Updated: Oct 12
Left to Right: Founders Steve Birge and Mark Curran, and President Sean Buchanan
Business Spotlight Article #4: Black River Produce
For Release 2nd Week of September, 2016
Contact: Caitlin Christiana - Springfield Regional Chamber of Commerce
Business Spotlight: Black River Produce
by Caitlin Christiana, Springfield Regional Chamber
As you step into the Black River Produce office on River Street in Springfield, Vermont, it first appears to be like many other businesses in the area; unassuming, small but busy, friendly smiles, and a welcoming staff. However, after talking with President Sean Buchanan, it is easy to see that Black River Produce is much more than those first impressions. Affectionately referred to by Buchanan as “the big company nobody knows about,” Black River Produce, which specializes in local produce and meat distribution, has a rich and complex history, one that is exemplified by the substantial growth and progress it has seen in the last decade. As Buchanan likes to say, “time can change a lot of things,” and this seems to hold true in regard to the overall mentality of Black River Produce: From “Give Peas a Change” scrawled on the side of a VW by two men with a vision, to now over 2,000 wholesale customers, it is clear that Black River Produce is a quintessential small-town success story.
One of the things that stands out most about Black River Produce is the high regard in which they hold their employees; with 197 full time staff, Buchanan points out that they are always asking themselves, “how can we be better to our employees?” He tells us that the focus is not only on getting the job at hand done, but also on mentoring their employees to be productive members of society. For example, some employees serve on different boards of non-profit organizations within the community, and the company as a whole actively participates within the town of Springfield, often by making sizable charitable food donations; last year these donations totaled nearly two million dollars. Undoubtedly, Black River Produce has a strong loyalty to both its employees and the surrounding community.
This loyalty to employees and community is also well illustrated in Sean Buchanan himself. Born in Virginia and raised in Germany, Buchanan delved into the food business after finishing his education at Virginia Tech. After many years working as a chef, he yearned for a “full reset,” as “working as hard as you possibly can so you can retire” was beginning to be an antiquated mindset that no longer appealed to him. It was then that Buchanan was approached by the owners of Black River Produce, Steve Birge and Mark Curran, who offered a business development position in their Stowe territory. Two years ago, seeing the tremendous work that he had done, Steve and Mark went on vacation, letting Buchanan know he would be taking over as President while they were away.
It is obvious that they made the right choice; talking about his history with Black River Produce, and how far the company has expanded into the greater Northeast in recent years, it is hard not to notice a sparkle of pride in Buchanan’s eyes as he eagerly shares some of the most inspiring aspects of the company. For instance, in a spine-tingling account of an accident that occurred two years ago, Buchanan tells us of a harrowing incident in which a truck full of orders that was headed to Burlington in the middle of the night swerved to miss a deer, resulting in the truck crashing and bursting into flames. The driver, thankfully, was unhurt. Upon hearing about the wrecked truck, instead of going home at the end of their shift, employees stayed and re-picked the entire order, resulting in only a slight delay for the purchaser. That is the kind of customer service we rarely get to witness, but can whole-heartedly appreciate in a small town such as ours.
While Black River Produce serves all of Vermont, New York down to Albany, Western Massachusetts, New Hampshire down to Nashua, and a few routes throughout Rhode Island and Connecticut, with 37 trucks on the road on any given day, their culture is one of community. Self-described as not having any time for negativity, Buchanan and Black River Produce are proud to be part of a neighborhood that “can bring itself back,” as evidenced by Springfield’s recent reboot after the decline in industry seen in the last century. Buchanan points out that Springfield is a town that wants a culture of community once again, stating that “the people of Springfield clearly care about making it a better community.” Black River Produce certainly shares this same sentiment; with all of the opportunities they have had to expand elsewhere, they chose instead to open Vermont Packinghouse as a sister company right on Fairbanks Road with a little help from Bob Flint and SRDC, and the facility is now the largest local meat slaughterhouse and production facility in New England. Specializing in non-commoditized meat, (i.e. grass-fed, organic,) they partner with local independent restaurants and retailers that care about the food production process just as they do, ultimately maintaining a small-town feel for this widely expanding company.
In regards to belonging to the Springfield Regional Chamber of Commerce, Buchanan added that it is “important to be a part of something bigger than oneself, to have an equitable share within the community.” Giving nods to IVEX, Jeld-Wen and the newly reestablished Trout River Brewing Company, Black River Produce similarly fits into the Springfield culture of local people providing necessary services within their own communities. He wants Black River Produce to be known as a “customer service company that happens to be a food distributor—that ships ingredients, not boxes,” reminding us that quality is of the utmost importance, even in an age where quantity generally gets all the glory: “I encourage people to come in and visit us, we are always evolving and changing, and I want people to see that. We do a great job of retaining employees and creating a strong community of people. When you talk to a customer and they say, at every level, that they are happy with us and our service, that is when you know we have a lot of people onboard, committed to doing it right” Buchanan says. We couldn’t agree more.