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Erik Chikhani Carrillo dedicated to growing Exp Group

In 2011 in Peru, Erik Chikhani Carrillo partnered with some entrepreneurs to purchase asparagus for fresh and canning operations. It was the start of the evolution to where he is today — director of foreign affairs and SQF for Exp Group LLC, based in North Bergen, NJ.

“I knew Peru had amazing potential for me to explore agribusiness,” said Chikhani Carrillo. “I always had a passion for sourcing and getting the best possible product, especially from companies that were challenging to deal with.”P1060077Anthony Serafino and Erik Chikhani Carrillo proudly display the company’s recently acquired SQF Certification certificate.

The now 30-year-old started in the industry by purchasing 800 kilograms of asparagus daily, ultimately growing to 10  or 11 metric tons a day.

“I then worked in the Amazon rainforest in the lumber industry for a short period,” he said. “I soon decided to make a radical life change. The thought came to me that I could do well working with a fresh produce importer from the United States.”

He had a difficult and long wait, but it finally paid off when he connected with Emil Serafino, founder and chief executive officer of Exp Group, a leading grower, importer and distributor of a wide range of Latin and other ethnic fresh produce fruits and vegetables. Serafino gave him the opportunity to get back into the produce business.

“I started working for Exp Group in August 2017,” explained Chikhani Carrillo. “Today, I work alongside Emil, Anthony Serafino, vice president of public relations, and other company executives in the family-owned business. My tasks include the oversight of the food safety and traceability programs.”

He went full steam ahead from the day he started. On March 10, 2018, Exp Group was awarded its Certificate of Registration as meeting the requirements of the SQF Code for Storage and Distribution, Edition 8.0. Chikhani Carrillo said going through the process of certification meant completely changing the way the company does business — from how it deals with its supplier-growers to its internal operations.

“We are very proud of this accomplishment,” said Anthony Serafino. “It ensures that Exp Group is doing ripening right. Erik was largely responsible for overseeing and implementing the initiative, and he will continue to oversee it.”

Chikhani Carrillo was born in Peru. Growing up his family constantly taught him the importance of education and furthering himself in business.

He attended the University of Lima studying communications. At the same time, he worked with his father in the cut and sew and textile shot hi resErik Chikhani Carrillo flanked by niece, Mia, sister, Sandra, and nephew, Lago, enjoying a night out in Manhattan.

“By age 20 I had decided I wanted to work by myself, and became fully dedicated to my own endeavors,” he explained. “That’s when I began the asparagus program. I would drive to Ica early in the week, some three to four hours from where I was located, and stay until Friday or Saturday. It took 100 percent of my focus.”

His interest in sports and physical fitness developed during his youth. When he was age 11, he started surfing.

“Being raised in Peru, the ocean always played a large role in my life,” he said. “I was pretty determined to be a surfer, but my family was very firm about school and work. Although I love surfing, it’s not possible in the winter in New Jersey. Also, starting from scratch in a new country is not an easy task, and it’s important to keep my priorities in place. When the weather permits and I have time, I’ll continue to enjoy the sport.”

Another practice is Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, which enables him to continue his dedication to physical fitness even during harsh weather. He initially engaged in the art in 2006 and practiced for about two years before he relocated to New Jersey.

“Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu is a form of grappling that focuses on throws, chokes and locks to the body, of which 90 percent is done on the ground,” explained Chikhani Carrillo. “When I arrived in the U.S., I signed up at Renzo Gracie’s Academy in Manhattan. Renzo is an icon in mixed martial arts and in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, which I believe is the best form of Jiu-Jitsu.”

He later transferred to a more convenient Renzo Gracie Academy affiliate in Fort Lee, NJ.

Being a native Peruvian, Chikhani Carrillo understands the challenges in working with foreign suppliers. His language skills, his attention to precise detail and his determination to help the company’s growers to reach and adhere to SQF qualifications were driving forces behind his goal of achieving Exp Group’s certification.

“We now source from 10 core countries,” said Carrillo. “We visit each of our suppliers to make sure they meet the SQF requirements, and if they don’t we don’t source from them.

“We also had to retrain our entire staff here in the U.S.,” he continued. “They were required to change the way they think about food safety — from how they enter the building and what they wear inside, among other details. We are fortunate to have a loyal team who supported our goal.”

Consumers, he said, are progressively integrating produce more into their diets, which is great for the company’s business.

“Eating healthier is a massive movement that I believe will only continue,” he pointed out. “It’s a matter of marketing products to motivate people to try new items to generate niche markets.”

He is firmly resolved in his belief that food safety is revolutionary and justified.

“We all want to eat great-tasting food that is safe by government and industry standards, and these are changing the way farms as well as foreign and domestic packinghouses grow and handle produce,” he pointed out. “Technology complements food safety and definitely helps on the quality aspect of the industry. Companies continue to develop products that help exporters and importers to extend the shelf life of items. This is a game changer for some products, and I hope it’s a success as suppliers will yield more volume and quality from harvests.”

He also believes that these improvements will mean more products will be transported into the country by sea rather than air, which will drive costs down.

Goals for the future are numerous and large-scale for Chikhani Carrillo. He would like to increase the number of Exp Group’s purchasing programs with partners in Peru as well as other countries from which the company sources. He recognizes the many changing factors in the produce industry and the challenge of sourcing from new shippers.

“I am currently working on programs for new shippers to expedite the learning curve and achieve the Exp Group branding qualifications,” he stressed.

“I am very happy with this great company, and my plan is to continue growing it in every way possible,” he continued. “We have many aggressive projects planned for the future, and every day brings new ideas and possibilities.”