Peter Testa startied loading produce on his father’s delivery trucks at the age of 12. Although, he never ended up going college, he knows how to get good grades-in eggs, tomatoes, lettuce and 1200 other kinds of fresh produce, that is.
Continuing in the family tradition since 1912, Testa is the third generation president of Testa Produce, a premier food service distribution facility in the Chicago Metro area. DePaul’s Chartwells Dining Services has been a customer of Testa for 10 years. Testa’s other customers include O’Hare airport restaurants, five-star hotels, and hundreds of Chicago restaurants.
With a contract that is negotiated every few years, Testa continues to supply 100% of Chartwells’ fresh produce. That means the lettuce on your cheeseburger, tomato on your salad and egg in your omelet at one time saw the inside of Testa’s facility.
Times have changed since his grandfather, an immigrant from Italy, first started selling fruit and vegetables from a horse and buggy, but the ethic and passion for providing high quality and sustainable food has not.
“Customers, like Chartwells, have initiatives to purchase from local farms,” Testa said. “I can tell you that supporting the local farmer is first and foremost for Testa during the Midwest Growing Season.”
The Midwest only has a short season compared to other areas of the country, Testa explained in his weekly Market Report. Out of all the crops grown in Illinois, only 1% is produced is for food for human consumption. The rest is for Ethanol or Commodities. Illinois still falls short of Michigan’s and Wisconsin’s locally grown food production.
“The neighborhood farmer’s markets are not a good gauge of what’s going on with farmers in Illinois,” Testa said, calling attention to the difficulty of getting more farmers to grow different crops.
“The problem is money and distribution,” Testa explained. “If a farmer does grow, say, beets and he wants to bring them to Chicago and he is 200 miles away, he doesn’t want to fool with trucking and delivery because of the time and money involved. At the same time, if I were to buy these beets, I have to make sure they are safe or grown under GAP (Good Agricultural Practices) procedures.” This is just one of the standards farmers have to pass in order for Testa to buy product from them.
For Testa, sustainability means a way farming. Although that lettuce on your hamburger or cherry tomato may have been grown under GAP procedures, it does not necessarily imply that it’s organic, or in other words pesticide and hormone-free.
Testa acknowledges that most people, particularly students, may not be concerned about what it takes to get that food to your fork.
“Americans are so used to walking inside the grocery store that they don’t think twice about where their food came from. If they knew, I think we’d all have a better appreciation.” Testa is working to connect his customers to their food by offering farm tours this summer.
Chartwell’s initiatives towards sustainable practices are in line with Testa’s philosophy. However, with over 1600 other customers Testa realizes that not all of them have a similar environmental mentality-and that he still has a business to run.
“My main job is to figure out what everyone wants. I push local and organic food on customers like Chartwells. Some are resistant. There’s this perception that organic is more expensive.” With Testa’s buying power and knowledge of production costs, he is able to buy what would have been $45 for a crate of organic apples from a farmers market for $25.
Chartwells controls costs and limits spikes by working with Testa’s weekly market prices. If the price of those cherry tomatoes in your salad were to go up, then Chartwells would have to eat the cost and not raise the price for the DePaul community, Stacey Shaw, Chatwells’ Central Region Marketing Director, explains. “We would call Peter and ask how long he expects the price to be high. Then we are able to plan out our menu for that week,” Shaw said.
Food service is about a consistent product and price, but that does not always come easy. Beans were $10 last week, but $50 this week due to the amount of rain and the difficulty of getting into the fields.
“Every morning I wake up and wonder what is going to go wrong. Whether its salmonella outbreaks in Mexico, hurricanes wiping out banana plantations in Central America or even too rain in Midwestern bean fields,” Testa said. “Mother Nature controls the deal in end and sometimes customers don’t like to hear that.”
As if these weren’t enough concerns to fill his 15-hour work day, Testa will break ground-and Chicago history-with the construction his new, innovative “green” facility. At 1.2 million and 265 ft., his plans for an on-site wind turbine will a first for the city of the Chicago. It will also be the tallest structure on the South Side.
In addition, he plans to install a green roof, a 5,000 gallon rain-collecting tank for septic water, solar hot water system, local produced and recycled building material, and LED lighting-just to name a few. Overall, his building is projected to use 50% less energy than what a traditional building of that demeanor would have cost.
Chartwells was the first customer to congratulate and thank him for his socially and environmentally responsible building plan, while other customers were concerned that this would mean that might have to pay more. “My prices will remain competitive.” Testa affirmed. “I’m just thinking long-time. I won’t see a return on this building for at least 10 years, but it’s worth it. You could say I’m a little bit in love with Mother Nature.”