Culinary Focus

Aug. 1, 2008
At Keany Produce Company in Landover, Maryland, whatever the customer's request, the answer is always: “no problem.”

At Keany Produce Company in Landover, Maryland, whatever the customer's request, the answer is always: “no problem.” That attitude, along with produce excellence, has kept this family owned and operated business, focused on the culinary industry, growing for more than 30 years.

A 24-hour operation, it offers the largest array of fruits and vegetables, specialty produce, and pre-cut items on the East Coast. Produce is purchased directly from growers around the nation, rather than from terminal markets, and received daily.

Housed in a 90,000-sq-ft state-of-the art facility in a suburb northeast of Washington, DC, it has a customized refrigeration system that maintains everything at its ideal temperature and humidity.

With a fleet of more than 120 refrigerated vehicles, Keany Produce services chefs, restaurants, hotels, caterers, cafeterias, and others throughout Washington, DC; Baltimore, Maryland; Maryland's Eastern Shore; Northern Virginia, the Richmond and Fredericksburg, Virginia, region, and Pennsylvania. However, the bulk of business is within 150 air miles of its facility.

Deliveries are made six days a week using drivers assigned to routes. A special transportation unit provides “hotshot” deliveries. Total fleet miles last year were nearly 4.3 million.

Since its founding in 1978 by Kevin Keany, the company has continued to expand offerings and services. For the most part, all the changes have been due to customer requests and inquiries, he says.

“In this business, you have to truly be customer focused,” says Keany, who cut his teeth in the produce business as a greenhorn salesperson. “You always need to find a better way to do things, and do everything in a timely fashion.”

He also learned early on that orders often come in late, there are special requests, and orders frequently change, even at the last minute. “You can't say ‘no,’ because if you do, the competition will say ‘yes,’ and customers remember that.”

Too many companies fail to keep in mind that the purpose of business is to make and keep customers, says Keany. That requires an unrivaled attention to customer service.

His dominant business philosophy is: The answer is “yes, now what is the question?” He has instilled that into his more than 350 employees, and this has, in turn, helped Keany Produce build and maintain long-standing relationships with customers and suppliers.

Street experience

Growing up, Keany, like his three brothers - Dan, Chris and Ted, helped in his father's business, a contracting firm to the government for custodial services. As this business was drastically changing, and opportunities were not as plentiful, Keany decided to look for another industry to work in. Taking a summer off from school, he landed a job as a commissioned salesman at a produce company in downtown Washington, DC.

“I was told I didn't need any training,” recalls Keany. “I was given a price sheet and sent out to make sales calls. My boss told me to go anywhere people eat, because if they eat there, they're a potential customer.”

Keany did this for a couple of years, getting to know a lot of suppliers and gaining significant experience. “It was a small company so I got to do a little bit of everything.”

At one point he felt he could do things a little better and decided to start his own company. His father, Pat, loaned him some money to start a business.

Working out of his house in DC, with an answering machine and a van, Keany founded Keany Produce. He bought from wholesalers and delivered fresh fruits and vegetables in the area. As a result of working very long hours and a commitment to handling only quality produce, personal attention, and honest dealing, the business flourished.

The timing for getting into the produce business was right, notes Keany. Many of the area's more successful produce companies were owned and operated by immigrant families, and they had set their children up to be professionals like lawyers and doctors. Not many of the next generation had any real desire to get into the produce distribution business.

“There was some real opportunity for young blood in this business, and we were aggressive,” Keany says. “People knew that we were hustlers and that we did what we said we would do.”

He moved his operation into a small warehouse in Northeast DC and kept expanding his service territory. In time, his brothers and father joined him in the business. Consistently capturing a larger share of the market, Keany Produce began buying direct from growers, wholesalers, and brokers nationwide. It now has eight outside and 20 inside sales representatives.

Warehouse facility

Keany Produce outgrew the facility in Northeast DC, moving three times before settling into a 49,000-sq-ft facility in Landover, Maryland, in 1998. It soon outgrew that facility and bought a building on six acres of land across the street.

That building, also 49,000 square feet, was completely renovated and enlarged to nearly double in size, designed especially for Keany Produce's operation. Much of the land was cleared and ample parking space was created for fleet and employee parking.

The investment made it one of the largest and most technologically advanced facilities in the Mid-Atlantic region, says Keany Produce general manager Dana Rolander.

