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An Era Ends as Avocado Facility Closes

Calavo Growers says shutting the Santa Paula guacamole factory and shifting the work to Mexico will save it money.

March 01, 2003|Fred Alvarez | Times Staff Writer

Talk about a dip in the market.

Calavo Growers has shut down its guacamole-processing operation in Santa Paula, shifting the work to Mexico and leaving nearly 50 employees without jobs.

The move was driven by the need to free space at the Santa Paula plant to expand packing operations and by a desire to shift guacamole production to a facility closer to the Mexican orchards that produce most of the lower-quality fruit used to churn out the thick green paste.

The relocation is expected to save $2 million a year in transportation costs alone, said Lee Cole, a Ventura County avocado grower who serves as president and chief executive officer for Calavo.

"It just made more sense to process [the guacamole] closer to where we source our avocados," Cole said. "We certainly do appreciate all of the work our employees have put in. It has nothing to do with them; it's just a business decision."

The move signals the end of an era in Santa Paula, which for decades had been home to what was believed to be the nation's only commercial guacamole processor.

Launched in 1975 as an outlet for fruit too scarred to go to market, the plant pumped out up to 20 million pounds of guacamole and other avocado-based items a year, producing more than 100 sizes and varieties of products for restaurants, retailers and vendors who sold them under their own labels.

The company also operates an avocado packinghouse about a block from the guacamole plant.

Company officials liked to boast that Santa Paula was the guacamole capital of the world, estimating that the facility was responsible for about 40% of all the commercially produced guacamole sold worldwide.

The significance of Calavo's position in the guacamole-making world was not lost on employees.

The processing jobs had been the foundation upon which they built their lives, providing them the means to buy homes and cars, finance family vacations and help put kids through college. The average length of service was 11 years, although many workers had been with Calavo for two decades. Some started when the plant opened 28 years ago.

"It's been difficult for many people here," said Al Valerio, who worked his way up from smashing boxes to production manager in his 13 years at the plant. "We're like a big family, and it's like losing family members."

The guacamole operation in Santa Paula and a similar facility in Mexicali will be centralized in coming months into a 90,000-square-foot plant in Uruapan, Michoacan.

At the same time, company officials intend to convert the vacated Santa Paula plant into a packing facility aimed at speeding delivery of avocados to supermarkets precisely when they are ready to be eaten.

Cole said the ripening program, called ProRipe, uses a chemical gas to ready fruit for market. This is similar to the process used to ripen bananas when they arrive green to the United States.

Cole said conversion could take six months to a year, and when it's done, he expects there could be more jobs available than were lost in the relocation. Employees displaced by the shift and still hunting for work would have first dibs on those jobs, he said.

"We actually see this as an expansion, not a closure," Cole said. "We'll still have folks working in that facility, they just won't be processing guacamole."

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