Meet Your Merchant: Habeger Produce Plus – steering the wheel for fresh, local produce
CARNELIAN BAY, Calif. – Ever sit down at a restaurant in North Lake Tahoe and wonder how far your produce traveled before making its way to the plate? In this interconnected world of cross-continent shipping, it’s a legitimate question to ask.
However, if you are dining at one of 82 restaurants on Bob Habeger’s list of clientele, you can grub responsibly knowing the produce made it to your plate within 36 hours and traveled less than 100 miles to get there.
“Everything we get from Bob is top notch – it’s locally sourced and it’s better for our business because it’s fresh, high quality produce and we know where it’s coming from,” said Ray Villaman, owner of Fireside Pizza at Squaw Valley and Rubicon Pizza at Northstar-at-Tahoe. “He puts a lot of effort into researching his product and at the end of the day, quality will always win.”
In 1992, Habeger’s career in sales abruptly came to a halt when the company decided to downsize and lay off some its highest paid employees.
Looking for a fresh idea, a family friend informed him of an opportunity to purchase a local produce supply company – an endeavor Habeger knew nothing about, but was eager to take on.
However, Produce Plus was purchased by local chef Larry Dunning before the Habeger family could throw their hat in the ring of potential buyers, but an itch for produce supply had started to develop in Habeger.
As the Habeger family began to build their own produce supply brand, Produce Plus once again became available for sale. Habeger and his wife, Vickie, quickly seized the opportunity to combine efforts, creating Habeger Produce Plus in early 1993.
“When we first started, we didn’t have much knowledge of produce, especially on the specialty side of things,” Habeger said during a crisp Saturday morning in Truckee while helping his crew transfer products for delivery. “With Larry’s help, he pretty much taught me everything I know about the specialty side of produce from a chef’s perspective and I think that’s what made us so successful early on.”
In the beginning, Habeger clocked hundreds of hours and miles in his station wagon, driving to the Sacramento foothills and back, and to local farmers markets in search of fresh, off-the-vine fruits and vegetables.
“I did all the ordering, driving and delivery during those first few years when we only had 12 clients,” Habeger said.
Through word, or rather taste-of-mouth, the client list quickly multiplied and today, Habeger Produce Plus services 82 restaurants in the North Lake Tahoe area, with a recent expansion to Reno and South Lake Tahoe.
The overnight growth of Produce Plus required Habeger to trade in his station wagon for some bigger wheels and the company now boasts a fleet of commercial trucks and a handful of loyal drivers that make the trip to Sacramento four days a week.
“Most of our drivers have been with us for years and they are like family to us,” Habeger said. “Nowadays, they know as much as I do about quality and they know what our chefs are looking for.”
Offering same-day delivery has set the produce supply company apart from competitors, but it’s the relationships Habeger has cultivated with farmers in the western Sierra foothills that has made him successful.
Del Rio Botanicals in Yolo County provides Habeger with a farm-to-the-table service where owner and botanist Suzanne Ashworth focuses on specialty, one-of-a-kind herbs and vegetables unique to specific restaurants.
“Suzanne is able to grow things that are restaurant exclusive, so if a chef wants to put an item on the menu that no one else has, she will grow it, pack it and we will deliver it within 36 hours after it’s been harvested,” Habeger said. “Having that option available has been a great opportunity for local chefs to expand their ideas.”
When the entrepreneurial father-of-three isn’t plugging away at produce orders and family matters, he’s focusing on his true passion – baseball.
Since 1976, Habeger has been extensively involved in Tahoe’s legendary baseball and fast-pitch softball scene as head coach at North Tahoe High School and manager of the Tahoe Twins.
Habeger’s grand slam status can been seen both on and off the baseball field. As local business owners, the Habeger family firmly believes in giving back to the community through food donations and discounts to local nonprofit organizations like the Boys and Girls Club, Project MANA and Sierra Senior Services.
With Habeger’s three sons launching from the homestead to start their own businesses in Kings Beach and Tahoe City, Habeger said he has planted his seeds in Tahoe and hopes to eventually pass along the family business to his boys.
“I originally started this to support my family, but what used to be a way to pay the bills has turned into a real passion for us,” Habeger said. “This business is now in our blood and I hope to pass it on to my kids … I want to see Produce Plus continue to grow.”