Southern California produce icon Harland Heath dies
Harland Heath, who had a long produce career on both the buy and sell sides of the industry and co-founded Heath & Lejeune 40 years ago, died in late May after a battle with cancer. He was involved in the Fresh Produce & Floral Council since its inception and was a regular attendee at the council’s events for the past 55 years.
Mr. Heath was a California native from a large family who got his start in retailing as a pre-teen working for a local Southern California grocer. After high school, he worked for several more retailers and then, while only in his 20s, he and a handful of other ambitious entrepreneurs opened the first Pantry Market in Pasadena in 1955, with Mr. Heath as its director of produce operations. The chain grew to a dozen stores or so before being bought by a larger retailer.
About the time Pantry was sold in the early 1970s, Mr. Heath went to work for the Ed Miller Co. and also worked for the William Hooker Co. in that decade. Both companies were produce brokers. Mr. Heath and Patrick Lejeune formed their own brokerage firm of Heath & Lejeune in 1981. It has evolved into a major distributor and service provider for the organic produce industry.
It was in the mid-1960s that Mr. Heath became one of the founding members of the Fresh Produce & Floral Council. He served as the group’s third president, and in 2003 was named honorary past chairman of the FPFC and was given a lifetime appointment to the council board as past chairman representative. He rarely missed a meeting. He became the group’s historian and noted authority. In fact, Mr. Heath kept the minutes of every board meeting he attended for more than 50 years and was always able to look up historical facts and references.
At the occasion of the FPFC 50th anniversary in 2015, Mr. Heath recalled for this reporter that the FPFC idea was hatched at a produce seminar held on the hilly campus of California State Polytechnic College in Pomona on April 20 and 21, 1965. He said many subjects were discussed during that two-day event, but the end result was to form the Fresh Produce Council of Southern California to complement and rival the Southern California grocery and deli councils that existed at the time. The FPFC has long been touted as the first regional retailer/supplier produce group in the country.
David Weinstein said Mr. Heath was well known for his association with the FPFC and his penchant for sharing a joke — often times off-color. “And he should be known for that. He was a throw-back to another time and we may not witness his kind again,” he said. “But his role as a mentor to many young produce people and his reputation for a lifetime of ethical behavior in our industry shouldn’t be forgotten.”
Weinstein said that to this day the produce salespeople at Heath & Lejeune enjoy a very good reputation throughout Southern California. “And we owe that to Pat (Lejeune) and Harland (Heath), They always conducted themselves in an honest and ethical fashion and I am still hearing that today from our longtime customers. It was their legacy that they built that reputation.”
Mr. Heath was a veteran of the Korean War. He leaves behind his wife, Lois, also a mainstay at FPFC events, his three children and six grandchildren.