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Family-owned salad packager stands up to corporate rivals

Coleslaw and spinach have been very good to Andy Garcia, Andy Garcia and Andy Garcia.

Father, son and grandson, that is.

In fact, Ruskin Packaging, which sells prepackaged salads and fresh vegetables, has been good for the Garcias' entire clan.

Unlike many family-owned businesses, this one doesn't suffer the common problem of a founder's children having no interest in working for the company. Three generations have been involved with Ruskin, which has plants in Miami and Tampa.

Plus, uncles, aunts and cousins _ nearly two dozen out of the company's 80 employees _ work at Ruskin.

But as with other small companies, there is increasing competition for the company, which pioneered the selling of prepackaged salads beginning in 1939. Dole and Fresh Express, two California businesses in the fruit and vegetable business, have extended their reach into the prepackaged arena.

The Garcias know Ruskin can't compete in the same league as a Dole or Fresh Express, each of which has deep pockets for advertising and product promotion. It can't offer discount coupons or a sweepstakes that sends the winner on a Caribbean cruise.

But they see a niche for a local company. They can compete on service and price.

Ruskin's coleslaw, french slaw (made of red and white cabbage and carrots), spinach, shredded carrots, black-eyed peas, green peas, collard greens and baby lima beans go to supermarkets in four states as well as to local hotels and restaurants.

"The chain stores want service. A local company can provide it," said Andy Garcia Jr., 71. "Say Publix runs out of spinach. We can have it at its warehouse in two hours. It would take those other companies at least a day or two."

Indeed, the day's activity begins early at Ruskin's Miami plant. Fresh produce begins to arrive about 3 a.m. Workers sort, chop and wash the leafy greens. Then, the packing starts. Now, it is done by machine but initially it was done by hand.

Other veggies get similar treatment.

About 10 a.m., orders from Publix and Winn-Dixie come in. By noon, Ruskin's refrigerated trucks are ready to roll. They head toward Publix distribution centers in Deerfield Beach and Jacksonville and to six Winn-Dixie distribution locations in Florida and one each in Georgia, North Carolina and South Carolina.

Andy Garcia Jr. says Ruskin also has an edge on price. The company guarantees its prices for six months. Because it grows about 80 percent of what it sells, it has a good handle on costs.

Occasionally, there are shortages that squeeze profit margins. For instance, carrots are selling for about $16 for a 50-pound bag, up from the usual $8. In this case, Ruskin eats the difference.

The family, which grew and exported tropical vegetables in Cuba, came to Florida in 1958. Casting about for a business venture in the United States, Andy Garcia Sr. came upon Paul Dickman, who had started Ruskin in 1939. With the help of agricultural specialists at the University of Florida, Dickman developed the process of prepackaging fresh salads.

Andy Garcia Sr. bought the company with its Tampa packaging plant from Dickman. He kept the name, which comes from the town Ruskin, where the business originally was based.

In 1963, he purchased a similar operation in Miami.

Andy Garcia Jr. joined his father at Ruskin in the mid-1960s after practicing law for a few years.

His father gave him detailed instructions on how to run the company. The handwritten note, which he keeps in his office, is detailed but practical. It starts: No. 1 turn on the light. No. 2 make coffee.

Andy Garcia Jr. speaks with fondness about his father and the business the family has nurtured.

His son, Andy III, came aboard after a stint on the professional tennis circuit. Andy Garcia III jokes that he is the employee with the least seniority _ he has been at the company for 12 years. His wife manages the office.

Photos and mementos cover the walls of Andy Garcia Jr.'s office. There are photos of the family's farm in Cuba. A framed label from the packaging used in Cuba shows off a baby girl, his daughter Mary Louise.

And, of course, there are photos and magazine covers of his famous godson and namesake, actor Andy Garcia. The actor's father and Andy Garcia Jr. were first cousins and were raised together.

Andy Garcia III says the Ruskin brand is well known among folks over 40. Now, the challenge is to win over younger consumers, who might gravitate to salads packaged by Dole because they are familiar with its bananas and other products.

"I'm trying to jazz up the packaging a bit," he said. He added bright colors and phrases such as "Florida's Finest" and "Freshly Packed Since 1939."

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