Eight separate customized climate-controlled zones each use Bohn Refrigeration systems, where all items are maintained at their optimum temperature and humidity. The zones range from 33° to 50°F.

Three Bohn HeatCraft pressurized ripening rooms house such items as bananas, mangoes, and avocados to help ensure peak ripeness.

“All zones and rooms are electronically controlled and monitored,” Rolander says. “The whole system is web accessible, so temperatures can be accessed offsite anytime.”

Fresh cuts

Some 5,000 square feet of the warehouse is devoted to the company's Keany Kuts customized fresh-cut processing operation. Begun in 1991, it employees 92 people and runs 24 hours a day on four shifts to precut fruits and vegetables and package them into five-pound vacuum-sealed bags.

“This saves chefs a lot of time and labor,” Keany explains, “because they can just open a bag instead of having to peel, cut, and slice.”

The pioneer of the operation was the company's Jorge Paredes, who now serves as Keany Kuts production manager. “He had a lot of experience with vegetables and precut,” says Rolander, a brother-in-law to the Keany family. “We got him some additional training and he took it from there, building up the fresh-cut operation. He's our pre-cut guru.

“Some of the best chefs in our area will come out and work with Jorge to design a specialty cut just for them.”

The operation does regular and classic type cuts, as well as custom creations and blends. These are done by special automated cutting machines and by hand cutting. It also creates fruit and vegetable platters.

Keany Kuts was born out of a request by a customer who wanted to know if the company could send him pre-cut vegetables, Keany says.

Livestock feed

Disposing of the byproduct and wastes of the cutting operation, along with any “bad” produce, had been a challenge for the company. It was costly to haul this material to landfills.

One of Keany Produce's long-time customers suggested that it contact area farmers to see if they wanted the material for livestock feed. The company now has an arrangement with a pig and cattle farmer on Maryland's Eastern Shore.

The waste is pumped into a 28-foot Dorsey dump trailer with a hydraulic and hauled to the farmer every day, says Rolander, and “the animals love it. They've come to associate the noise of our delivery truck with food. As soon as they hear our truck, they start squealing and mooing, and begin moving to the feed troughs where we unload.

“It's a very cost effective and environmentally friendly way for us to get rid of our waste.”

Kitchen staples

Another business adjunct that came about by customer request, Keany says, is the delivering of kitchen staples.

“Because we deliver perishable products six days a week, we've become a conduit for other companies that handle perishables that want to get away from the smaller deliveries. They would rather consolidate and partner with us to handle their smaller accounts.”

As a result, Keany Produce is now handling such additional products as eggs, juice, milk, bottled water, cider, pickles, and sour cream.

Fully refrigerated

The company's completely temperature-controlled warehouse has an entire racking system for all incoming product. There are 35 dock doors - 21 for shipping, 14 for receiving. There are about 80 warehouse personnel.

All incoming products are received according to strict Produce Marketing Association guidelines, Rolander points out, and thoroughly inspected for quality, temperature, tampering, and pest control. In addition, the inventory is regularly inspected to ensure freshness and date rotation. Inventory is turned three times per week.

The facility has a railroad siding and two railcar doors, situated so that two railcars can be unloaded at once. Keany Produce receives potatoes and onions by rail.

Order processing

Keany Produce uses a computerized inventory management program with a paper-based order picking operation. Selectors are assigned to delivery routes. All pallet jacks and lift trucks are electric and battery powered.

The company is in the process of implementing a radio frequency (RF) and barcoding system to expedite the order-picking process, maximize operating efficiencies, and reduce errors, says Rolander. “With our current system, we have about a 96% order fill accuracy rate.

To best accommodate customers, Keany Produce has a generous cut-off time of 10 pm for placing orders for next-morning delivery. It recently installed a new computer system that automatically enters and routes each order when placed. The system makes real-time adjustments to inventory to enable reliable forecasting and complete order fulfillment.

Order picking starts in the early afternoon, with truck loading starting around 6 pm. A little later, the piece, package, and pound picking begins with a crew of about 30 people. These are special orders for particular long-time customers.

Delivery challenges

Keany Produce's delivery fleet of 117 straight trucks starts routes around 5:30 am. If the trucks aren't out by then, “we're backstroking the entire day,” says Keany.

“We have serious traffic congestion problems in the Washington metropolitan area, and in the northern Virginia region close to DC, Rolander adds. Keany Produce is about 15 miles from the center of DC, close to the Capital Beltway (Interstate I-495) that encircles the nation's capitol.

