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Bernardi: Eyes on the ground

For six months of the year, tomato broker Joe Bernardi and his family live in Tucson, AZ. But on June 1 or thereabouts every year, the family moves to Turlock, CA, for the next six months.

“My kids spend the first semester in school in Turlock and the second semester in Tucson. They have friends in both places and they play sports in both places,” he said of his three high school-aged kids. “They play water polo in Turlock and baseball in Arizona.”

 Cal-Baja-Bernardi-JoeJoe BernardiFor Bernardi of Bernardi & Associates, headquartered in Nogales, AZ, it’s a way of life that assures his customers of getting the best service he can offer. He is a 52-week-a-year vegetable broker, with fresh-market tomatoes forming the core of his business. “There is a lot to be said for being on the ground. If we are loading in San Diego, we have someone looking at the tomatoes we are selling.”

The same is true for Arizona, Texas, California’s San Joaquin Valley and Florida. Over the course of the year, in the five districts in which the company sources tomatoes, Bernardi estimates that he does business with more than 100 shippers. He offers a value-added service and that service boils down to offering the right tomato for each customer.

“Some customers are looking for the very best product out there,” he said. “For others the value we offer is finding them the best tomato for the best price. And there are others who are looking for the cheapest tomato every day.”

By being on the ground and inspecting the tomatoes he buys and sells — whether vine-ripes in Baja California or mature greens in Florida — is one way Bernardi defines the value he gives those customers.

Joe Bernardi’s grandfather was a tomato grower as was his father. But in 1969, Joe’s father started the brokerage business, and Joe has expanded it. Besides being able to give each customer what they want, Bernardi said he is also able to give each customer a good market price. “We buy a lot of tomatoes every day. So whether you are sourcing 18 loads a week or one load a week, I can give you volume pricing,” he said.

And besides volume pricing, being such a big customer of so many shippers gives Bernardi access to those tomatoes all year-round as well. “Over the course of the year there are situations where there are gluts [of supply] and there are tight markets. When the market is tight, I can get product.”