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David Weinstein: L.A. organic pioneer heads to Oregon for simpler life

By
Tim Linden

David Weinstein arrived in Los Angeles when he was six months old and except for college has spent his 75 years working and living in the town with organic produce being his chief calling card.

David
David Weinstein

At the end of 2023, he retired from Southern California-based Heath & Lejeune/Soully Organic as he and his wife, Ann Fuller, have moved to Corvallis, OR, opting for a different lifestyle with a slower vibe. But true to his non-conformist nature, Weinstein does not want the move characterized as a knock on Los Angeles, California or big city living.

“I love Los Angeles. I have lived here all my life. I raised my kid in Los Angeles, I appreciate all it has to offer, but it’s a young man’s town. This is a tough place to be and live at age 75.”

He believes Corvallis will be more suited to their senior years, if you will. “What brought us to Corvallis? We were looking for a long time. We like the Pacific Northwest and the seasonality it brings. We also like the water and in our new house we are a 10-minute walk from a beautiful river that we can walk along.”

He also likes the size of the town, which is populated by 60,000 people. Weinstein also noted that his senior pursuits are going to be a bit different than the typical produce guy. “Most produce men like to play golf, hunt and fish. I don’t do any of those things. I like to read,” he said as he sat in his new house organizing his books.

While his 50-year produce career involved earning a living in the unconventional organic sector, his attraction to a career in the Alternative Food System was an understandable choice to his generation of rebellious youth. After graduating from Los Angeles High School in the mid-1960s, he went to Reed College in Portland, OR, for four years. He graduated in 1971 with a degree in anthropology, intent on counseling young men against joining the service and fighting in the Vietnam War. But as he put it, “I got sucked into going to grad school at U.C. Irvine instead.”

He did earn a master’s degree but did not complete his doctorate. “In 1977, my wife and I moved up to L.A. from Costa Mesa and began to settle into life in the big city. We wanted to live in a way that matched our values. We joined Coopportunity, the Santa Monica food co-op, and, in those days, if you belonged to the co-op you had to work a certain number of hours each week,” Weinstein said. “My first job was twisting ties around celery.”

David and Odilon
Weinstein and Odilon Anguiano of Dovex at an EcoFarms
​​ conference in 2015

That initial volunteer job eventually turned into a paying part-time slot and eventually a full-time gig as the produce buyer for the co-op. Weinstein remembers that he was talking to the previous buyer when he expressed interest in going with him down to the wholesale produce market and checking it out. “He told me to meet him at the market at 3 a.m. the following Monday morning.”

He did so and found it enjoyable, but he admitted it wasn’t his first foray into the Los Angeles produce market area in the early morning hours. During his college years, he had joined Cesar Chavez and a group of United Farm Worker pickets protesting the sale of grapes as part of the UFW’s boycott while the market guys stood by cursing under their breath and spitting.

“I don’t think very many of us marching down the market aisles really knew where we were or what was going on there,” he said. “We could see we were pissing off the market guys, even if we didn’t know why, and that was enough.”

Shortly after he joined the co-op’s buyer down on the market, the guy quit and turned the buying job over to Weinstein, noting that he was the only co-op worker that ever met him on the market.

“I knew nothing about produce,” Weinstein said. “Nothing. Nada.”

He recalled one of his earlier days on the Ninth Street Market. He left his truck in the middle of the road as he was trying to sort through boxes of mangos at Moreno Bros. to pick out the very best ones. Unbeknownst to Weinstein, he was blocking traffic.

“A very well-dressed man in white slacks came over, squatted down and started helping me sort for color. It was Dick Moreno, who was a very influential guy and there he was helping out some ignorant kid holding up traffic.

“When I started buying for the co-op, I was dumber than a box of hair, but I had the good fortune of running into a whole generation of produce men who taught me the business,” Weinstein continued. “They included Dick Moreno (of Moreno Bros.), Morrie Shandler (of Shapiro-Shandler-Gilman), Beach (Hiroshi) Morita (of Morita Produce), and Art and Don LaLonde (of Valley Produce). They took this dumb kid and made something out of him.”

It was while buying for the co-op that Weinstein delved more deeply into the organic produce world. Initially, he was only buying for the Santa Monica food co-op, but soon they were buying for other local co-ops under the Coopportunity Produce banner.

“In those days, food co-ops were an important part of a movement called The Alternative Food System which, in turn, was part of the Counter Culture,” Weinstein said. “Advocates for an Alternative Food System dreamed of replacing giant conventional farms that supplied a national and international market with smaller organic farms that were closely connected to local and regional markets. They dreamed of replacing chains of investor-owned national scale retail grocery stores with worker, user and family-owned local stores that kept profits in the communities that generated them. They dreamed of replacing a competitive and adversarial society with a cooperative society based on mutual trust. Needless to say, those ideas have evolved over the years, but some version of that countercultural dream still lies close to the heart of the attraction of organic produce.”

