Norwalk’s Capital City Fruit lost nearly a third of its business in just one week in March when the food services industry – restaurants, hotels, hospitality companies - shut down due to Covid 19. The quick response of the company’s leadership and its 150 employees to move in new directions with new products and new delivery has been recognized with the 2020 Business of the Year Award by the Norwalk Area Chamber of Commerce.
The company, now in its 72nd year, had been distributing hundreds of thousands of pounds of fresh fruit and produce annually to dozens of clients, primarily in the Midwest. The dramatic changes impacting those businesses, such as elimination of indoor dining, had immediate impact on the company. So, leaders of the family-run business Brendan Comito, chief operating officer; Christian Comito, president & CEO; and Kieran Comito, vice president for purchasing, moved quickly.
“Within a week we implemented our first major change, selling produce via Big Commerce for delivery in Central Iowa,” Brendan Comito said. “We had previously tested the concept of selling nationwide through Amazon but now we had to move fast to implement.” The company first marketed fruit and vegetable products in Central Iowa, promising next day delivery. More products were added and eventually the company noticed some of its products, such as fruit baskets, were being sent to New York City hospitals and other groups fighting the virus.
A second major change followed quickly when the U.S. Department of Agriculture awarded Capital City Fruit a contract to produce food boxes for a USDA program that provides nutritious foods to food insecure families throughout the Midwest. “We were proud to be a part of that program,” Comito says, adding that he had visited several food box distribution sites and saw families who never expected they would face such problems receiving the food boxes.
A third positive impact for the company was participation in the Paycheck Protection Program of the Small Business Administration which enabled companies with less than 500 employees to secure very low interest loans for payroll and some other operating expenses. That program carried the company through Spring when other strategies of the business began having positive impact. “We did not have to lay off any employees and, in fact, we did some additional hiring over the summer due to our new products,” he said.
Capital City has continued to participate in later rounds of the USDA program as a sub-contractor providing fruits and vegetables to supplement boxes of protein-heavy foods like beef and chicken. In addition, the company has helped area food producers become sub-contractors for the E-commerce online store, such as Norwalk’s LaQuercia which makes high quality artisan salami and dry cured meats; another company that produces tofu products and another that sells plant based proteins.
At the same time, Capital City Fruit has continued a donation program to area non-profits which it implemented decades ago. Fruits and vegetables from growers are inspected on arrival and items that are less than perfect in appearance but still good quality and nutritious are set aside for donation to local organizations, such as the Salvation Army, DMARC Food Pantry, Catholic Worker House, St. Vincent de Paul Society and Food Bank of Iowa. “This is an important way to avoid food waste and meet the needs of families by helping these organizations provide good quality produce to their clients,” Comito said.
Comito praised Capital City Fruit employees for their flexibility in responding to the frequent changes in direction during the months of the pandemic. “I believe we have the best team in the entire produce industry right here in Norwalk,” he says. “They are ready for any challenge and we see a successful 2021 ahead for us. We are honored by the recognition from the Norwalk Area Chamber and we know there are many companies locally and regionally that have experienced challenges this past year. We share this honor with them.”