The company's 125 drivers are assigned to trucks and standard routes (where a truck runs the same route each day). “We've found assigning drivers to routes helps speed up deliveries as drivers get to know their customers and where they want their products placed.

“There is a tremendous value to the relationship our drivers have developed with customers because of the friendship and trust that has been built up.”

Drivers are compensated through a compilation of many different plans - by the piece, hourly, daily rates for the drivers, and routes, says Rolander. “Each plan is designed to increase the driver's earning potential by having him work smarter. We are constantly reviewing these plans.”

Routes are fairly well established, and all trucks return daily. Some trucks are used for a second route. For the most part, deliveries, which average about 20 to 25 stops per route, require hand-trucking in.

To facilitate deliveries, all cases in an order are stickered with the name of the customer and the product.

“We usually keep four of our trucks in reserve for the inevitable problems,” Rolander notes. “Plus, we loan our trucks to caterers and country clubs that have big events, and to customers that get into a bind, for example if they experience a prolonged power outage and need to store perishables.”

Straight trucks

Keany Produce is standardizing on non-CDL Sterling Acterra power units with Morgan 22-foot refrigerated bodies and Carrier Transicold refrigeration units. The most recent reefer unit purchases have been Supra 644 models.

The new Sterlings are similarly spec'd with a Cummins ISC 240-horsepower diesel engine, Allison World automatic transmission, and plenty of creature comforts. The Morgan bodies have a rollup rear door and a curbside swing door. All but eight of the trucks have a rear pullout safety walk ramp.

The eight trucks, used mainly for hotel dock drop deliveries, are outfitted with a Waltco 2,500-pound flipaway liftgate with a 42-inch-by-72-inch platform.

The company had run a mix of truck brands and was using straight trucks that required a commercial driver license. “When we started palletizing our loads, we didn't need such heavy trucks,” says Rolander.

It began switching from manual transmissions to automatics about nine years ago, he says, to help reduce maintenance problems and costs, and to make it easier on the driver.

The truck cabs had been painted white, but all new ones are being painted Irish green. All trucks have vinyl decals.

Tractor trailers

Keany Produce has four tractors and five trailers, each used on specific routes. The only sleeper is a 2006 Western Star tractor, outfitted with a 475-horsepower Caterpillar engine and Eaton Fuller 13-speed transmission.

The other tractors, all tandem-axle daycabs, are a 1999 International Eagle, 1998 Mack, and 2004 Sterling, all with 10-speed Eaton Fuller manual transmissions. The Sterling has a 435-horsepower MBE 4000 engine; the Mack a 427-horsepower E7 engine; and the International a 435-horsepower Cummins N14 Plus engine. The Mack tractor, which is used with the dump trailer, is outfitted with a Permco hydraulic PTO.

The company recently purchased a new 48-foot Utility single-temperature refrigerated trailer with a Carrier Transicold Ultra XL refrigeration unit. This is in addition to an older 48-foot Utility refrigerated trailer with a Thermo King reefer.

In addition to the dump trailer, two dry van trailers, also 48-footers, are used to shuttle pallets and deliver cardboard for recycling.

Delivery tools

Until about seven years ago, Keany Produce had two people who manually did the truck routing. “But with our steady growth,” explains Rolander, “this got too cumbersome, so we began looking for routing software” and settled on UPS Logistics Technologies' Roadnet system. “It's been a phenomenal daily routing tool that optimizes delivery routes, helping us increase efficiency and productivity.”

About four years ago, Keany Produce added Roadnet MobileCast to the Nextel Direct Connect, instant push-to-talk, mobile phones it issues to all drivers. The MobileCast bundles dispatch, tracking, and delivery management software functionality with Nextel phones using wireless data communications.

With MobileCast, daily route plans are downloaded into the phones each day, Rolander says. In addition to talking with drivers using the push-to-talk feature, the phones enables communication via two-way text messaging, and allows viewing truck movement in real time via GPS information.

“Our Nextel phones have a call alert feature that we use to let a driver know we need to reach him, or to warn him of a traffic problem or other situation.”

With the Roadnet and MobileCast systems, Keany Produce personnel can look at a computerized equipment map and see real-time location of trucks and can track drivers.

“This is a great benefit to our customers,” says Rolander. “If a customer wants to know when his delivery will arrive, we can look at the map in real time and tell him. Whereas before, if we needed to know where a driver was, or had to get a hold of him, we would start calling stops and inconvenience our customers, asking them to have our driver call in.”