David
David Mas Masumoto, farmer and author, talks to a group, including
Weinstein, at Masumoto Family Farms in Del Rey, CA.

He continued: “That’s really when we started buying and selling organic produce,” noting that was well before any regulations or a USDA certified organic brand, which didn’t surface for another two decades. “Back then we were buying from local farmers — especially in Santa Barbara and Goleta (on California’s central coast) — who would send their organic produce to us in used Safeway shopping bags, and we bought organic citrus in recycled banana cartons.”

Weinstein worked for the co-op until 1984 when the birth of his son, Jesse, motivated him to look for a job that, frankly, paid a higher salary. For the next four years, he worked as the organic buyer for Mrs. Gooch’s Natural Food Markets in Los Angeles. Their new organic buyer helped the small regional chain launch their robust line of organic produce. “At the time I joined we had three stores. Bob Matsie, who had worked at Dominick’s (in Chicago), was a skilled produce man but he wasn’t a big fan of organic produce.”

Nevertheless, Weinstein continued forging his future in the organic world making contacts with a host of suppliers and growing the department, commodity by commodity.

Mrs. Gooch’s was founded in the late 1970s, grew to seven stores and then merged with Whole Foods in the early 1990s, creating the largest chain of natural food stores at 34.

Weinstein, however, left in 1988 and joined JBJ Distributing, a wholesaler in La Habra, CA. It was there that he helped that operation become one of the first Los Angeles wholesalers to have a full line organic produce program. Weinstein remembers co-owner Jim Matiasevich asking him, “Can you make money selling organic produce?”

He stayed with JBJ for 18 years before joining Heath & Lejeune/Soully Organic in 2006. For the past 36 years, David Weinstein has been making his living selling organic produce to retailers and wholesalers.

“Back then (1988) nobody was selling organic produce to the major conventional retailers,” he said. “Nobody knew how to merchandise it and get started with an organic program.”

Weinstein remembers that the so-called “Alar Scare” of 1989 gave the category some much needed publicity and helped to start moving the needle. He also credits the West Coast buyer from Grand Union, Jerry Lindeleaf, with being one of the first proponents of the category.

David
Heath & Lejeune has long supported the famous
Rose Bowl Parade. Weinstein is taking a photo of
some of the produce the company donated for use
on a float.

“For a year, I worked with him traveling between Fresno (Grand Union’s buying office location) and L.A. trying to put a program together. He knew what he wanted but it was difficult putting the pieces together,” he said.

They finally succeeded and Grand Union became a big supporter of JBJ.

“In the 1990s, I remember being at a PMA show in Anaheim where we had a great display of organics in our booth. Every buyer at the show came by and looked at it. Our sales took off after that,” he said.

“In 2006, I went to work with Heath & Lejeune. Rick (Lejeune) wanted to focus on the local scene and I wanted to work on a smaller, more local scale,” Weinstein recalled. “It seemed like the local scene needed more attention.”

Weinstein is quick to note that his departure from JBJ was a smooth one. “I have immense respect for Jim Matiasevich (who died in February of 2023). He had an enormous amount of integrity and he took great care of his employees.”

The longtime organic produce buyer/seller and advocate is leaving Heath & Lejeune with the same level of respect. He’s had another good career at that operation helping a new generation of retail buyers sell organic produce to a new generation of consumers… a generation with a seemingly built-in affinity for the category.

He’s not sure what he will do in Corvallis professionally but he doesn’t consider himself retired and expects a new chapter will be written in his organic produce life. “This is a people business. I know a lot of people in the business and I expect I will talk to my friends and make new ones — Oregon has a good, local farming community — and something will come up that interests me. I’m not ready yet to just walk away.”

Tim Linden

Tim Linden

About Tim Linden  |  email

Tim Linden grew up in a produce family as both his father and grandfather spent their business careers on the wholesale terminal markets in San Francisco and Los Angeles.

Tim graduated from San Diego State University in 1974 with a degree in journalism. Shortly thereafter he began his career at The Packer where he stayed for eight years, leaving in 1983 to join Western Growers as editor of its monthly magazine. In 1986, Tim launched Champ Publishing as an agricultural publishing specialty company.

Today he is a contract publisher for several trade associations and writes extensively on all aspects of the produce business. He began writing for The Produce News in 1997, and currently wears the title of Editor at Large.

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