Unique Culinary Careers: Joe Navin

When ICE President Rick Smilow and Anne E. McBride wrote "Culinary Careers: How to Get Your Dream Job in Food," they discovered a plethora of food jobs they had never heard of before. Since the book's release, they have been discovering even more interesting culinary career paths. DICED shares some of them with you in a reoccurring feature: “Unique Culinary Careers.”

The food business is dependent on the network of food suppliers and purveyors. Chefs must source all the food they cook with from the businesses that sell it — if an ingredient isn’t available or of poor quality then the menu suffers. Joe Navin is the founder of Fresh Focus, a boutique fresh-cut produce processing company. In addition to a line of commercial packaged fruit and vegetables, they also offer an assortment of consumer-ready fresh-cut produce.

From single-serving apple slices to stir-fry mixes, they offer an extensive variety of fruits and vegetables prepared to a wide range of specifications. Their 4,000 square-foot facility and office is located in Maspeth, Queens. All of their produce is cut on-site to order, ensuring that customers receive fresh-cut, ready-to-use produce. It’s a unique company and we sat down with him to get a look inside the world of produce.

How would you describe your job?

Fresh Focus is a fresh-cut fruit and vegetable processing in Queens. We’re still a start-up so I’m heavily involved in all aspects of the business and overseeing operations, as well as obtaining new business. We deal in lettuce, carrots, celery, peppers, pineapples, and anything else our customers ask for. The produce is either vacuum-sealed or heat-sealed in trays depending on water content. But we also offer consumer-ready packaging. We are selling mostly to distributors and wholesalers who sell the product.

What is a typical day like?

In a typical day, I get to work at 4:45 am. The first thing I do is check the refrigeration. Then, check the morning’s order to make sure it is ready for when our broad-line distributor comes to pick up everything. I bring everything up to the loading dock and the driver comes at 5:15. I check the cleanliness of everything to make sure it is ready to go. Then I go into the office and check agricultural market reports and inventory. Then, I’ll take some time to talk to purveyors about price, quality, and trends. From 7 am to 10 am, I return emails and maybe do a bit of calling to businesses to tell them about Fresh Focus.

I also collect feedback from current customers. Our office manager comes in at 9 am and I talk to her about what to highlight when she is taking orders. In the late morning, production begins. We don’t know the final order till 2 pm, so we have to think ahead a little bit about what people are going to want. I spend a good amount of time in the room making sure cuts are right, things are going well and we are following food safety. Then, after everything has gone to the vacuum sealer, we send out same-day orders. I usually leave around 7 pm or 8 pm but it depends on the day.

What has your career path been like?

Well, I was always interested in produce, so I was drawn to it. The idea for Fresh Focus came from when I moved to New York four years ago. I worked for my family’s food service management company. My job was to get healthy foods into schools. I was trying to get fresh-cut produce but when trying to purchase it from our distributors, the orders usually had to be too large. So, I decided to start a company that is more flexible, more “boutique-y” so to speak. For example, our packages are five to 10 pounds, but traditionally everything is all in 20 pounds. I wrote a business plan as the final project for my master’s degree in food studies at NYU. My business partner and I found the funding, so we went for it. As we started, we just saw more and more market opportunity.

What were some unexpected challenges?

When it came to building the facility, I didn’t know anything about plumbing or construction, but we did it. Now, the most challenging thing has been to make our operation efficient. It’s a challenge to find how to go about the best way of doing something with a small number of people. We only have six employees.

Do you have a story about a particularly great day?

A good day is any day we get a new customer. Last month, we had a new customer who was asking for delivery on Christmas Eve. So, I came in at 5 am to get everything ready. They wanted the root vegetable jicama. I didn’t have any consistent source of jicama yet, so I was calling and calling around to find it. I finally found it in the Spanish market in Bushwick. Everything came together and we got it out on time.

What is the most satisfying thing about your job?

I love that sourcing raw produce is an adventure. It’s a little bit of a hustle to find suppliers with the best prices. The volatility is motivating. It’s exciting when you can find a place to get something below market price.

Do you have anything exciting coming up soon?

We have a new website on the horizon. Plus, we are talking to distributors who have lots of interest in us. We’re partnering with distributors to do same-day delivery, which is very exciting. We’re working on getting more local farmers into our line. All of our apples come from Red Jacket. We had a carrot supplier in the Hudson Valley, but everything was flooded. We’re excited about a new season and seeing what we can find locally. It’s something we are striving for.

What is your advice for anyone looking for a similar career?

First, be prepared to give up your social life. Hire a food safety consultant. And hire employees that you can rely on at all hours. Finally, always know that everything is negotiable.  

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