Growing My Way

"We want to be the Harry and David of certified organic produce. That's our aspiration," says Gina Verdugo, co-owner with Dan Wygocki of Boxed Greens Inc.

Verdugo is referring to the much-copied originator of the now legendary Fruit-of-the-Month Club, a multimillion-dollar mail-order company founded in Medford, Oregon, during the Great Depression by two enterprising brothers.

Started four years ago in Tucson as a grassroots business focused on doorstep delivery of high-quality certified organic produce, Boxed Greens has just moved its headquarters to a Tempe business-park warehouse. It's just a little sprout now, but Boxed Greens, Verdugo's brain-food child, is aiming to be the prime purveyor of home-delivered, pesticide-free produce in the greater Phoenix metropolitan area -- and, eventually, the entire United States.

The company's history reads like a post-modern, female version of a Horatio Alger story. Verdugo, a native Tucsonan, worked as a legal administrator for a personal-injury law firm for 15 years. "I was suffering from major burnout," Verdugo reports. As an antidote, she began a part-time, after-work-hours business selecting and delivering farm-fresh certified organic fruits and vegetables.

Healthful eats were a natural for Verdugo. "My mom was ahead of her time and we always knew about organic food. She was very holistically oriented; we always had a big garden and had exposure to healthy fruits and vegetables," she recalls.

At the outset, Verdugo's quest for certified organic products was met with disdain by the produce powers that be. "No one in Tucson would bring in organic at that time. They said, 'You don't know what you're talking about; no one wants the product.'"

Verdugo ultimately proved that thinking fatally flawed by finding a woman dealing in specialty produce who began supplying her budding business with the government-certified produce she wanted. From there, she connected with other small certified organic farms.

Verdugo's first tiny ad in the Tucson Starlightnetted her 25 orders. Her cottage industry, which appealed to the health-conscious as well as the gourmet-food fanatic, quickly blossomed into a full-time home-delivery enterprise that's still growing strong in Tucson and beginning to burgeon in the Valley.

It's so successful that she's taken on Dan Wygocki, who worked in the wireless communications industry for 14 years, as her partner in produce. Wygocki, initially a customer of Verdugo's business in Tucson, says he likes the idea of a certified organic business "because everyone is trying to think about what they're putting into their bodies."

"Our goal is to be able to home-deliver good, fresh, certified organic produce, because I like the service aspect," says the enthusiastic Verdugo. "It's really akin to getting your milk delivered in glass bottles, which I have really vivid memories of as a kid."

To that end, Verdugo and Wygocki deal only with farms of 500 acres or less, like Litchfield Park's Blue Sky Farms, that have gone through a three-year federal certification process, including stringent soils testing, to ensure that no synthetic chemical additives or pesticides have been used.

"First and foremost, we like to bring in locally or Arizona-grown produce like our beautiful salad mesclun [mix], baby greens and artichokes," explains Verdugo. "We get Willcox apples and peaches and freshly picked herbs from Chandler.

"When the season changes and it gets hot, some of the farms close down and others have companion farms in northern Arizona or northern California, so we just follow the farms, sort of like the Joad family in The Grapes of Wrath."

When everything is out of season in Arizona, Boxed Greens brings in produce grown in or shipped to California, even from as far away as Cabo San Lucas, Mexico: "We can't be competitive if we're going to New York, although we do have Sicilian blood oranges from Sicily coming through there," says Verdugo. "We get a lot of produce that you can't get at your local retail venue because we can pick and choose."

You'll never get any genetically engineered, hothouse or hydroponically grown produce (stinky fish emulsion is a primary fertilizer in hydroponics) delivered by Boxed Greens. "Everything we sell is traditionally farmed in the ground," notes the passionate produce pusher. "It's just a philosophy that I like to really support the traditional farmer. And, remember, it's organic -- it's not going to look perfect."

Boxed Greens eschews rewashing or spritzing its produce, as most supermarkets do. According to Verdugo, soaking or spraying results in faster deterioration and shorter shelf life. "We recommend that you wash just what you're going to use immediately, so you may get gritty carrots or broccoli with traces of dirt, but the shelf life and crunchy taste of the produce are enhanced by not overwashing it."

In addition, all of Boxed Greens' fruits and vegetables are ordered to fill customers' requests and not warehoused for any length of time. "We're not bringing in lots of product willy-nilly and hoping we can sell it. We don't carry any inventory, unlike a market," Verdugo explains.

For a one-time start-up fee of $25, in addition to the cost of each box you decide to order, Boxed Greens will put you on a weekly or bimonthly delivery schedule. If you order The Essential, you'll receive a no-choices-allowed-please assortment ("though we try to work with our customers") of completely seasonal fruits and vegetables that will get you or your entire family through a week -- depending on whether you order the $30, $40 or $50 box. Ordering The Gourmand ($40, $53 and $65 per box) will net you all the goodies in The Essential plus exotic fruits and vegetables in season that Boxed Greens tracks down (like cherimoya, pineapple guava and mango).

If you're not interested in being a regular, so to speak, you can call in and order when you feel a craving for veggies come upon you, though regular customers get first dibs on popular items. If you're not into the element of surprise, or feel the need for some modicum of control over what's being delivered, you can log on to www.boxedgreens.com and, for a minimum charge of $30, choose from a list of offerings with prices updated daily. On the Web site, you'll also find a selection of organic grains, pastas and granola available for delivery along with produce.

I bagged a $40 Essential for testing purposes and was duly impressed by the quality of the selections, all of which were hand-wrapped: stiff, ruffled spears of locally grown arugula, with just the right balance of peppery nuttiness; chef-grade spring yellow onions that looked like green onions on testosterone; a large garnet yam; two kiwi fruits; a bunch of baby Blue Peruvian potatoes (great roasted with garlic and olive oil or barbecued) and a bag of fresh-as-it-gets mesclun.

Two big artichokes were accompanied by an Asian pear; a leafy bunch of Red Core Chantanay carrots (a very sweet heirloom variety grown locally); a humongous yellow bell pepper; beautiful Blue Lake green beans; fragrant red D'Anjou pears; a Braeburn and a Granny Smith apple, both crisp, juicy and tasty; sprigs of fresh oregano; and a fat bulb of new crop purple garlic. (Trust me: There's a very real difference in taste between new crop and the six-month-old stuff you get in the store.)

I ate all of The Essential's little red grape tomatoes, related to the Sweet l00's family, before I even got home. And I do solemnly swear I have not tasted tomatoes this good since a kid pitched a cherry tomato over my backyard fence in Southern California and into the middle of my garden; there, untended, it thrived and produced fruit of such sweetness and flavor that its potent memory lingers still. No wonder a Valley real estate agent ordered 15 boxes of The Essential in just two weeks for all her new homebuyers.

And what happens to your delivery when the blast-furnace heat of the Phoenix summer arrives? No problem. It gets dropped at your doorstep by either Wygocki ("I'm the box boy, driver, spiritual leader and cosmic adviser") or a less spiritual overnight FedEx delivery truck, which delivers your order in an insulated Styrofoam container with ice packs keeping everything crisp and cold.

"We'd like to initiate a recycling program for all our boxes, too," Verdugo says of yet another Boxed Greens goal in keeping with being good to the environment.

Contact Kathleen Vanesian at her online address: goodtaste@newtimes.com

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