Rolander runs a report each day of the previous day's routes. The systems flags, and shows at a glance, if there were any unplanned stops or route path deviations, and pinpoints where these occurred.

Route trucks are typically kept for about five years, accumulating about 300,000 miles. Bodies and refrigeration units are refurbished at that time, then put on new chassis, and used for another five years.

Hotshot delivery

Keany Produce has a second, separate trucking operation, called Keany Express, for hotshot deliveries. These are urgent orders, such as a last minute function or a banquet count increase, that need to be delivered as soon as possible.

The Keany Express fleet is made up of six Isuzu NQR trucks with 5.2-liter diesels and automatic transmissions. They have 14-foot Morgan refrigeration bodies and Carrier Transicold Supra 550 refrigeration units. Like the route trucks, the Keany Express trucks have a rollup rear door, curbside swing door, and pullout safety walk ramp in the rear.

“During our peak periods we'd rent small vans to supplement our transportation department,” remembers Rolander. “At times, our salespeople would use these to make deliveries. One day our sales manager, Roy Cargulio, jokingly said: ‘These deliveries aren't Federal Express, they're Keany Express.’ I liked the idea and ran with it.

Working in secrecy, Rolander bought a Ford E350 van chassis with 12-foot refrigerated body and decaled it with a motion type logo he came up, and Keany Express was born. “When I unveiled the truck, it was hugely well received. Our customer started asking for it by name.”

The operation, begun 11 years ago, has continued to grow. The hot shot trucks normally run 18 to 24 routes each day.

Keany Produce owns all trucks, which are washed every Sunday by an outside contractor. After completing their lifecycle, they are sold to used truck dealers.

It has an onsite three-bay maintenance shop that used to maintain a staff of service technicians. It now outsources all repair and maintenance work to a third-party that leases the shop.

“We're in the produce business, and as our business grew, we decided we needed to focus more attention on managing the company rather than on truck servicing,” says Rolander.

Safety programs

Keany Produce has been using Driver's Alert fleet safety and vehicle monitoring system for about 20 years. “It's a safety tool that works very, very well,” says Rolander. “We get calls to bring things to our attention, but in equal volume, we get calls to compliment our drivers.”

Drivers who receive a compliment get a gift certificate to one of the restaurants Keany Produce delivers to as kudos for their efforts.

With Driver's Alert, each vehicle is given a unique “how's my driving” decal number with a toll-free number for motorists to phone in complaints or compliments about driver safety, Rolander explains. Operators take the call, create a report, and send it to the fleet.

The monitoring system “is really nice because it develops a history per route per driver that we use for annual driver reviews.”

After running millions of miles each year, the company has an outstanding safety.

“After 9/11 the insurance market got very strict and rates went up significantly,” he explains. “We responded, overhauling our safety program and developing a very comprehensive one that both penalizes and rewards our drivers. The program has paid huge dividends.

“Ever year since we've implemented that program, we've trended downward in frequency of accidents and in insurance premium reductions. If you put the effort into safety, you can realize significant savings.”

When it comes to hiring drivers, Keany Produce looks for candidates with verifiable years of experience behind the wheel, a good safety record, pristine driving record, solid work ethic, and compatibility to the company's culture. Produce experience is not a prerequisite as the company has an extensive training program.

The company looks for many of these same qualities and qualifications when hiring personnel for the warehouse and processing operation. Employee turnover is low, and opportunity for growth is available in managerial positions.

Food safety has always been the highest priority at Keany Produce, stresses Keany, and the company is vigilant about keeping employees focused on food safety. Comprehensive food safety and handling is a large part of the orientation and training for all employees.

It has meticulous food handling practices and food safety standards, based on Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP), a systematic preventive approach to food safety.

The future

Looking ahead, Keany Produce's “greatest challenge is to keep improving our efficiencies in all aspects of our operation because of the increased costs of doing business, especially with fuel and labor,” says Rolander.

“We also have to continue to focus on satisfying customers and our employees, who are on the front lines. It can take years to get a customer on board, and just a few seconds for a bad employee to lose a customer.”

Keany Produce remains a family-owned business, and all owners are hands on, actively involved in the operation day-to-day, adds Keany. This gives customers and employees the benefits of a stable operation and personalized service.

As the company goes forward, one thing will remain unchanged, he emphasizes, and that is “our commitment to excellence.”

About the Author

David Kolman

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