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
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.
Then came the process of figuring out the particulars to make a 91,000-square-foot building environmentally efficient and financially sustainable.
"I know produce like the back of my hand," Testa said. "But I know this now too."
The $20 million building that Testa relocated to in the spring is the antithesis of everything associated with Chicago's historic stockyards and a dramatic leap for the company, whose origins date to 1912 and Testa's grandfather selling produce from a horse-drawn cart. It also speaks volumes about the 58-year-old Testa, his painstaking attention to detail and need to stand out by working not just faster, but better.
"From the very early stages he made it very clear that he was not an amateur," said Tim Stoeckel, a project manager at Summit Design + Build LLC, who worked on the project for three years.
At times, Stoeckel felt like he was working for an older brother.
"He was definitely the idea-maker on many things," he said of Testa. "He leaves it up to you to make it work. There was an obvious level of respect. There was professionalism, but it was a thin line. He was quick to give you a little punch in the shoulder when you said something stupid."
Instead of installing plants on a flat green roof, Testa designed a 45,000-square-foot barrel roof that slopes toward the building's front so visitors can see the plants. It also means whoever weeds the roof has to wear a harness. The roof also collects rainwater that is filtered into an internal cistern and used in nonpotable applications, such as the toilets.
One item on his wish list that building experts and bankers talked him out of was a geothermal heating and cooling system, because the payback was 18 years.
The same people tried and failed to talk Testa out of the 750 kilowatt, $1.6 million wind turbine that, at 238 feet tall, towers over the building and the Back of the Yards neighborhood. It is expected to generate up to 40 percent of the distribution center's energy needs.
Inside, the hot-water system is solar-powered, and light-emitting diode fixtures are installed in the offices and freezer. Methanol fuel cells power pallet-moving trucks. Testa's attention to detail included having the concrete floor near the loading bays poured more like parallelograms than rectangles, which will lessen the wear and tear of forklifts moving over them because both front wheels won't cross a seam simultaneously.
"It's almost like a microcosm of Peter himself," Stoeckel said of the concrete. "He wants to be a little bit different."
Testa plans to seek LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Platinum certification for the building.
The facility also is outfitted with a sophisticated trace-back system to manage any food-safety issues, problems that Testa said the company has largely dodged.
Seconds after a bacteria outbreak alert would be issued in, say, California, Testa would be notified on his cellphone. Within 15 minutes, the company would know if the grower was a supplier, if any of the product had come to Testa Produce, and, if so,, where it was in the distribution system. Customers would then get a recall notice, and if any of the product was on a Testa truck, drivers would be notified not to deliver it and to retrieve anything they may have dropped off.
Food safety issues, though, haven't steered Testa more toward organic produce for his own consumption. Rather, he makes the decision based on flavor and taste. These days, his organic choices are peaches, nectarines and plums.
Testa's day typically start at 3 a.m., and by 4:30 or 5 a.m. he's helping pick orders in the warehouse for customers, rotating stock and taking inventory. He tries to leave by 6 p.m. On Thursdays he stays late to complete the week's pricing and sleeps overnight at a nearby condo so he can be back at work at 2:30 a.m. Friday without a long drive from his Prospect Heights home.
"I hate being inefficient," Testa said. "It just bothers me to no avail."
Those who play with the avid golfer say Testa's drive for efficiency is on display there too.
Stoeckel, who has played golf with Testa on occasion, was invited to bring two friends for a foursome, but he warned them that Testa likes to finish 18 holes within three hours. ,
"You can come, but don't you dare go looking for your ball for 15 minutes," Stoeckel told his friends.
That focus on efficiency extends to his sleep patterns as well. Testa says he needs only four hours a night, but he'll occasionally drift off at meetings, and he's known for his daytime power naps.
"They'll see me do it, put my head down on the desk and take a little nap for 10 to 15 minutes and then, boom, (I'm) off and away," he said.
His other secret weapon to get through a long day? Smiling broadly, he reaches into a drawer of his cluttered desk and pulls out a warehouse club-size box of Snickers candy bars. When those fail, there's also a box of
bars with almonds.
It was not a given that Testa, the middle of five children, would one day run the family business. But on a Friday in 1971, Testa graduated from New Trier West High School, and the following Monday went to work for his father, Steve, as a $75-a-week van driver for Dominick Testa & Sons, the company founded by his grandfather. Other drivers made $225 a week.
His father told Testa he didn't need college to learn the produce business, and, besides, they couldn't afford to send him. Looking back, he says he would have liked to have gone only for the parties and the girls.
At 21, he got a second job as a bartender in Morton Grove, working 8 p.m. to 3 a.m., and then working for his father from 4 a.m. to 1 p.m. Police officers frequented the bar, and one thing led to another, and in 1976 Testa become a police officer who made $550 a week and worked for his father on his days off.
"One of the things my grandfather always taught me was you can't do anything without money, you can't do anything without working," Testa said. "My grandfather, my father, my uncle — all of us learned that way."
He also learned 35 years ago to get to know a restaurant's dishwasher the same as the executive chef because that dishwasher may one day become a chef.
Today, there are more Testas involved in the business than ever. His daughter, Stephanie, the eldest of his four children, is distribution manager and arrives at 2 a.m. to manage the flow of trucks and deliveries. Her husband, Todd Morgan, is a buyer. Stephanie's younger brother, Steve, works in the warehouse, and Testa's youngest son, 11-year-old Tyler, gets $5 an hour when he comes to help his brother.
Testa's older brother, Dominick, and his 83-year-old father, both vice presidents, have offices down the hall. But it is Peter Testa who has the final say.
In 1991 a "huge" family fight prompted Peter to quit Dominick Testa & Sons, run by his father and uncle, and open Testa Produce at another stall in South Water Market. His brother and his father, along with many of the customers, followed him. At the time, Dominick Testa's sales were $12.5 million.
"I told my father and my brother we have only one rule," Testa recalled. "I'm going to run the show. You two guys are my family, but I have the final word. When you don't have a single person in charge, it's like a board of directors without a president. You're off floundering."
Eventually, he bought out Dominick Testa & Sons.
Stephanie Testa, the first in the family to go to college, became so intrigued with the company that she transferred from
to DePaul University and graduated in 2008 with a business degree and a concentration in management. She shares her father's love of the operation side of the business and, according to her mother, her father's stubborn streak. She is expected to take over as president one day.
Peter Testa likes to tell people he built the new facility and his daughter will have to pay for it. But Stephanie Testa is unsure her father can ever be less than actively involved.
"I don't know if he'll actually ever leave," she said. "Testa Produce is Peter Testa. He's a very driven person."
"People say, 'Aren't you getting up there? What's your exit strategy?'" Peter Testa said. "I said, 'Why do I have to have an exit strategy?'"
Title: President of Testa Produce, Inc., a $70 million-plus wholesale produce distributor in Chicago. Twenty years ago, sales were $12.5 million.
Career path: Except for a three-year stint as a Morton Grove police officer, has worked full time in the produce business since graduating from New Trier West High School in 1971.
Family life: Married to wife, Kathy, for 28 years; one daughter, three sons and one grandchild. Lives in Prospect Heights.
Hits and misses: Raspberries and blueberries. Don't serve him Brussels sprouts and cucumbers.
What didn't make the move from the old building: His office door, papered with $1 bills he won in friendly wagers.
Playing hooky: A 6 a.m. tee time every week at Old Orchard Country Club. When he's got time to practice, he can break 80.
Competition: "It's anybody with a truck."
: Sox, but he sells to both ballparks, so he'd like both teams to be in Game 7 of the playoffs.