Driscoll’s Delivers ‘Only the Finest Berries’ by Remaining Innovative
Driscoll’s works with independent growers around the world to deliver strawberries, raspberries, blackberries and blueberries.
For more than a century, Driscoll’s has grown “Only the Finest Berries™” to continuously achieve its mission of delighting consumers. “We have to always remember that the only reason this fruit exists is for the sheer pleasure of eating it,” Chairman J. Miles Reiter says. “That’s why we exist as berry growers, so we have to give absolute priority to eating quality.”
Driscoll’s passion for great-tasting berries dates back to 1904 when friends and brothers-in-law Joseph “Ed” Reiter and Richard “Dick” Driscoll began production of the delicious “Sweet Briar” strawberries in California’s Pajaro Valley. More than 30 years later, Reiter and his son, Joe Reiter, along with Earl Goldsmith, began producing raspberries on a small farm in California’s Santa Clara Valley.
In the 1940s, brothers Robert and Terry Sheehy became Driscoll’s first independent growers in Santa Maria, Calif. At this time, Ned and Donald Driscoll, Kenneth Sheehy, T.B. Porter, M.W. Johnson and Joe Reiter founded The Strawberry Institute. The group dedicated itself to researching and breeding superior varieties of strawberries.
By 1950, Driscoll Strawberry Associates Inc. was founded to sell premium, fresh, California strawberries. In 1958, the first patented strawberry variety, Z5A, extended the season and allowed the fruit to be shipped long distances. This variety established Driscoll’s as the fresh berry leader, the company says.
Winning with Flavor
Today, Driscoll’s works with independent growers around the world to deliver strawberries, raspberries, blackberries and blueberries. Strictly a fresh fruit company, Watsonville, Calif.-based Driscoll’s berries are grown in more than 20 countries on five continents. The company also offers certified organic berries in partnership with its independent organic farmers on USDA certified organic farms.
Driscoll’s new Limited Edition Sweetest Batch™ berries offer limitless flavor. “The Limited Edition Sweetest Batch™ berries are those that genetically offer a heightened level of flavor and appearance,” Vice President of Logistics Tom Shepherd says. “These berries are the best of the best in the category. I recently had the opportunity to try the Limited Edition Sweetest Batch™ Blueberries and they are phenomenal. Driscoll’s is excited about the opportunities ahead of us with our premium offerings and there will be more to come.”
Driscoll’s dedicated R&D group tests thousands of varieties of all four berries to identify a small handful of offerings that will eventually make their way to the table of consumers. “It is unusual in our industry to commit as much as we do to R&D,” says Miles Reiter. “The basis for founding Driscoll’s was to develop new, better proprietary varieties exclusive to our network of independent growers. That’s why the first group of farmers got together — my father was one of them — and created this company to do that.”
The company’s patented berry varieties are primarily developed through years of research, using only natural breeding methods. Its berries are grown with great care by its farmers, hand-picked, then carefully packed in the field to ship, ensuring freshness and quality. “In many respects we are a genetics company,” Shepherd says. “We have a primary focus on developing our own genetics and types of berries, which are differentiated in the market.”
By developing and growing its own berry varieties, Driscoll’s has become a market leader and serves more than 350 million consumers. “In the produce world, we operate in a heavily commoditized environment. When consumers buy produce at the retailers, there are only a few fruits and vegetables that have strong brand recognition,” Shepherd explains. “We are fortunate that consumers recognize Driscoll’s packaging and our berries as being a premium variety and option for them. Being a market leader is something we don’t take lightly. It’s a huge responsibility and helps fuel our passion.”
Shepherd oversees the distribution and transportation for Driscoll’s of the Americas (DOTA), which includes the United States, Canada, Mexico, Chile and Peru. “Within distribution and transportation, our team is responsible for the receipt of the fruit that comes in from our growers and then cooling and inventory. We are responsible for the cold chain, which includes cooling, storage, shipping and the transportation of the fruit to our customers.”
