BAY ROBERTS, N.L.
For any wholesale company involved in the food business, bananas are an important product.
“Bananas are the world’s biggest selling produce item, period,” Atlantic Grocery Distributors president and CEO Dave Powell told The Compass during a site visit to the company’s main warehouse in Bay Roberts. “More people base produce buying decisions in retail on the quality of bananas than any other factor in any grocery store. So, you walk into a store, you see great bananas, you’ve got the mindset that the produce is pretty nice.”
With that in mind, the company decided to create a specialized space in its Bay Roberts warehouse where staff can now control how bananas are ripened.
In business as a wholesale distributor for the food service industry for close to 30 years, the company has always looked to get the best out of its bananas. They come from South American countries in an unripen state, making them inedible. The ripen process has usually been handled in Montreal, where Atlantic Grocery Distributors’ main supplier of the fruit has 35 ripening rooms.
Getting the product from there to the island has not always been easy, as company CEO and president Dave Powell describes it.
“They have to be ripened, so for all those years since 1990 until this year, we’ve depended on other people to ripen our bananas … and hopefully get bananas all the way from Montreal to Newfoundland good every single time — which doesn’t happen, because there are delays on the ferry crossing on the gulf. There are snowstorms that stop trucks. So quite often, bananas were either unripe or not quite ripe enough, or overripe.”
Powell said this left the company in a state of never being consistently happy with the state of their bananas. So, when the company decided a couple of years ago to add a 43,000-square-foot extension to its Bay Roberts warehouse, the decision was made to make space for banana ripening.
After visiting some facilities and doing research, Atlantic Grocery Distributors decided to work with Thermal Tech out of Atlanta to set up the room. Installation began in January and they were finished and ready to use by the end of March. The new room required a week of training for staff, with some getting additional training in Montreal on the handling of bananas in a raw, unripen state. Previously, bananas in a more ripened state were shipped to Bay Roberts and the company’s other warehouse in Port aux Basques.
“So, we receive them in a raw state, an unripen state, totally green, and we ripen bananas based on our projected volumes,” Powell said.
The space has three rooms altogether, allowing the wholesaler to vary how the bananas are stored depending on what state of ripeness they’re in. Ethylene gas, which is produced naturally by all plant life, is pumped into a room as needed, and combined with heat and humidity controls, staff can start the ripening process.
“The combination of ethylene gas and heat actually begins to bring the bananas from a green state to yellow state,” Powell said.
Ripeness can also be held at a certain level if needed. Each room can hold 21 palettes. The level of control is detailed, and if anything out of the ordinary happens, a notification immediately goes to the cell phone of quality assurance manager Bill Hunt.
“We’ve got the ability to ripen slowly and the ability to hold and get a few more days out of the banana load,” Powell said.
Presently, Atlantic Grocery Distributors handles 45,000 pounds of bananas weekly, making it one of the company’s top five produce products. The new room gives the company flexibility in what it can offer food service clients.
“Bananas are kind of the deciding factor if you will quite often for customers as to from whom they will buy,” Powell explained. “It just gives us the complete range of great quality produce.”