Like many traditional produce wholesalers, the Houston Avocado Company Inc started out with one man and one truck. Through a little luck and a lot of hard work, it has grown into a thriving business serving the nation's fourth largest metropolitan area.
As its name suggests, the company also started out with one product: the avocado. It was founded in 1974 by Alex Flores to supply a single family-owned Mexican restaurant in Houston. That restaurant thrived, added more restaurants, and became a well-known Houston chain.
Originally known as the Houston Produce Company, Houston Avocado grew with its customers over the years. “The market for Mexican food wasn't that great in Houston in the 1970s,” says Ryan Wolverton, the company's sales manager. “And then it exploded. Our customers began asking us to supply other items, and today we offer a broad line of produce, spices, rice, and beans.”
Though avocados now account for only 20% of sales, they remain the company's niche. “We are one of the largest avocado suppliers in the United States,” Wolverton says. “We deliver 8,000 to 10,000 cases per week.”
Houston Avocado's biggest customer group is other produce distributors and jobbers. It represents 55% of sales. Sales to independent grocery stores make up about 5% of the business, and the remaining 40% goes to restaurants.
“The popularity of Mexican food restaurants has grown tremendously, says Mark Flores, vice-president and son of owner Alex Flores. “Houston now has about 1,800 Mexican restaurants, and we supply 60% of them, either through direct delivery or indirectly through other distributors.”
Houston Avocado tripled in size in the past three years, Flores adds. The company plans to build a 20,000-sq-ft addition to its existing 22,000-sq-ft warehouse in Houston's Farmers Market by the end of 2002. Coolers in the existing warehouse can hold 25 truckloads of produce.
The produce business in Houston is highly competitive with dozens of wholesalers vying for customers. By providing high quality product and service, Houston Avocado continues to thrive, Wolverton says.
New Trucking Operation
About a year ago, the company started its own long-haul trucking with Holy Guacamole Express for better distribution control, Wolverton says. Nine drivers run between Texas and California to pick up avocados, lettuce, tomatoes, onions, and other produce. The company owns four tractors and trailers and uses five owner-operators.
“We use our own trucks especially when we are in tight pinches, when other trucking companies are not available,” he says. “Ordinarily, we receive 20 to 25 loads per week on for-hire carriers.”
Holy Guacamole Express pays off for Houston Avocado with third party outbound freight and internal produce on the return. Experienced drivers are the key to successful operation. “We screen carefully for experienced drivers,” Wolverton says. “We know that our drivers will go from Point A to Point B safely and will work to ensure that inbound produce meets our quality standards.”
For most of the year, Houston Avocado gets its fruit from California. Harvest begins around the end of January and the shipping season continues through September. The company receives Chilean avocados from October through January and also gets some fruit from Florida, Texas, and New Zealand. “Avocados from Chile can be expensive, especially if a ship is delayed,” Wolverton says. “For that reason, we buy Florida avocados in winter.”
The US Department of Agriculture now allows Hass avocados from Mexico to be imported only to certain northeastern states, he adds. However, Houston Avocado can buy avocado pulp from Mexico. Mexican restaurants use the pulp to make guacamole dip. The pulp is vacuum-packed in four-pound plastic bags, four bags per box. Houston Avocado stores the pulp at 34° to 36° F.
“Demand for avocado pulp is not nearly as great as demand for fresh fruit,” Flores says. “The biggest demand for pulp is in winter when fewer California avocados are available. The pulp has a 30-day shelf life. It used to have preservatives to increase shelf life, but now it does not have additives because of better packaging technology.”
On a typical day, Houston Avocado's refrigerated trucks deliver to about 200 restaurants. Routes go east to Beaumont, Texas, south to Galveston and Lake Jackson, north to Huntsville, Lufkin, and Nacogdoches, and west to Brenham and Bellville. Drivers make two runs a day. Starting between 6:30 and 7 am, they typically make 10 to 15 stops, return to the distribution center, and go out again with five or six more stops. Typically, both runs are finished by 3 pm.
Temperature control is essential for maintaining the quality of any produce item. Houston Avocado monitors product temperature throughout the warehousing and distribution cycle. The goal is to deliver fruit ripened to the stage specified by customers.
Avocados are green and hard when they arrive at the distribution center, Wolverton says. Houston Avocado places them in climate-controlled storage. The room has a heating unit in addition to refrigeration. Typically, a fan runs constantly.
“Room temperature is kept at 70° F, the ideal temperature for avocado ripening,” he says. “Computer controls keep the temperature on target. In summer, fruit arrives mature enough that it has no need for gas. In winter, we inject a tiny amount of ethylene gas into the ripening system.”
Green avocados take three to seven days to ripen, depending on time of the year, Wolverton adds. For instance, California avocados freshly picked in January take about a week to ripen. When fully ripe, they have black skin and are soft. At the breaking stage, before they are fully ripe, avocados have green and black skin and are beginning to get soft. “Some stores like them green, and some like them breaking,” he says. “Restaurants want them ripe so they can be used the same day.”
Houston Avocado ripens the fruit by the pallet. Thus, when a pallet, which contains 80 boxes, reaches the desired ripening stage, it is loaded for delivery. Customers also specify various avocado sizes. Depending on fruit size, a box may contain 28 to 96 avocados.
“We palletize all our products,” Wolverton says. “Truck refrigeration units are set at 38° F to 40° F. Avocados have a limited shelf life, so it is important to keep them refrigerated. Ripe avocados under refrigeration have a shelf life of about four days. At room temperature, it is two days.”
Houston Avocado runs 19 refrigerated straight trucks with bodies ranging from 14 to 24 feet. Chassis are mainly from Isuzu and UD. Newer bodies are from Kidron. Most have truck-engine-driven refrigeration units made in Canada. Three larger trucks are equipped with self-powered units — a Carrier Transicold Supra and two Thermo King MD-IIs.
“The Canadian truck-engine-driven refrigeration system works very well for Houston Avocado's application,” says D L Hendrex, owner of Mobile Refrigeration, a mobile fleet maintenance operation in Houston. “The units use nonproprietary, generic components, and they have great reliability.”
Mobile Refrigeration runs service trucks to Houston Avocado and other refrigerated fleets to service truck and trailer refrigeration equipment, says Hendrex, who also owns another Houston company, Refrigerated Storage Trailer Rental, that rents highway and storage trailers.
Mobile Refrigeration installs and maintains all refrigeration units for Houston Avocado, Hendrex says. In addition, it applies a heat-reflective ceramic coating on the truck body roof. The material is used in the aerospace industry and serves as a protection from the heavy heat load in Houston much of the year. The coating is applied with a paint roller.
Trucks roll seven days a week to provide customers personalized service, Wolverton says.