The story of the Wood’s Produce Company, and its owner Mark Wood, exemplify the American Dream. Its motto: ‘Where Fresh Meets Friendly,” isn’t just a selling tactic. It’s a promise that began in 1987.
Before starting his own company, Wood said he became involved in the produce business after getting a job with Terry’s Produce & Plants. Wood recalled it was the mid-1970s, and he was in the 9th grade when he began working at the Terry family farm in Meadows of Dan.
“They paid me $2 an hour and fed me two meals a day,” he said. “They come and got me and brought me home at night.”
While there, Wood planted vegetables, pulled weeds, collected hay, and performed many other labor-intensive tasks.
“The grandfather had run a route and sold cabbage, like a lot of families up here for years and years. In the summer months, he’d go twice a week in a pickup truck” to run the route, delivering produce to stores and restaurants, Wood said.
After the grandfather had health issues, Wood started accompanying him on the weekly routes, delivering produce to customers. Eventually, Wood started delivering the vegetables by himself.
After graduating high school, Wood continued his work at Terry’s Produce, and even received a $1 per hour raise.
In the fall, as the crop season wound down, Wood said the customers expressed a desire for year-round deliveries. Shortly after, he learned about a wholesale produce store in Winston-Salem, N.C.
Wood decided to visit the wholesale store in North Carolina. Taking all of the money he had, Wood bought his first load of produce.
“I started up the road, and I’d just stop at stores and say, ‘got some stuff here. You need to buy anything?’ I sold out before I got home,” he said.
During the slow fall days on the farm, Wood said he continued that practice – buying produce and selling it wholesale to customers. “We started out on a pick-up truck, and we bought a Wise Potato Chip truck. I ran it until the wheels fell off of it,” he recalled.
Due to the popularity of his burgeoning business, Wood also wore out a farm truck. He talked someone with Terry’s Produce into cosigning for him to buy a new truck in 1986.
“Business was good. If I got a customer, they were a customer for life. Still to this day, I have all the same customers that I had in 1983 when I started,” he said.
When the Terry family decided to stop growing produce in 1987, Wood bought the company and changed its name to Wood’s Produce Company.
The company outgrew the warehouse it occupied on Virginia 614, and Wood said he was approached in 1999-2000 to buy a building on Cherry Creek Road in Meadows of Dan.
The building once housed a manufacturing facility, and as a result, Wood said it was retrofitted to accommodate his then 15-16 employees. Coolers were installed to store produce, and other changes were made as needed.
Overall, the building “was a good fit,” and a bonus was “it got us out on the main road, and all the trucks off of (Virginia) 614. It was getting complicated” for tractor trailers to navigate that small, secondary road, he said.
Since then, Wood’s company has drastically expanded-not only in floor space, but also its customer base. It delivers produce in five states, he said, adding that it is a secondary supplier to Walmart, school systems (including those in Patrick and Henry counties and in the City of Danville), as well as other wholesale operations.
For the last four years, the company has partnered with Food Lion on the Local Goodness Program to source quality, locally grown, affordable produce to its stores.
“We have 153 Food Lions that we deliver to three times a week, six-months out of the year. It’s quite an undertaking when you’re in Meadows of Dan,” he said, chuckling.
He noted that his company also is the only one that participates in Local Goodness Programs in two states.
Because he goes directly to the source when buying produce, smaller customers like ‘mom-and-pop’ restaurants are able to take advantage of the company’s buying volume.
And yes, “we still sell to smaller businesses. Profit wise, I would be better off to say ‘we’re just going to do the big guys,’ but there was a point in time that if I could sell you a half-a-case of lettuce and some bananas, that was a big deal to me,” Wood said.
The company handles more than 1,000 different products. During the winter months, the inventory is estimated at half-a-million dollars. “In the summer months, a lot of days it’s over $1 million in inventory that rots. So, we’re kind of playing with a ticking time bomb,” he said.
Food speculation, or betting on a food’s market value, is a big part of his job, Wood said. Because of the various factors that go into it, Wood is “constantly looking at the weather, and trying to read and figure out what these markets are going to do.”
For example, in February he noted that freezing temperatures were forecast in Arizona. As a result, “I’m loading an extra load of lettuce because I know that what I get this week will be better than what I get next week,” he said.
Much of the produce he works with changes seasonally; the vendor and grower rosters that Wood works with changes about every two months.
“We’ve probably got 30 to 40 growers that we work with in-season. As far as day to day, we deal with pretty much everyone in the industry,” including about 30 local growers within a 200-mile radius of Meadows of Dan, he said.
Since the start of 2020, Wood’s Produce has purchased goods from 279 different shippers.
Over the last few years, the company has averaged about 1,300 tractor trailer loads of produce coming in and going out each year, for an average of about 26 tractor trailer loads each week.
Wood is particularly proud of the quality of shipments. “We averaged one credit, or miss-ship, for every 511 cases. In our industry that is unheard of,” he said.
To ensure that everything is packed in individual orders, warehouse associates, or pickers, wear an arm scanner that lets them know the type and amount needed of each product. As items are for individual orders are collected and scanned, their arm devices inform them the next item on the order list.
Another source of pride is the work his employees did at the start of and during the COVID-19 pandemic, Wood said.
“During the COVID, it’s unbelievable what they did when it first hit to supply Wal-Mart and Food Lion. Most people would never believe how much stuff we sold because they couldn’t supply their own stores. My people worked around the clock,” he said.
Wood said 2020-21 also represented a dizzying time for the company.
“We were selling straight tractor trailer loads of yellow squash. Twenty-two pallets of squash at a time is a lot of squash,” he said.
Wood believes his company is unique because it does not have a sales person contacting companies to sell or ship produce.
“We get all our orders by phone. All of our business to date has been by word of mouth,” he said.
In addition to dealing with every major shipper in the United States directly, Wood’s Produce also works with shippers in Canada and Mexico.
In fact, one thing that is unique about the company is how it handles a situation if a shipper has a problem.
“If a shipper will have a turned down load, a pallet’s turned over, or something, we take that product in rework it. Sometimes we redeliver it, or we sell it for the shipper,” he said, adding the company is “on everyone’s speed dial if they have a problem.”
In addition to pickers, Wood’s Produce also has a full-time food safety employee to ensure the produce it handles meet Safe Quality Foods (SQF) criteria. “We’re judged on the same criteria as pharmaceutical companies and all of your major food manufactures,” he said.
To be a Wal-Mart or Food Lion vendor, Wood said a company must maintain this level of SQF quality. “We were one of the first companies in the state of Virginia to have SQF,” he said.
Since the company began about 36 years ago, it has grown into a large-scale family business. His son, Jonathan Wood, has joined the family business, and Wood hopes his granddaughter, Naomi, to follow suit when she grows up.
Many employees also are related. “We’ve had brothers and nephews. I don’t know how many husbands and wives I have working here, and I’m proud of that,” he said.
Since he bought the current building, Wood has built onto it twice to get it to the current 50,000 square-feet. The newest addition is a $2 million loading station that will allow more trucks to be loaded at once.
Years ago, Wood said then County Administrator Tom Rose said his company was one of the highest-paying employers in the county.
“We pay 80 percent of healthcare and have had a matching 401K for many years and we pay life insurance on all our guys and our ladies. Not many of my competitors do that. Almost none do,” he said.
Wood’s Produce currently has 55-60 employees during the peak summer months, including several that have been with the company for more than 20 years.
Wood said the company is also looking to hire more employees, particularly warehouse associates, mechanics, and truck drivers. Those interested in applying should send a resume to firstname.lastname@example.org. For more information, visit www.woodsproduce.com.