Driscoll’s contracts with independent growers in 22 countries. The company owns land solely for test plots and nursery locations. The distribution team is integrally involved with warehousing Driscoll’s plants and distributing them amongst the growers. The growers are responsible for harvesting. Driscoll’s then takes over again upon receipt of the berries to oversee cooling, handling, packaging and distributing the fruit.
“Our cooler and distribution teams have to be pretty nimble to be able to seasonally respond and react to completely different business models,” Shepherd explains. “We store, handle and ship the fruit, but we also store the plant roots prior to distribution to the growers. Our objective is to receive the berries, cool and ship them as rapidly as possible. It’s all about time and temperature for our berries because unlike bananas or avocados that might get picked before they are ripe, our berries are picked at the peak of perfection and ripeness. We are on the clock to get our product into the consumers’ hands as quickly as possible.”
Redefining the Cold Chain
Over the past six years, Driscoll’s has had a significant focus on improving its cold chain. Historically, the company would monitor the transport of its fruit from the source to the customer by using temperature monitors that were evaluated upon arrival. “A temperature variance creates the risk of a rejection. This disruption results in creating unhappy customers and consumers,” Shepherd says. “We worked with Locus Traxx sensors to introduce a new monitor that proactively transmits location and temperature electronically in transit, enabling us to quickly respond to protect our berries.”
Driscoll’s also incorporated additional security to its product in transit, which is transported by a number of logistics providers. “We incorporated light sensors in the trucks so if the doors open and it senses light, we can get an alert the load has been tampered with and reach out to the driver immediately to figure out what’s going on,” Shepherd says.
The sensors are about the size of a deck of cards and go on top of the load. “The nice thing about it is it’s agnostic,” Shepherd says. “We don’t have to rely on a certain carrier, the equipment they have or where they are located. We put the sensors on the trailer and get the information we need.”
By equipping the trucks with temperature and light sensors, Driscoll’s can proactively monitor every shipment globally. “We have two screens here in our office that we track trailers on and it’s on 24 hours a day,” Shepherd says. “We are able to see loads progress across the United States to the East Coast and get an alert if they aren’t running on time, as well as see what the temperature is and get an alert if the temperature moves out of our tolerance range.”
The sensor technology has allowed Driscoll’s to improve its communication with its customers and has dramatically decreased the number of claims. Over the past five to six years, Driscoll’s has seen an 80-plus percent reduction in temperature claims with the trucks it manages.
The company now oversees about 50 percent of all the fruit shipped from Driscoll’s coming out of Mexico and the United States. “We were in the single digits of the percentage of loads we managed versus the loads our customers managed nine years ago,” Shepherd notes. “Managing 50 percent now has been a huge win for us.”
Mexico is an emerging market for Driscoll’s, which manages 100 percent of the shipments going directly to customers in the country. “We manage the shipments where it makes sense for our customers and for Driscoll’s,” Shepherd adds. “There are certain occasions where it won’t make sense; we want to make sure it’s viewed as a positive move for our customers.”
Food safety is a critical area of focus for Driscoll’s distribution and transportation team, especially with the fruit it has coming out of Mexico. “We have a large presence in Mexico starting in late August through May and even June,” Shepherd says. “Mexico is an area that is central right now to Driscoll’s growth within DOTA, so we work closely with the Customs-Trade Partnership Against Terrorism (C-TPAT) organization and are a Tier III participant.”
The Locus Traxx sensors are a critical part of every shipment coming from Mexico because its carriers are required to do incrementally more than the U.S. carriers from a food safety and security standpoint because of the microscope they are under throughout the process of transporting fruit and vegetables to the United States. “We have exceptional carriers in Mexico that do a fabulous job for Driscoll’s,” Shepherd says. “They impress me every time I go visit them because the facilities are impeccable. We have a very solid group of carriers who have been instrumental in us being able to achieve Tier III status, as well as providing us a level of service that enables us to continue to grow in Mexico.”
With its Tier III status, Driscoll’s carriers have access to special lanes when crossing the border so it is not subjected to the same level of inspection that some non-C-TPAT participants would be. “When we have an inspection, it can involve emptying out a trailer and in a less than ideal non-refrigerated environment,” Shepherd explains. “We work diligently to make sure we have everything we need to be compliant, which includes individual onsite audits of each of the carriers that we work with. We execute audits at least every season if not several times during the season to ensure our carriers are compliant.”
