Generation Next: Ali Dandrea is making a name for herself
Ali Dandrea’s produce career is forging ahead with the confidence of a veteran many years her senior. She unabashedly credits her late father for leading the way and still helping her as she employs the lessons she learned from him.
Dandrea, who works in the New Jersey-located Northeast office of Miami-based Fru-Veg Marketing Inc., was born and raised in New Jersey as a fourth-generation member of the Dandrea family farming operation. Her great grandfather, Frank Dandrea, started the business in 1917. After Frank, her grandfather Pete took over. Her father, Ron Dandrea, and his two brothers greatly expanded Dandrea Produce when they took the reins. Ron focused his talents on the sales end of the business. Ali has followed suit, first learning under her dad at Dandrea and then moving on to William H. Kopke Jr. for a couple of years before joining Fru-Veg about 18 months ago.
“My earliest memories are going to work with my dad and playing on the loading docks and taking naps in my Pop-pop’s office after school,” she said. “In high school I knew I was going into the produce business. The idea of working under my dad in the family company appealed to me.”
After graduating from Our Lady of Mercy Academy in Newfield, NJ — an all-girls catholic high school, in 2013, Ali went to Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia and majored in Food Marketing. Once I got into college and started taking my core classes, I thought this is awesome. I knew I was studying what I wanted to do.”
After graduating from college in 2017, Ali did join Dandrea Produce to work under her father in the sales department. Their long-range plan was to have Ali learn the business and eventually take over the accounts. Ali said from day one her father took her to all his important meetings to learn the art of selling. “I was brought up with the confidence to feel that I belong at every table I sit at,” she said. “I hope that does not come across as entitled. It’s more so, while working alongside my dad, he brought me to big meetings with big time people, which instilled confidence in me from a young age.”
Then life delivered a harsh blow. Not too long after Ali started with the company, Ron was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. He fought a courageous battle but died on April 11, 2020, at the age of 57.
In the interim, Ron and Ali left Dandrea Produce and went to work for William H. Kopke Jr. Inc., a significant fruit importer with headquarters in Great Neck, N.Y. She stayed there a couple of years and is extremely grateful for the opportunity she had to expand her knowledge of the fruit import business. The 28-year-old Ali, brimming with confidence but also aware of her place in the industry, noted that Kopke is a very big company with lots of business. “I am young and I couldn’t make an impact there,” she said. “The Kopke family supported me during the hardest time of my life and I will be forever grateful to them for that.”
Soon she was introduced to Albert Grimaldi and Steven Espinosa, the co-presidents of Fru-Veg Marketing, a company founded by Conchita Espinosa in 1988. “When I met them, it was obvious we were on the same page. Some people just get it. They support me and believe in me.”
Ali said Fru-Veg is a great company and at a great space in its life. She also believes it is at a turning point. “There is so much room for growth. I believe I can add value,” she said. “It is a smaller experience and a place where my voice is heard. When I bring in a new account, it adds value.”
Ali joined Fru-Veg at the beginning of 2022 but waited a year before contacting some of the old accounts that she had met through her father. “I didn’t connect with old customers right away,” she said. “I wanted to make sure Fru-Veg was a good fit and did things the right way. I wanted to make sure they could service those customers up to my expectations. That is what my dad taught me. It is all about servicing your customers.”
At Fru-Veg, Ali is heavily involved in the new blueberry partnership, NuBerry Farms LLC, which offers a year-round blueberry program. “The quality of our fruit is out of this world,” she said.
Ali said she contacts some of the people who worked with her father and that gives her great pleasure on a daily basis. “I get to meet people all the time who loved my father, and everyone seems to have a story to tell me,” she said. “I love working in the industry that he worked in. It gives me a sense of his presence every day.”
The young Dandrea is not shy about crediting her parents for helping her develop her sense of self. “I am a very easy person to talk to. I can talk to anyone. In fact, when I was younger, I watched my dad deal with customers and I said this is easy; I can do that. It’s definitely not easy, but a little confidence never hurt anyone,” she added.
Though she is still very early in her career, Ali is ambitious with a specific goal in mind. “Ultimately, I would like to own my own company,” she said. “Working for yourself is how I measure success.”
With Fru-Veg, she is often going to trade shows and loves the interaction. “When I was younger (and working for Dandrea), my cousins and I were sent to the shows early to set up the booth. I hated that, but now I love it. I am like a trained professional at those shows, and I get to meet a lot of people who knew my dad. That’s special to me. He was very influential in my life.”
Though Ali seemingly can talk nonstop about her career, she said both COVID-19 and losing her dad at such a relatively young age has given her a greater appreciation for developing a good work/life balance. “It’s really important to me to take time for my family and friends. I have a boyfriend — Jonathon Bloodgood — who I met at Saint Joseph’s. We’ve been together for eight years. Unfortunately, he lives and works in New York City so we are having a bit of a long-distance relationship.”
Ali continued: “I am also obsessed with my nephew, my brother’s son, Liam Ronald. He’s the greatest ever.”
Ali is the youngest of three. Her older sister, Deanna Dandrea, went the art school route and is involved in animation design and has published three children’s books. Her brother, Adam Dandrea, run’s Ronnie’s Produce, a repacker of high-quality produce operating out of Vineland, NJ. Adam clearly holds his late father in the same high esteem as Ali and named the company after him when he started it in 2021.
“I also have a very supportive friend group that are spread out all over the country,” Ali said. “We all make time to get together as often as we can.”
She calls photography another hobby. “I always have a good old-fashioned camera with me and I take lots of photos. I have a big social media presence and I am always posting those photos online.”
Ali could not leave the interview without one more shout out to her parents. “My mother, Sandi, is an incredibly strong women,” she said. “She didn’t work when we were kids growing up but she did work with my dad free of charge at Vinedrea Wines, a company he had sourcing wines.”
She continued: “I was very much impacted by my mom and dad. I am very, very blessed to be working in the same industry as he did. I am not even close to having the knowledge or experience of many in the industry, but I am eager to continue to work and learn every day.”
Top photo: Ali Dandrea on her first sales trip with her dad, Ronnie.