Seattle produce wholesaler takes on Grasmick’s, an Idaho institution, with unusual fruit

How about this apple? What Charlie's Produce says it will bring to Boise

Seattle-based Charlie’s Produce bought Boise’s Northwest Produce and will compete with family-owned Grasmick Produce of Garden City. General manager Alex Plummer talks about the unusual fruits and vegetables they will offer to the Boise restaurant
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Seattle-based Charlie’s Produce bought Boise’s Northwest Produce and will compete with family-owned Grasmick Produce of Garden City. General manager Alex Plummer talks about the unusual fruits and vegetables they will offer to the Boise restaurant

Alex Plummer pulled out a knife and sliced into a green apple that could have been a Granny Smith with a blush.

Instead of a white flesh inside, however, this apple, a Mountain Rose, had a deep red flesh more like a blood orange.

“It’s all about the color,” said Plummer, general manager of Charlie’s Produce, a Seattle wholesaler that has just opened a Boise warehouse near the Boise Airport.

The heirloom apple, which has a crisp tart flavor that some say hints of strawberries and cotton candy, has been popular among restaurants that like to show off the flesh in salads, Plummer said. It is an example of what Charlie’s said it will soon bring to Treasure Valley consumers.

“We’re going to bring things to this market that this market’s never seen,” Plummer said, standing in a refrigerated room kept just above freezing. “We’re going to bring variety that they haven’t seen that will allow chefs to have things on the menu that they haven’t had before.”

Charlie’s is taking on a much bigger Treasure Valley institution: Grasmick Produce, Idaho’s largest wholesale distributor of fruits and vegetables. The Garden City company, started by farmer Henry Grasmick and his son, Dutch, has operated since 1955.

Grasmick’s response to Charlie’s? Bring ’em on.

Like Charlie’s, Grasmick’s sells to area WinCo, Albertsons and Walmart stores, and to restaurants. They both deliver seven days a week.

Owner Angela Reed, Dutch Grasmick’s granddaughter, said her company is not worried about the competition. “We view competition as an opportunity to make us a better company,” she said. “Our business is continuing to grow, and we perceive a very positive future.”

Company came to Boise after buying another wholesaler

Charlie’s, which says it is the West Coast’s largest produce seller, entered the Treasure Valley by buying Boise-based Northwest Produce in September. It took over Northwest’s cold-storage warehouse at 1262 Exchange St., off East Gowen Road.

The company serves stores, restaurants, schools and other institutional users from Ontario, Oregon, to Twin Falls.

“We’re a wholesale business, so we move it from the growing fields to us and then to the customer,” said Plummer, who is general manager of the company’s Spokane office and will eventually return there. “If you think of anywhere you’ve had a salad or seen a salad offered, that’s what we do.”

Earlier this week, Charlie’s had a variety of Idaho-grown produce at the warehouse. It had miniature yellow, purple and red fingerling potatoes from Southwind Farms in Heyburn. Yellow onions from J.C. Watson Co. in Parma. Russet potatoes from Arrowhead Potato Co. in Rupert. Apples and pears from Symms Fruit Ranch in Caldwell.

The warehouse also had seedless, red Holiday grapes, available only in October and November, that are a favorite for schools, Plummer said. There were also baby carrots with tops still attached in hues of orange, yellow and purple.

All 15 of Northwest Produce’s workers — including owners Mike Grasmick, son of Dutch Grasmick and an uncle to Reed; and Mike’s wife, Leisa — were retained. Charlie’s has hired four additional employees, and the company has help-wanted listings in Boise for a truck driver and order selector.

Mike Grasmick worked for his family’s business for more than 40 years. He said he was fired in 2014 after a family dispute. He and his wife opened Northwest Produce in 2015, but struggled financially and decided to sell to Charlie’s.

The company is working to sign up more farms to supply fresh produce next spring and summer, Plummer said.

Charlie’s also plans to expand its space. The Northwest Produce warehouse had 18,200 square feet. A vacated space in the same building has 11,800 square feet. Remodeling that space will provide more refrigerated space, along with ripening rooms for avocados and bananas, Plummer said.

Beginnings in Seattle

Charlie Billow, a produce-truck driver, founded Charlie’s in Seattle in 1978to bring restaurants and stores the produce they want to buy, Plummer said. Billow saw a lack of interaction between farmers and restaurant chefs and grocery stores. Farmers grew what they thought would sell, but they sold to middlemen and did not ask those end customers what they wanted.

Billow built relationships with farmers and produce buyers and matched the supply to what customers asked to buy. Early on, he began offering organic produce to customers who asked for it.

Charlie’s Produce operates warehouses in Seattle, Portland, Spokane, Los Angeles and Anchorage, Alaska. It serves North Idaho through the Spokane warehouse. Charlie’s eventually plans to expand east to Pocatello and Idaho Falls.

“It’s getting a lot harder for the local farmer to manage all the pieces of growing and selling and transporting and storing,” Plummer said. “We take the selling, storing and transporting off the plate, and they can concentrate on growing. Now they can grow the best produce possible, because somebody like us is doing the rest of it.”

But Grasmick’s Reed challenges the notion that Charlie’s can provide products not otherwise found in Boise.

“We load a truck three times a week out of the Los Angeles market, so we can purchase any specialty item that a customer might want,” Reed said. “A lot of the produce growers are based in California, and there’s a terminal market in L.A. where a lot of these companies that offer specialty items coalesce.”

Loyal Grasmick’s customers

Grasmick’s employs more than 100 workers in Idaho and unloads 25 semi-truckloads of produce a week. It serves all of Idaho, Montana, Eastern Oregon, Northern Nevada and Western Wyoming. It has an office and warehouse in Idaho Falls.

Grasmick’s has loyal local restaurant customers.

“They’re able to get pretty every type of produce that we need in a very quick manner. It’s always high quality,” said Cody Bielen, sous chef at Fork, a restaurant in Downtown Boise.

Bardenay, with local restaurants in Boise, Eagle and Coeur d’Alene, has bought from both companies — Grasmick’s in the Treasure Valley and Charlie’s in Coeur d’Alene. Both are satisfactory, owner Kevin Settles said.

Grasmick’s has run out of space at its Garden City warehouse at 215 E. 42nd St., where the company has operated for more than 40 years. The company hopes to break ground early next year on a new warehouse at the same location, Reed said. Construction is expected to take about six months.

With the extra room, Grasmick’s will be able to offer more products.

“Right now we do some cheese,” Reed said. “We’re looking to add some more dairy categories: eggs, butter, possibly some milk.”

John Sowell: 208-377-6423, @JohnWSowell