Although the company does annual RFPs for carriers in Canada and Mexico, its partners change very little. As the company grows and as it needs additional capacity, Driscoll’s will seasonally add a new carrier or two.
Warehouse Management System
Driscoll’s warehouse network includes its own coolers, third-party contracted coolers, grower-owned coolers, packaging facilities and nurseries. The company has more than 40 physical sites in the United States, Mexico and Chile for fruit packaging, as well as numerous virtual sites. For the past year-and-a-half, Driscoll’s has been working with JDA Software to design and develop its new warehouse management system.
In September, Driscoll’s went live with the new system in its Santa Maria, Calif., facility and over the next eight to nine months will go live in another four locations.
“The idea behind the new warehouse management system is to create a better experience for our customers, to be able to receive and load trucks more accurately and improve order fill numbers,” Shepherd says. “We want to have that cascade to our customers to get trucks in and out more quickly to ensure our consumers get fresher fruit. The growers will see operational improvements related to plant and fruit distribution and issuance of packing materials. There will be important financial benefits, as well. We have a lot of excitement around the system as our operating platform for the future.”
Several key factors went into the success of implementing the new warehouse management system. Driscoll’s has a lot of homegrown systems that in the past have made this kind of implementation difficult as it attempts to “Driscoll’s-ize” the platforms into what it needs.
However, because JDA has a global industry reputation as the go-to provider for this type of platform, the company recognized it had the best of breed with their software. “We looked at what they had to bring to us and determined what we had to do on our end to modify what we are doing to make this work.”
Rather than doing one large rollout of the system to all its locations, Driscoll’s recognized that going live site by site would allow it to work out any kinks on a smaller scale, lessening the risk of difficulty to continue moving berries through its network. “We have to keep our existing system running while the new WMS is launched,” Shepherd explains. “As new sites go live, both systems are running in parallel, which required a significant amount of energy to plan and test prior to the system launch.”
Driscoll’s also had to implement and provide for a stable and scalable integration layer. The company partnered with San Francisco-based MuleSoft, a software company that provides integration software for connecting applications, data and devices, to more efficiently integrate with JDA. “As we build out our digital strategy the MuleSoft integration layer will be an enabling factor to our success,” Shepherd adds.
The final stage was a significant amount of testing and validation of the touchpoints within Driscoll’s. “This really has been quite a journey,” Shepherd says. “What’s excited me though has been the quality of work within our teams – IT, business teams and all of the associated departments in the organization. After a year and nine months, the level of excitement and energy around this go live is impressive.”
Driscoll’s launch will extend into next year as it plans to finalize this first phase by going live at one site in Mexico and at one of its nursery sites prior to next summer.
After getting these initial sites up and running, the company will evaluate its strategy for bringing the balance online to move as quickly as it can. The company expects sufficient momentum coming out of its first four initial sites to drive the implementation forward at a much faster pace.
“After we go live in Mexico at the end of the spring, we want to evaluate the opportunity to go live at the remaining sites as they come online next season,” Shepherd says. “There’s about a week or so gap between a number of the sites in Mexico, and if we can approach Mexico with a modified ‘big bang’ next year, that would be a goal for us right now.”
As a multi-generational, family-owned company, Driscoll’s defines sustainability as “meeting our present needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs.” The company sees economic performance as inseparable from social and environmental performance. This concept is referred to as the Triple Bottom Line. Driscoll’s three critical focus areas for the future relate to water, land and labor.
Water conservation and improving water quality is Driscoll’s first sustainability priority. Water is a critical resource for residents and industry, especially for agriculture, yet many places face critical water quality and supply issues.
“The availability of good, clean water is something we are very sensitive to,” Shepherd says. “We are continually looking at and evaluating how we water our plants, how much moisture they need and the genetics, as well. We look at how much water they need, how best to plant, space and monitor how our plants are being fed.”
