzy assures Sprouts customers will be getting the best produce in town.
It’s a side of the food industry consumers rarely see. They shop at the Sprouts Produce Department with the expectation of “farm-fresh” produce, but they seldom know where the food they buy comes from. They have a vague idea of farms in California. However, they know little about how food gets from field to plate, and the complex logistics on which the system depends.
When fresh products arrive at the warehouse, they are inspected before they enter a world of organized mayhem—filled with the honking and humming of forklifts whirling back and forth, collecting the items. Filling an order is much more than matching the items on a pallet to words on an order form.
For instance, to the untrained eye a shipment of 17,000 oval mangoes appears the same shade of half-green half-red so common to fruit just off the vine. But under the critical eye of Sprouts’ Quality Control Team, those same mangoes have pinhead-size black spotting caused by hot water treatment.
“Do they taste great? Sure,” says Sprouts’ Assistant Quality Control Manager Jeff Provost. “But customers buy produce with their eyes. It has to be aesthetically proper. It has to have curb appeal.”
Back on the truck they go. An entire load has been rejected and will be sold to some other retailer that isn’t quite so particular.
The clerks are also checking to make sure the quantity and size of the product match up with what was ordered. They uphold a strict process for traceability, which means the product’s weight, country of origin, freshness, and condition are recorded and entered into the database. Each pallet is then given a “license plate number” sticker, thus enabling the end-user to look up the origin and history of the product in a database.
The pace is fast, as the warehouse staff processes about 50–60 truckloads and moves about 1,000 pallets a day. If the product is accepted, the truck drivers get to hop back in their empty trucks and head home. If it doesn’t make the cut, the drivers pull away with heavily laden trucks and have to find someone else to buy their produce.
“I don’t want to sell anything to one of our customers that I would not serve to my own family,” says Provost.
Provost is second in charge at the Castle & Cooke Cold Storage Distribution Center, the gigantic third-party facility that helps Sprouts operate its supply chains more efficiently.
From Farm to Fork
Sprouts’ quest for the best combination of quality and value begins long before the produce arrives in the warehouse. Our team of experienced buyers seeks out premium products from trusted growers. With storage and distribution centers in Arizona, California and Texas, Sprouts is then able to bring that level of quality home to customers in quantities that guarantee the most competitive prices.
With about 80 years of combined experience in the produce industry, the four-member California Sprouts Quality Control Team knows the life cycles of produce and understands the critical nature of temperature in that process.
From the time a piece of fruit or a vegetable is harvested, a biological clock begins. It’s a clock that can be manipulated, and even slowed to a crawl, but only if the proper storage principles are maintained.
All produce has a ripening timetable that continues after it is disconnected from its nutritional lifeline. Most are picked so the ripening timing will coincide with the arrival at the shopper’s home. Others, like tomatoes on the vine, will continue ripening.
Did you know?
When picking tomatoes on the vine, look for the yellow glow on the fuzzy stem—that means they’re fresh. If you rub the stem with your fingers, you’ll feel the sap and smell a very potent aroma. The vine gives the fruit good flavor and nourishment, so keep tomatoes on your kitchen counter until they are naturally falling off the stem. At that point, you’ll know they’ve gotten all of the flavor and nutrients possible.
Climate control is critical because improper temperatures can shorten the shelf life of fruits and vegetables by days.
Visit the warehouse any time and you’ll see employees in winter overalls, beanies and fingerless gloves. Inside the warehouse, the temperatures are carefully maintained to slow the ripening process and curb (natural) ethylene gas production rates that lead to quick deterioration.
The grapes, lettuce and avocados are stored in a 34°F room with wet floors and high-humidity fans. The hearty vegetables and tropical fruits (i.e. potatoes, onions, coconuts, pineapples and mangoes) are kept in a 55°F cooler. Produce such as berries, cherries and cantaloupes lay in a 34°F room without humidity. Too much cold can be just as damaging as not enough, so tolerances are tight and constantly monitored to maintain the optimum temperature.
“We also have a daily quality check, at which point the staff creates an ‘ideal pick path.’ That means someone goes through and makes sure items nearing expiration dates are picked first,” says Quality Control Manager Neil Cullen. “They also ensure organic produce is separated from the non-organic produce to maintain the integrity, as mandated by the National Organic Program.”
