San Francisco’s Veritable Vegetable Baked Its Values Into Its DNA
“We’re focused on changing the face of the industry by leading by example.”
Organic produce distributor Veritable Vegetable is built from radical roots. Formed in the Bay Area in 1974 during an era when food-buying clubs were first being established, Veritable Vegetable focused on getting good food from trusted sources, paying people fairly along the supply chain, and selling at affordable prices. “Veritable Vegetable stepped in as the distributor, the link between farmers and the buying clubs,” says Nicole Mason, director of community engagement at the B Corp. “We have changed a lot in 43 years, but the commitment to support small and mid-sized farms has never wavered. We’ve always worked to create a democratic workplace with gender and pay equity. We’re really being true to how we started.”
The vast majority of the 300-plus farms Veritable Vegetable works with remain those small (fewer than 50 acres) to mid-sized (50 to 300 acres) farms. While Veritable Vegetable also works with larger farms — including some of the biggest organic vegetable farms in the world — the company has remained committed to performing the necessary logistical dance of picking up from multiple shipping points and delivering to multiple customers, many of whom are small retail locations.
Veritable Vegetable is unique in the organic trade in other ways: A little more than half of the company’s employees are women, and 100 percent of its executive management and all of its owners are women. By comparison, in a 2013 look at the trucking industry, 200,000 of the more than 3 million truck drivers were women, a figure that represented a 50 percent increase since 2005. And in 2017, when Fortune Magazine released its Fortune 500 list, only 32 of the companies, or 6.4 percent, were run by female CEOs.
Veritable Vegetable’s values have not developed by chance. From owning their own fleet to remain nimble enough to meet the needs of multiple, smaller suppliers and their more than 500 customers to developing robust hiring and training programs to increase and maintain a diverse workforce, Veritable Vegetable has been thoughtful in how it built its business. By certifying as a B Corp and completing the legal steps to become a California benefit corporation, Veritable Vegetable’s values are built into the company’s operating procedures, employee handbooks and bylaws. Its mission is baked into the company’s DNA.
Benefit corporations like Veritable Vegetable are redefining the corporation to legally balance purpose and profit. Learn more.
We spoke with Mason to learn more about how Veritable Vegetable is bringing its values forward after nearly half a century of operations and growth, and how the company is working to provide opportunities for women at all levels of the company’s operations even as it grows its workforce.
What practices have you implemented to encourage women to work with Veritable Vegetable, despite operating in a male-dominated industry?
Veritable Vegetable honors and respects all staff and concentrates on providing access and training to women in many work applications, including hands-on highly physical work, like driving heavy equipment, managing operational and IT systems, and sitting in leadership positions. There is a real effort to bring, oftentimes, women into roles that are traditionally held by men. At a lot of companies, they want to hire drivers who already have experience with warehousing, for example. We don’t necessarily require that. We have a robust training program and bring people into the fold that way.
Today, Our IT manager is a woman, our trucking manager is a woman, our warehouse manager is a woman. Distribution is a very male-dominated industry, as is truck driving. I don’t think you can fall into what we’ve established — there must be some intention around it. If you’re only going to hire people who have experience, then you’re going to look like the rest of the industry.
Why did you pursue B Corp certification?
We are thought leaders and industry leaders, and we have been out in front — from greening our truck fleet, to paying a livable wage with excellent health insurance, to installing solar panels on our warehouse. We don’t wait for shifts in thinking or for regulation change to do something. When the B Corp certification got off the ground, it was a great way to demonstrate our values publicly. We also appreciate that the verification process is completed by a third party. The certification provides us with another way people can recognize our social and environmental values at a quick glance.
We are always looking for ways to communicate our commitment to sustainability and people. We put our B Corp logo all over our materials, on the sides of our trucks, and at the front desk — it is relatively new and we are surprised by how many people ask about it. It’s a certification that ties all of what we do with the farmers, the environment, and workers into one logo and assessment. The B Impact Assessment process has been good for us, because it has helped us in writing procedures, finding ways to truly measure our impact, and in honing our reporting.
Being a B Corp also makes us part of a network of other businesses trying to demonstrate those commitments as well. We can find anything from office products to t-shirts for schwag through the network of other companies that we can work with because of being a B Corp. We have stringent procurement policies, and it helps us immensely to have more people who are in line with our values to work with. The other benefit is the intangible part of joining a network — the, what I call, “rah-rah” part, where we realize we aren’t alone in how we operate. The B Corp community is especially refreshing because it’s not specifically food focused — we aren’t spinning around with the same farmers, distributors, co-ops, we are usually in conversation with. We are happy to be celebrating successes and being part of a broader movement that is really refreshing and invigorating.
What was the process to become a benefit corp and why did you pursue this step?
Becoming a benefit corporation was the obvious next step in terms of baking our commitments into the DNA of our business. Changing our bylaws, etc., so that no matter what happens with the future of the company, our commitments are unwavering. It’s like succession planning in the bylaws.
We had to do no convincing within the company leadership to make this choice. In terms of extra work — it wasn’t really that much. We had to bring in our lawyers and handle administrative details. We are putting together our second annual report, which is a good exercise in telling our story, finding areas to continue to improve and areas where we are succeeding.
In your work as a distributor, what advice do you have for burgeoning food hubs and independent distributors as they get started?
We mentor food hubs and invite them to come to our facility for training and interaction with our different departments. We have been connected with the Wallace Center for Sustainable Agriculture, who are doing a lot of market-based change initiatives, specifically around food hubs. First, the thing we all know about food and agriculture, is it requires a local solution: What makes sense in Kansas isn’t always what makes sense in Watsonville.
In working with others, we get quickly to the values piece: How are you going to set things up to pay farmers and staff fairly? How does that result on the other side — you won’t necessarily be the cheapest wholesaler on the market because you will charge what’s fair. We talk a lot about our environmental efforts and how to be mindful about how you move food from point A to point B, what kind of trucks and fuel you are using, what technologies you are using. We also have experience with bootstrapping and working without a lot of capital, so we help others ask: How are you going to use your equipment; what are inexpensive things you can do to run more efficiently?
We recommend looking to find ways to be recognized for your efforts in a more public arena, like how we are a B Corp and we also just became a San Francisco Green Business. These things help put you on the map so to speak and help potential suppliers and customers find you in new ways.
What’s next for Veritable Vegetable?
We have been at about the $50 million mark in revenue for a handful of years now, and the last couple of years have been a wild ride. Brick-and-mortar stores are starting online apps and increasing their online sales. Online sites, such as Amazon, are acquiring brick-and-mortar stores, like Whole Foods. We sell mainly to retail stores, so we’re seeing a lot of change.
Though produce sales are increasing all over the U.S. and here in California, we’re seeing a lot more competition, as huge retailers sell more organic produce. We’re seeing massive consolidation on both the grower and retailer side, and as a result, the cost of goods for certain products is decreasing.
We remain agile and we’ve seen other times in our history where things have been turned on their heads, but we’re adjusting to the changing landscape. We aren’t fully sure yet where things are headed, but we know across the country, independent wholesalers are seeing these trends. Everyone is doubling down and trying to be efficient and agile, and we are all watching the industry right now.
For us, we’re being clear about how we operate our business and we are figuring out new ways to communicate about our unique model. We are getting better about how we tell our story. There aren’t many companies in our part of the industry that are as committed as Veritable is to these values. I personally feel very lucky to be part of a team with such integrity.
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