Fruits and veggies sold by Produce Source Partners end up in meals served at Applebee’s and Olive Garden restaurants all over Virginia, according to Eddy Bova, part-owner of the company. Bova, a third-generation Roanoke produce supplier, merged his family-owned business Quality Produce with Baker Brothers Produce of Richmond and Saville Produce of Newport News to become Produce Source Partners in 2003. “It just looked like a good opportunity to make more money,” Bova says of the move.
Executives bill the company as the Commonwealth’s largest independent produce distributor. “We cover the state of Virginia pretty much,” Bova says.
In addition to serving chain restaurants, Produce Source Partners sells food to the state’s colleges and universities, hospitals, nursing homes, as well as fine dining spots like Mountain Lake Lodge and the River and Rail restaurant here in Roanoke.
Bova decided to merge with the two other companies, in part, because he heard more and more owners of chain restaurants talk about wanting to consolidate vendors. “To make sure all of their restaurants were getting the same type stuff,” he says.
As a larger company, Produce Source Partners also purchases in greater volume, which translates to more buying power, Bova explains.
Although, he may now be part of a bigger operation, Bova says he still does business now much the same way he did when he ran Quality Produce.
He still sells fresh foods to the Texas Tavern and The Roanoker, who’ve been customers with the company at least since the mid-70s, when Bova started working at the family business full-time.
And, Bova still buys produce from some of the same local farms frequented by his grandfather William Bova, who started Quality Produce in 1928. Squash, corn and pumpkins come from Bonsack’s Jeter Farm. “We’ve bought a lot from Jeter for a lot of years,” Bova says.
The farm-to-table trend – striving to eat food sourced locally – only began gathering steam in the Roanoke Valley over the last few years, Bova says, but that’s always how he’s preferred to operate.
“The local movement has been our forte since the beginning,” Eddy Bova says. “Of course, you had to ship in stuff when food wasn’t available in the winter time.”
William Bova started the business with a retail shop on the City Market. William Bova’s son Carl began working with his father in the 1950s. “Coming out of the war thing were growing,” Eddy Bova explains.
Restaurants opened and needed produce. “It just blossomed from there,” Bova says.
Eddy Bova began bagging groceries at the retail store when he was 12-years-old. “Heck, I made more money than any paper boy did,” he says.
Produce Source Partners remains a family affair. Bova’s wife Mary Ann and daughter Sarah Jane Jones both work at the Roanoke office. Eddy’s brother David Bova is also a part-owner of Produce Source Partners and works in Ashland.
Ideally, Bova would want the Roanoke operation to stay in the family after he retires.
“I hope it goes on, but you never know,” Bova says. “Everything changes in this world.”
He has no plans to quit working anytime soon. “My health is good.”
And so is business, acoording to Bova, although he declined to provide any sales figures. The Roanoke office of Produce Source Partners has between 26 and 28 employees on the payroll.
While a lot of things about the fresh food business have stayed the same, Bova does find customers want to know more about a peach than its price these days.
“I told him coming out of school,” says Jones who graduated form James Madison University in 2005. “People care about where there food is coming from. You’re going to start seeing more and more of that.’”
That’s the case at Hollins University, one of the many schools that does business with Produce Source Partners. Mike Shea, executive chef at the school, says students are conscientious about eating healthy and wanting to reduce the impact their consumption of food makes on the environment.
Purchasing fresh, local food is also a core value of Meriwhether Godsey, the company that manages dining services for the school. Produce Source Partners makes this easy, Shea says, by offering a regular list of what local products are in season and which farms grew the food.
Shea, in turn, advertises that information in the campus’ Moody Dining Hall. “We like to give credit to our farmers,” he says.
The amount of food coming out of family-owned farms decreased over recent decades, Bova says, because large-scale, industrial crop operations could churn food out more cheaply. “The infrastructure in Virginia really got weak in the last 30 years, but it’s gaining now,” he explains.
The impact the farm-to-table trend has on Produce Source Partners’ bottom line varies, Bova says, depending on how good the gardens grow in any given year. In 2013, too much rain hurt crops here and there was less local food to sell. “This year,” Bova says, “we had a great growing season.”
Whatever the impact on profits, though, Bova feels committed to supporting local farms. Luckily, he thinks the farm-to-table movement is likely here to stay. “People really want to eat better,” he says.