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Q & A with Dr. Henry Wainer

Monday, January 19, 2004

As a child, if Henry Wainer wanted to see his father, Sid, he had to go to work with him. So he did. When he graduated from Nichols College, Dudley, Mass., in 1972, he took over Sid Wainer & Son, New Bedford, Mass., becoming the third generation of his family to run the company.

He later got his doctorate from Johnson & Wales University, Providence, R.I. His grandfather Henry, started the company in 1914. With more than 400 employees, the specialty produce and foods company supplies more than 18,000 restaurants and food service companies in the U.S. with 1,500 produce stock-keeping units and 1,500 specialty food items from it’s warehouse. The business also has an affiliate company in London and will soon open one in Tokyo.

Wainer is passionate about sustainable agriculture, making sure large and small farmers are paid fairly for the items they grow for the company, which it markets under the Jansal Valley label. Wainer works with hundreds of growers all over the world and counts them as the secret of success.

At age 54, he and his wife, Marion, are raising their four children. Retirement is not in the foreseeable future as the oldest child just entered college.

So far, none of his kids are planning to become a fourth-generation business operator.

Q: What has your company accomplished in the past few years?

A: Four years ago we opened the Jansal Valley International Kitchen. It’s a demo kitchen with a formal dining room setting. From there we built a hospitality suite that holds 100 chefs. I have TV screens where we can sit 140 customers or chefs to critique what’s cooking. The kitchen is used by thousands of chefs every year. They come here and make the food of the future.

We also started out farm as an experimental farm two years ago on 23 acres. This week we are planting an inner-city (greenhouse) farm. We’re going to grow a lot of the sensitive products we have had a hard time getting in here in good shape, like varieties of greens, heirloom tomatoes, and figs. We had success planting artichokes this year. We thought we’d get a second generation from them.

Q: What trends do you see in the food industry?
A: The foodservice industry has been in such a massive consolidation of buying with the technology available now. A lot of hotels and groups have formed to create these monster buying powers, which have been good and bad. Good because I’m sure it’s gotten them good pricing. But bad because everybody can’t get the best of everything and have the size and quantity they want. I think that our niche is and has been that were always out to get the top 10% or 20% of what’s grown… You can’t buy 90% of the field and get the best 20%.

Q: What changes have you seen in the produce industry?
A: Kiwi was the beginning of specialty produce. But kiwi is such generic item now and fuji apples are generic, and now honey crisp apples are a hot commodity. The biggest changes have been the evolution of heirloom varieties of produce, and the produce industry/farmers have risen to take the challenge of (product) diversity to keep up with the consumers demands for new, healthy, innovative ideas.

Q: What one characteristic does it take to be a leader of a company?
A: Never take no for an answer.

Q: What has given you the most pleasure about your job?
A: Seeing this whole food world evolve (and) knowing that I’m a piece of it.

Q: What will technology allow in the future of produce?
A: I believe were just a short period away from taking a picture of someone climbing a tree and picking something we never knew existed and following that person through some technology in to the kitchen where they cook it and broadcast it so the world knows exactly what they did with it… I think there’s going to be no boundary to what were capable of doing.

Q: What food trend will influence the produce industry in the next few weeks?
A: Modern medicine and food safety. Food safety is creating this huge net to protect us, which is a great thing.
Medically, doctors are learning more and more about what we can eat and making better medicine for what ails us. We went through a time where cholesterol is a horrible thing. Now they have medications where you can keep your cholesterol down, so now all of a sudden you see the steakhouses are back. … We just went through this whole low-carb evolution. And it’s till in play. I think what’s going to be an offshoot of that is people are still going to want (food) diversity. That aren’t going to want to not be able to eat pizza or bread for the rest of their lives. … I think you’ll keep seeing these balances taking place between diet and the evolution of medicine.

Q: What’s your favorite vegetable?
A: I think it’s the artichoke, which has so much symbolism. It’s a sign of hospitality. They’re great to eat.

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