Peak Performance

MountainKing’s long climb to the top

Published online: Jan 08, 2019 Articles, Grower of the Month Tyrell Marchant, Editor
Viewed 1204 time(s)
This article appears as the cover feature in the January 2019 issue of Potato Grower

Cary Hoffman is a go-for-it, get-‘er-done kind of guy. He can’t help it; it’s in his blood. Something else that is in his blood is fresh produce. Hoffmans have been in the produce business since Hoffman’s grandfather left his native Russia for the U.S. in 1910.

Legend has it that upon arriving in the port city of Galveston, Texas, Hymie Hoffman saw some loose, overripe bananas on the docks about to be thrown out. The intrepid young immigrant asked the captain of the ship the bananas had come in on if he could have them. He left the docks with his supply and started pushing a cart up and down the streets of Galveston, selling bananas. Ever since, the Hoffman name has been synonymous with fresh produce.

“Today, we sell everything from A to Z, from asparagus to zucchini squash,” says Cary Hoffman, who owns and operates MountainKing Potatoes. “Our customers include grocery stores, restaurants, country clubs, hotels, hospitals, all types of foodservice. If it’s a fresh fruit or vegetable that people consume, we probably sell it. But probably our biggest thing is the potatoes.”

As a young man growing up in Waco, Texas, the last thing Hoffman wanted to do—at least from a career perspective—was follow in the footsteps of his father, uncles and grandfather. The business had grown to become a major produce distributor in the region. The Hoffman men routinely worked—often on the road—from before dawn to long after dark.

“My brothers and sisters and I would be put to bed before he got home a lot of the time,” recalls Hoffman. “We kids worked hard with them in the summers. But I decided to go to college and get a job where I didn’t have to get up so early in the morning and work so late at night.”

Hoffman earned bachelor’s master’s and doctorate degrees in business from the University of Texas. Eventually, despite his best intentions to steer clear of it, the produce industry got a hold of him again. In 1973, he purchased a produce company on Houston’s Produce Row and started working those same long hours he had meant to avoid in his career.

“I realized I just liked the action and the moving around,” he says. “It was so much more than looking at a computer and doing spreadsheets.”

In 1985, another opportunity to expand the company arose. A neighbor on Produce Row was looking to sell his potato distribution business. Hoffman bought the facility and became a potato salesman. He quickly realized that some changes in the potato side of the business needed to made. It was common practice in those days for the potato distributors in the region to mix their No. 1-graded potatoes with their No. 2s, and simply sell them labeled “Potatoes.” Hoffman and his competitors would compete for customers solely on the basis of price, all but ignoring quality.

“It was virtually impossible to win a war where everything is based solely on price,” says Hoffman. “You’d lose money trying to stay ahead of the next guy. So we changed our approach. We packed either all No. 1 potatoes in a bag labeled “No. 1,” or all No. 2 potatoes in a bag labeled as such. We sold the No. 1s and No. 2s at their own prices. We explained to our customers what we were doing, they understood it, and that’s how we started growing.”

As the 1980s transitioned into the ’90s, MountainKing began hearing from some its restaurant customers about newfangled potatoes with yellow flesh that consumers just loved. The problem was, those chefs wanted more yellow potatoes than were currently on the market. None of MountainKing’s contracted growers, most of them in Colorado’s San Luis Valley, had ever grown anything but russet varieties. The company was not in the business of farming, but in a matter of a couple years, found itself growing Colorado’s first yellow potatoes for the fresh market.

“We had no idea whether Yukon Golds would even grow in Colorado,” says Hoffman. “Well, that first harvest, we yielded more Yukon Golds than we knew what to do with. The chefs who were wanting them didn’t want that many.”

So MountainKing reached out to grocery store chains, first in Texas, then expanding distribution from its home base. Today, the company is a premier distributor of yellows, with its Butter Gold- and Butter Red-branded potatoes in grocery stores across the country. MountainKing’s 10,000 acres of farmland in Colorado now produce yellow, red, fingerling and creamer varieties; it contracts other growers in Colorado, Kansas and West Texas to fill its needs for russets, reds and round whites. 

“What we’ve learned,” says Hoffman, “is that if you have something with a different taste and flavor—and if you can grow it commercially and make it affordable, your customers will buy it.”

That knowledge has gotten MountainKing to a place on the mountain with one heck of a view.