For Manny Wong, owner and CEO of Fullei Fresh, small is beautiful.
Wong’s Miami-based company raises 18 types of tiny plant sprouts plus wheat grass, selling these products to distributors, wholesalers and retail chains throughout South and Central Florida. Retail customers carrying Fullei Fresh products include Whole Foods, Milam’s Markets and The Fresh Market.
“We buy high-quality seeds and raise all our products hydroponically at our plant,” said Wong, whose father began raising bean sprouts in Cuba in 1938 and continued growing them after he moved to Miami and established a popular Chinese restaurant, called “Oriental,” on Southwest Eighth Street. Manny, born in Havana, arrived in Miami with his family when he was 8 years old.
“We do not use any pesticides, additives or preservatives and we purify all the water we use. We meet the highest standards for food safety and quality. Over the past 20 years, Fullei Fresh sprouts have been very well received by chefs and natural food establishments that demand high-quality sprouts,” Wong said. No soil is used at Fullei Fresh.
“In Mandarin Chinese, the words that mean ‘full of prosperity’ sound like ‘fully.’”
Fullei Fresh, a major player in this specialized produce sector, last year sold more than two million pounds of bean sprouts and over 200,000 pounds of alfalfa sprouts, plus wheat grass and other sprouts. While bean and alfalfa sprouts are the biggest sellers, Fullei Fresh also grows sprouts from seeds of broccoli, beets, garlic, clover, daikon, mung beans, snow peas, sunflowers, soy and others in its state-of-the-art, temperature-controlled growing and processing facility located east of Little Haiti.
Fullei Fresh has been operating for four decades. After graduating from Pace University in 1978, Wong started Fully Inc. in Miami with his brother-in-law, Dennis Marr, with the help of loans from the family. Originally they grew bean and soy sprouts to serve the Asian community in Miami; tofu, soy milk and rice noodles came later. Then the small company began raising a line of “green” sprouts and wheat grass when it saw expanding demand for these products. The partnership between Wong and his brother-in-law lasted two decades, when Marr left the company to work for Publix Super Markets.
“In 1997, I changed the name to Fullei Fresh and gave the company a new image that reflects our fresh sprout products,” Wong said.
At the outset, the company delivered its products directly to restaurants and retail stores. Now, most of its products are sold through large distributors and wholesalers, who reach thousands of retailers.
Part of the company’s growth is due to its outsourced sales system, Wong said. “We focus on producing top-quality products and leave sales up to our distributors and wholesalers. They are in daily contact with many retailers and act as salesmen for us. This has worked very well for them and for us.”
To grow its products, workers place sprout seeds in large, segmented rotating drums exposed to specialized white, blue and red growing lights. Each drum receives a constant flow of air from fans as purified water is pumped in and drained. “Clean rooms” are used for growing, processing and packing products. These areas are separated from other parts of the plant by special doors and pools of disinfectant on floor spaces near each entryway.
Growing cycles range anywhere from three to 10 days, and products are packaged the day after harvesting. Fullei offers consumers long shelf life (30-45 days) due to its constant quality control and cold-chain covering growing, processing, packaging and shipment. The company has a fleet of seven refrigerated trucks.
Fullei Fresh checks constantly for dangerous bacteria like e-coli and salmonella before shipping. These bacteria have been a constant source of problems for food producers, especially in the produce sector. Wong is a pioneer in the sprout-growing industry and participated in the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s first efforts to establish food safety norms for sprouts. As a recognized expert, he teaches private and public sector safety inspectors on the best practices for safety norms in growing sprouts and wheat grass.
Company name: Fullei Fresh.
Founded: In Miami in 1978 as Fully Fresh Inc. Name was changed to Fullei Fresh in 1997.
Owner, CEO and co-founder: Manny Wong.
Headquarters: 400 NE 67th St., Miami (in the Little River Business District, east of Little Haiti).
Employees: A multicultural workforce of 50 full-time and 10 part-time workers.
Clients: Food wholesalers, distributors and retail chains. Some customers are Sysco, Freedom Fresh, Whole Foods, FreshPoint, Jamba Juice, Sun City, Fresh Market and Sanwa Produce. Fullei products are used in a variety of restaurants and are sold at food markets and Asian stores.
Financials: In 2017, Fullei Fresh sold more than 2 million pounds of bean sprouts and over 200,000 pounds of alfalfa sprouts. Total sales of sprouts and shoots last year reached nearly a half-million cases. Revenues in 2017 rose by about 8 percent YOY. “Our growth has been steady and we expect sales to expand by 8-12 percent per year,” Wong said.
Competitors: Leasa Industries and Marjon Specialty Foods, plus some mom-and-pop growers.
The difference: Decades of experience in growing high-quality hydroponic sprouts, a state-of-the-art facility, a strong food safety program and a wide variety of sprouts with a long shelf life thanks to a consistent cold-chain process.
Client view: “We’ve been a Fullei customer since we opened in 2001 and [our management] has worked with them prior to 2001,” said Alan H. Spritz, vice president of food service at Freedom Fresh, a major produce distributor based in Medley that sells to customers in southeast and southwest Florida, the Caribbean and Central America. “Fullei offers an extensive menu of sprouts, and bean sprouts are the most popular item,” said Spritz, a veteran executive in the produce distribution sector. Freedom Fresh also sources organic wheat grass, alfalfa, beet, snow pea, daikon radish, broccoli, clover, sunflower and spicy sprouts from Fullei.
“There’s a giant moat between Fullei and any other sprout growers. They’re a five-star grower/shipper. The Wong family commitment to food safety, product quality and customer care is unparalleled. They were focused on and committed to food safety long before it became a national issue,” Spritz said. “I’ve worked with Fullei for 30-plus years, and I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve heard ‘no’ or ‘can’t’ from Manny.”
Business lesson: During its early years, the company saw demand rising for sprouts and other healthy foods in California and introduced some products — like yellow snow peas — in the regional market. Some of these products didn’t sell then in South Florida, but are popular now. “We were ahead of our time,” Wong said. “We’re mainly a meat-and-potatoes state. Concentrate on what you do best.”
Best business decision: Focus on growing top-quality sprouts and leave the selling to warehouses and distributors, who have direct contact with the retail market.
Strategy and challenges: Advancing our education program so that buyers are aware of the health benefits of sprouts and add them to their healthy diets, Wong said. The biggest challenge is to educate buyers and food safety personnel in the private and government sectors on implementing the best manufacturing practices, like those used at Fullei Fresh.
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