As published online at SavannahNow.com — Brian Kastick has had a couple of great business ideas during his career that he regretted not jumping on and he wasn’t going to let that happen a third time.
So when he learned of policy changes that would allow fresh South American produce to be brought into the Port of Savannah, he began planning a cold storage and packing business in Effingham County.
“It was a lot of sleepless nights but I’m glad I took the risk,” said Kastick, CEO of PortFresh Logistics, which celebrated its one-year anniversary and was visited by state Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black last week. “We took the risk and jumped out before everyone else did.”
The 100,000-square-foot facility on 20 acres at Old River Road and I-16 has already grown by an 11,000-square foot onion drying room and its owners plan to double the size of the building within the next year.
The company has three times the number of workers it originally had forecast – 120 – and has exercised an option to buy another 162 acres, which it has cleared and is marketing to other food-related businesses.
The facility processed 6,000 truckloads of produce in its first year.
Workers wear jackets and sometimes ski masks as they use forklifts to move boxes of fruit and vegetables to and from trucks and rooms set at optimum temperatures – 57 degrees for bananas, 50 degrees for mangos and avocadoes and 34 degrees for grapes other fruits.
Kastick, who worked as an importer, marketer, grower and shipper of fresh produce before starting PortFresh, said the business requires a lot of coordination, with trucks coming in and out at all hours of the day and night and the produce requiring U.S. Department of Agriculture and U.S. Customs inspections.
The plant is always open. “We’re open Sunday because people eat on Monday,” Kastick said.
Kastick said the capital investment was steep; he estimates the current building and machinery cost $25 million.
That includes expensive machinery that can package 45 three-pound bags of onions every minute and a machine that puts stickers on individual pieces of fruit such as apples.
Kastick said opening up the Port of Savannah to fresh produce means customers will get fresher fruit and vegetables faster and for less money.
Previously, 95 percent of the imported fruits and vegetables entering the U.S. East Coast arrived through Northeast ports and were trucked to customers in the Southeast.
Imported fruits go through “cold treatment,” being kept for a certain number of days at cold temperatures to ensure they are free of pests or pathogens. The USDA began allowing cold fruit to be offloaded at the Port of Savannah in 2014 if the cold treatment time was completed.
This year, the USDA began allowing the cold treatment to be completed at the terminal or at PortFresh.
“We make sure there’s no break in the cold chain,” ensuring the quality of the product, Kastick said.
PortFresh’s main customers are grocery store chains and importers, but it’s also working with farmers who want to use the business’s repacking and exporting services.
“This is 21st century agriculture,” state Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black said after touring the facility Thursday. “I’m encouraged to see this type of focus on the food industry and what services can be provided to farmers.”