Driscoll’s independent growers diligently try to irrigate to crop need in order to make sure they are being efficient and effective in growing delightful berries. The company is harnessing the power of innovation and technology via soil moisture sensors, real-time water use tracking and remote sensing to help create a sustainable future for agriculture.
Land is a precious resource for the company as its fruits can only be grown in specific locations and climates. The ideal environment includes a lot of areas in California, but as the population grows, the land is getting squeezed and is a constant consideration.
With operations on five continents, Driscoll’s and its independent grower base employs more than 115,000 farm workers who pick and package its berries. All berries are hand-harvested. There are only two people who touch Driscoll’s berries: the harvester and the consumer.
“Our crop is quite different than say the corn or wheat business where technology has gotten to the point where you only need a handful of people to manage hundreds of acres,” Shepherd explains. “We are still a very manual process and have a tremendous amount of seasoned, very highly qualified people who are involved in harvesting every day. For a lot of reasons — such as immigration and cost of labor — we need to understand and be looking at how we address and stay ahead of this to avoid letting cost be an overall detriment to our long-term growth.”
Driscoll’s is considering different harvest options that will enable it to be efficient and optimized with the labor it has, making picking in the field more attractive than it has been in the past. “There is a lot of effort being done on that front and there are different options we can employ to improve that,” Shepherd says. “Whether it makes sense to transition and do more from a bulk standpoint or reimagining our packing options inside of the four walls of a cooler versus packing in the field. We are evaluating it all.”
Automation is a major discussion point when it comes to harvesting options. Driscoll’s minimizes the number of times the fruit is handled because it deals with berries that are fully ripe by the time it receives them, and the company doesn’t want anything to impact its quality to consumers and customers. “We are looking at ways to automate within our coolers and there will be an evolution,” Shepherd says. “The component that makes this challenging is the seasonality of our facilities. Automation that we develop must work in a facility that’s open seven months or less. Taking advantage of the economics of automation is much easier when you operate year-round.”
As the company looks to the future of harvesting and its unique challenges, Shepherd says there is an opportunity to imagine something completely new to the industry.
“It requires a different level of resourcefulness and imagining what doesn’t currently exist,” he adds. “We want to come up with something new that we can look back on and say, ‘This was a game-changer.’”
An additional focus of Driscoll’s is its packaging and the use of plastics and sustainability. The company’s berries are packaged in a plastic container with its signature yellow label. “We don’t want to be trailing in that discussion,” Shepherd says. “There is a lot of work being done now to evaluation options and understand what opportunity we have to transition in a meaningful and serious way to make sure we are doing our part.”
Living Up to Expectations
At Driscoll’s, the passion for growing berries is contagious. That passion starts with the family and ownership, and trickles down to the service providers, growers and customers to provide Only the Finest Berries to consumers. Some years ago, Driscoll’s had a very fragmented group of carriers and service providers in both Mexico and the United States. Over the years, it has been able to pull together a cohesive group. For example, when a truck broke down in transit, a competitor company stopped to help the driver and transport the fruit to the customer because it was a Driscoll’s load. “We developed carrier recognition events and hosts a logistics conference and awards ceremony every other year to acknowledge and honor those carriers and providers who have provided Driscoll’s with exceptional service,” Shepherd notes.
Shepherd’s distribution and transportation team oversees exporting fruit every day, which must be handled much differently than fruit sold domestically. Several years ago, Shepherd had the opportunity to make several trips to Europe with its carriers to determine why there were temperature issues in transit overseas. He didn’t get anywhere and traveled to Los Angeles to meet with DHL and Able Freight — which handles a large percentage of its exported fruit — to climb onto a cargo 777 and meet with the pilot who flew for DHL to figure out why the temperature variance was happening.
“He invited me up to the cockpit and immediately thanked us, saying that Driscoll’s business is helping to put food on his family’s table,” Shepherd remembers. “I was so taken by that. He loves Driscoll’s and asked me what I was trying to achieve. I asked him how cold he could set the cargo area to get the optimum temperature — which should be just above freezing. He showed me the dials, explained what he could do and since that time, DHL has been consistently recognized as our top air carrier. The service DHL and Able Freight provide is exceptional and has set the benchmark for all other air carriers.”
