Peter Testa worries about food safety when he goes to bed, and he's still thinking about it when he wakes up four hours later to start another day as president of Testa Produce Inc.
But he doesn't bother to wash his favorite fruits, blueberries and raspberries, before eating them.
"When I grew up, we would eat that stuff right then and there," he said. "I think we're so worried about being sterile, you're missing the point. You need to have a little bit of germs in you to build up an immune system so you don't get sick."
Testa is a fast-talking, opinionated, whirlwind of an executive who talks as enthusiastically about rare produce as he does about his company's growth strategy, his pristine new "green" building in the old Stockyards neighborhood and the critical importance of keeping track of the sources of his many products. It's a full plate, and Testa delights in it all.
His current preoccupation: Building his $70 million-plus wholesale food distribution company into a one-stop shop of produce, dairy, meat and dry goods for restaurants, hotels and institutions in Illinois and Wisconsin, which he plans to do on his own.
It's a formidable challenge. Testa is the largest, family-operated produce wholesaler in the city, but it's clearly the underdog in a battle with titans like Sysco Corp. and U.S. Foodservice, which measure their sales in billions, not millions, of dollars.
"There are restaurants out there that will tell you, 'We want one guy to bring us everything.' Those are huge accounts,'' he said. "We could buy other companies. but we'll go it ourselves. It's easier for me to do.''
Key to Testa's business is his personality, and the relationships he maintains with his 1,500 customers. It's a bond that is epitomized by a can of yams sitting atop a pallet in the warehouse.
Larger distributors deliver products by the case. Testa will bring one can of yams or a box of brown sugar to a restaurant that decides to do a turkey for Thanksgiving. They know it, and they know Testa, who will stop by with samples of new products or offer to have, say, onions diced in the warehouse the way a chef wants in order to lessen kitchen prep time.
"It's all about relationship," said David DiGregorio, chef-partner at Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises' Osteria Via Stato. "He always has time for me. I can just pick up the phone and call him, and he answers. That's something special."
Chefs are particular, and what they particularly like about Testa is he's direct and knows individual customers' expectations. Last summer, Testa took a busload of customers to farms in southeastern Michigan to show them the source of the regional produce delivered on his 45 trucks that run six days a week.
If a customer asks for a particular product, and Testa knows what he has won't be up to their standards, he tells them so.
"He certainly takes the business quite personally," said Mark Lagges, banquet chef at the Drake Hotel, a customer of the family 70 years.
"I love produce. I love finding different things for my customers," Testa said. "I find crazy things for them and I give it to them, and they have a riot with it. And that's what I like to do."
One of those finds was finger limes, from a grower in California. Shaped like a person's little finger and pricey, the red or green fruit can be cut in half, and inside is a sort of citrus caviar that can be squeezed out and used on, among other things, fish.
"The flavor is so intense," Testa said. The grower "knows I have the clientele to bring it to. They know they're not going to give it to a Jewel."
He doesn't drop names of some of his clientele, but a cocktail on Grant Achatz's Aviary features finger limes.
Testa's growth plans had been constrained by the approximate 45,000-square-foot facility at 1501 S. Blue Island Ave. that housed the company since 2001. Hemmed in himself by rush-hour traffic one afternoon 4 1/2 years ago, Testa started thinking about moving the business and going green at the same time. Once he decided to do it, he began learning everything he could about green building techniques.
With a desire to keep the business in Chicago, he approached the city about a site near 45th Street and Racine Avenue in Stockyards Industrial Park. After 18 months of negotiation between property owners and more than $750,000 in land costs, Testa secured the land he needed, including much of it from the city for $1.
Peter Testa, president of Testa Produce