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Leap of Faith

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Toe-may-toe, toe-mah-toe; there may be different ways to say the name of this juicy vegetable, but there’s only one way to recognize a perfect piece of produce. And Randy Spoelstra knows the secret.

“Nobody can pick out perfect produce like Randy,” smiles his wife, Michelle, patting Randy’s knee lovingly.

It was Randy’s instinct for knowing how to choose top-of-the-line produce, a skill honed through his background in farming, coupled with Michelle’s business sense that lead the pair into a world not many people would even have considered. And for the past ten years the Spoelstras have been reaping rewards from the seeds they took a chance on sowing.

Alpha Wholesale Produce began operations in July 1999, providing central valley restaurants, schools, prisons, etc., with high-quality produce, dairy, and dessert products.

“I’m kinda like a ‘personal shopper’ for our clients,” Randy explains. “I find out what they need, look for it, make sure I get the best out there, and deliver it right away.”

A niche most personal shoppers wouldn’t even think about, but considering that sales grew by more than 100 percent in just the first year, one that needed to be filled. And all thanks to an “ah-ha” moment that established the roots for Alpha Wholesale Produce.

“You know, it’s a really great story how we got into this business,” says Michelle excitedly. “We were in Santa Barbara visiting one of our dear friends, Julian Nafal, who’s very eccentric, by the way, and talking about what we were going to do with our life. We knew whatever business we were going to go into would have to be in Bakersfield because Randy’s oldest daughter was in high school and we didn’t want to move her; we just weren’t sure what direction we were going to go. All of the sudden Julian jumps up, points at me, and says ‘business!’ then points at Randy and says ‘farmer!’ claps his hands and says ‘produce sales!’

“Randy and I looked at each other and thought ‘Julian just might have something here.’ We started praying about it. I mean I did have the contacts through my days in radio advertising and Randy did have a strong background in farming—and could pick out a great head of lettuce like nobody’s business. So we decided to just go for it.” But “going for it” meant taking a pretty big risk.

“Starting the wholesale produce business meant that neither one of us would have a ‘steady’ job with income we knew would be there to pay the bills,” Randy points out.

Daughters

“Plus, I was pregnant with our oldest daughter, Grace [now eight],” Michelle continues. “So yes, it was a big leap of faith, but we decided that we’d rely on faith and follow this vision. We both had a core feeling that this would work.”

The Spoelstra home was shortly turned into “command central,” complete with a large Gibbs truck parked in front (“We had some very understanding neighbors,” Michelle adds), and Michelle working to build the Alpha Wholesale clientèle.

“I have to admit that I didn’t hesitate to use my condition to make a sale,” Michelle laughs. “I had no reservations in saying things like ‘if you don’t buy from us, we’re not going to be able to feed this baby.’ ”

And while Michelle (and Grace) was out pounding the pavement to build a customer base, Randy was busy laying the groundwork for the operations of the fledgling business.

“Randy would get up around 10 p.m., eat, get dressed, then drive down to L.A. so he could be there as soon as the trucks rolled into the market,” Michelle begins.

“I wanted to get there first thing so I could get the best produce,” Randy interjects.

“Then he’d drive back, get into town around 6 a.m., make the deliveries, then come home around 1 p.m. and help me do the pricing and invoices. He got maybe four hours of sleep a night and we hardly ever saw each other. That’s another big risk we took to start this business,” Michelle says.

After two years of this grueling schedule, Alpha Wholesale Produce had grown enough so Randy didn’t have to make the daily trek to L.A. And what started out as a two-person business out of a living room quickly sprouted into a thriving 21-employee company with offices in the former Dole warehouse off of Snow Road.

Looking back at what it was like during that start-up period, Michelle and Randy agree that God was definitely on their side. Money wasn’t exactly rolling in and funding the company in the beginning was a bit tricky.

“When we first talked to a local banker about a small business loan, she was really excited. But the ‘powers that be’ weren’t quite as excited and turned us down saying that we had to be in business for at least two years before they could loan us money,” Michelle recalls.

“We ended up having to finance ourselves by maxing out our credit cards,” Randy says.

“Talk about taking a risk!” Michelle chuckles.

“Having kids [their second child, Gabrielle, was born in 2003] made Randy and me want to have more, to be able to offer more; give more to our children. We want Grace and Gabby to have a place. I mean, if it were just Randy and me we could be happy living in a hut in Hawaii. But our life is here; our life is our family, our business, and it’s ours. Nothing is more satisfying than creating something that’s yours. You have to think, what is my goal in life? What do I want to do? Fear of failure shouldn’t stop you. If you fail, oh well—at least you tried. And you can always pick yourself up and try something else.”

And though building Alpha Wholesale was something they were committed to and wanted to do, Randy still has moments of anxiety.

“The worst part is the fact that you have all the responsibility for everyone else’s lives. We have to be successful because I don’t want our employees to lose their jobs.”

Michelle nods emphatically. “That’s what I like best about this place—everybody really cares. And Randy and I feel so blessed that we have wonderful employees that take ownership in our company so when we grow, we want everyone to benefit.”

“It’s important that they’re [Alpha Wholesale employees] happy because relationships are what make a company successful,” Randy adds.

“It’s crucial that we have good relationships with the farming vendors,” Randy explains, “because our strong relationship means they know the kind of quality I’m looking for. I’m not going to give our customers sub-standard product.

“We are very service-oriented. As our client’s ‘personal shopper,’ I’ve learned what they need, and I get it to them quickly.”

And because Alpha Wholesale will sell no tomato after its time, the clock is always ticking.

“Our products are perishable so shelf-life is what it’s all about in our business. I’ve got to get it as soon as it comes out of the fields and then get it right to the client,” Randy says.

But customer service doesn’t end when a delivery is made, Michelle is quick to point out.

“We train our clients, educating them on how important rotation is,” she says.

“We’ll even do the rotation ourselves,” Randy notes. “Our drivers will pull food off the rack as they are putting the fresh food on the shelf.”

It’s this dedication to customer service Michelle feels gives Alpha Wholesale a real edge in this challenging economy.

“I think we’re here to celebrate our tenth year in business this July—and our best year ever, by the way—because we’ve learned so much along the way; how to take care of our customers, and our employees. And we’re not afraid to ask for help when we feel like we’re in unknown territory.”

“We recognize that we’re not good at everything,” Randy continues, “and we’re not afraid to ask for ideas from friends so we can take it to the next level.”

And though taking it to the next level may seem a Herculean task in this day and age, the Spoelstras aren’t backing down.“It’s been so exciting and our life has been so great!” Michelle says, eyes glowing with exhilaration. “And women will appreciate this, if I can nurse a baby with one hand while making phone calls with the other, and build a company while my baby sleeps in my desk drawer, what’s a little downturn in the economy?”

Article appeared in our 26-1 Issue - April 2009