Passion, humility and trustworthiness are core to the character of Driscoll’s and how its employees work and interact with each other, its customers, business partners and berry consumers. Shepherd has been with Driscoll’s for seven years, and says it is a privilege to be a part of the team. “It’s easy to be passionate and check your humility at the door, but it’s another thing to really be passionate and have an appropriate amount of humility,” he says. “We still want to learn and know we can be better. That passion is really around making sure through our varieties, service and commitment to flavor that we can live up to the expectations of our customers and consumers with every berry they purchase and enjoy.”
Sidebar: Joy Makers
Driscoll’s strawberries are firm, but not too crunchy. Its raspberries are sweet and juicy, but not mushy. The blackberries are huge, beautiful and burst in your mouth with juicy flavor, and its blueberries are flavorful, but not tart. These near perfect berries don’t happen by accident, the company says.
“Growing perfectly fresh, beautiful, delicious berries is as much of an art as it is a science,” Driscoll’s explains. “The ‘Joy Makers’ are the artists behind those berries. Working together as a team of agronomists, breeders, sensory analysts, plant health scientists and entomologists, the Joy Makers research and develop the very highest quality berries.”
The Joy Makers work with Mother Nature to develop the best berries possible using natural breeding processes such as hand cross-pollination — Driscoll’s berries are not genetically modified — to create patented varieties of berries. Cross-pollination is the transfer of pollen from one plant to another. The Joy Makers move the male pollen form one plant to the female part of a different plant, the pistil.
Cross-pollination allows two separate plants with desirable characteristics to parent potentially even better children plants. For example, if one blueberry plant is robust and capable of surviving in various climates, and another blueberry plant is bursting with flavor, the Joy Makers can take the pollen from the first plant and add it to the second plant. The results will be a plant that has the favorable characteristics of both parent plants.
“This allows Driscoll’s to discover new varieties of berries using the same natural breeding techniques employed by farmers for thousands of years,” the company says. “By using this natural method, Driscoll’s never needs to irradiate or genetically modify its plants.”
Sidebar: The Berry Life
It takes five to seven years to produce a berry variety that is ready for commercial production. Driscoll’s berries are taste tested, analyzed, placed in nurseries, stress tested, flavor tested again, checked for robustness and examined to ensure only the top-quality berries make it from the farm to the supermarket.
After the Joy Makers determine the best plants to grow by examining their genes and show signs of meeting Driscoll’s high standards, the plants go to a nursery to grow for a season. Of those, only the top one percent are chosen to move on to the next year for further analysis. After that, plants are moved onto the “time of planting trail” where berries will spend three years being tested in different plots. By the time a berry is released, it has usually been tasted several thousand times to ensure it meets Driscoll’s requirements.
The final stage is the “on the farm trial” where berries are tested in different climates for different types of growers. Driscoll’s also works with its pathology department to ensure plant health and to make sure that plants can grow in a variety of conditions. Only after passing these rigorous tests will a berry get a name and become a variety for purchase at the supermarket.
Sidebar: Growing Communities
Driscoll’s Giving program focuses on strategically investing in the communities where it grows, engaging employees in its vision of enriching lives and establishing relationships with the towns and cities it calls home. After Driscoll’s and non-profit leaders in the area agree on solutions that make progress on the identified needs of their communities, the non-profit submits a grant proposal. A charitable giving committee, which is comprised of a diverse set of representatives from across the country, reviews and approves strategic grants to fund for its non-profit partners.
After an agreed upon period of time, the project becomes self-sustaining. This ensures the longevity of impact and constant re-evaluation of the needs of the community over time. Since 2016, Driscoll’s has given more than $1.293 million in grants and supported over 400 organizations.
Driscoll’s employees around the world mobilize every day around causes that inspire them. Any group of three or more employees can form a volunteer team to benefit a non-profit. Driscoll’s then supports the employee teams by matching their donations of money and time. In 2018, Driscoll’s employees volunteered a total of 15,130 hours and Driscoll’s matched more than 300 employee donations.