“It sounds like a simple concept, but there’s organization and thoroughness involved.”
Any produce that does not pass the daily quality check, but is still fit for human consumption, gets set aside for charity. Sprouts partners with Second Harvest Food Bank, an agency that feeds 400,000 people a week in the Los Angeles area, according to Cullen. Second Harvest picks up excess or damaged fresh produce that would otherwise go to waste and distributes it to those in need. Whether it’s the fruit that is cut in half for quality checks, or a box of produce that has a few too many bumps and bruises, it’s perfectly edible, just not sellable. The organization also collects produce scraps for livestock. Sprouts receives tax benefits for its donations, but the warm, fuzzy feeling that comes from doing the right thing is far more valuable.
To evaluate fruit, the Quality Control Managers use five very valuable tools: Their senses. They look for bruising, listen for hollow sounds, feel for firmness, smell for sweetness and taste for deliciousness.
But when they need a sixth sense to tell how sweet a piece of fruit really is, they use a refractometer. A refractometer measures the brix (or percentage of soluble solids, or sugar) of the fruit, primarily citrus, apples, grapes, melons, stone fruits and strawberries. To measure the brix, our Quality Control gurus will cut a piece of fruit and then squeeze some juice from the fruit onto the open refractometer. They will then close it, and look into the eyepiece (kind of like a kaleidoscope) to see what degree of sugar is measured.
When they want an exact measurement to tell how firm or ripe a piece of fruit really is, they use a penetrometer. To use this tool, they scrape off a small piece of skin on each side of the fruit to expose the flesh. Then, they puncture the fruit and take the reading. Though the USDA has not yet created pressure requirements for every item, there is a chart that dictates acceptable readings for harvest, shipment and consumption.
We Don’t Dictate What You Eat
Walking through the produce warehouse is an eye-opening—and sinus-opening—experience. The vibrant red, green, and orange hues pop out from the large stacks of boxes. The smells of aromatic ginger root, basil and Meyer lemons intrigue your inner foodie.
The wide assortment, however, is what truly sets Sprouts apart. “We don’t dictate what people should eat and what offerings they can have,” Cullen says.
A more gourmet shopper can find specialty items such as elephant garlic, which bakes nicely and turns to butter. At the same time, a run-of-the-mill shopper can stock up on old-school boiler onions, which are anything but gourmet. Same thing goes for potatoes: Sprouts sells “why-fix-what-ain’t-broke” red potatoes alongside time-honored white potatoes and new-fangled purple potatoes (which live up to their regal color nutritionally too).
In the case of tomatoes, Sprouts carries 12–15 varieties, from slicing tomatoes to heirloom tomatoes to Campari tomatoes to baby super sweet tomatoes. The Cherub tomatoes are one of the highest volume products in our stores. “We negotiate better pricing than a lot of our competitors, and pass that saving onto the shopper,” Cullen says.
The Best the World Has to Offer
The premise of our business is, and has always been, value to the customer. Our Produce Buyers source the best-quality produce at the best price available, whether it is conventional or organic, domestic or international.
Our “farmers market” reputation comes from our long-term relationships with local growers and vendors, coupled with our ability to sell fresh produce at great prices. Thanks to our international partners, fruits and veggies that were once strictly seasonal are now available year-round.
For example, early in the spring, Sprouts opts for imported grapes. “Domestic grapes at that time of year would taste like battery acid,” Cullen jokes. “But now, well into the summer, the California grapes are at their peak.”
Buying from international vendors also means we can bring in unique items such as Brazilian-grown strawberry papayas and Chilean kiwifruit in the summer.
In today’s marketplace, food safety verification and confidence are critical, especially for those imported items. Shoppers can look for Primus Labs third-party certification clearly labeled on imported produce cartons, which guarantee the highest standards of quality and sanitation.
“Our shoppers know that any imported produce with Primus Labs certification comes from a state-of-the-art facility that exceeds the sanitary standards of most domestic facilities,” Cullen says. “Hair nets, shoe booties, lab coats, and even foot baths are required to ensure a germ-free facility.”
We go to great lengths to guarantee that the quality is there every step of the way, even when we’re sourcing our products from around the corner or around the globe. We are proud of the processes, safeguards and quality-control protocols we have in place.