When ‘middle man’ is a badge of honor: for 40-plus years, Squash Inc. delivers food around the Valley

Daily Hampshire Gazette. July 21, 2014. By Eric Goldscheider.

BELCHERTOWN — By recognizing Squash Inc., a food distributor in the Pioneer Valley since 1973, as a Local Hero this summer, CISA also recognized the importance of what Squash co-owner Eric Stocker calls “the dreaded middle man” in the food systems.

Stocker, who owns the company with Marge Levenson, has been part of the operation almost from the beginning when it was an arm of a food co-op in Amherst. It was incorporated as a separate entity in 1975 and its first customer was The Equinox Cafe, which was where Judy’s restaurant is now.

During the early part of its existence it mainly supplied food co-ops around the Pioneer Valley.

That was back in the days when co-ops were an unknown, said Stocker. As co-ops slowly disappeared from the scene, Squash found a new niche. “We had to morph our business from being a regional distributor for the co-ops to being a wholesaler who would sell to anybody,” he said.

Today the company supplies mostly restaurants and a few food stores and institutions. Amherst College is one of its biggest accounts.

Squash purchases much of its produce in Boston. But whenever possible they buy from area farmers. “We go local first, that’s been our priority for 40 years,” said Stocker.

Squash was recognized this year as a Local Hero, an annual award bestowed by CISA, or Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture.

“We felt Squash is a very important piece of the local food economy because it’s hard to make it in food distribution, the profit margins are very slim,” said Philip Korman, CISA’s executive director. “They are working with many different farms and many different businesses and managing relationships on both sides.”

Currently 12 to 13 percent of the food people in the Pioneer Valley eat is locally grown, according to Korman. CISA’s goal is to see that increase to 25 percent by 2020. Thoughtful food distribution, like what Squash provides, is part of the solution in trying to promote local agriculture, he said.

Squash also transports produce from local farmers to market in Boston. “When we do that we’re just truckers,” said Stocker.

But back in Belchertown, where they have a 4,000 square foot warehouse on Route 9 in the northern part of town, they are distributors.

Squash handles about $3 million in gross sales of fruits, vegetables and dairy products a year. It has 10 to 12 employees depending on the season and owns a tractor truck and two trailers, as well as a big straight truck and four smaller straight trucks with which it makes deliveries.

“It’s really a very hard business to be in,” said Stocker. The business runs about 24 hours a day and the mark-ups on the products they distribute are small.

In the early days of the company, Stocker said, it wasn’t uncommon for him to work 90-hour weeks. “If you use the term ‘sweat equity,’ in our case you would have to put it in bold and capitals,” he said.

The CISA Local Hero designation is very welcome, said Stocker. “For them to recognize that we are part of the solution as part of the local agricultural community is valuable to us because it recognizes what we have been doing for 40 years.”

Squash was part of the “locavore movement” before the term for trying as much at possible to eat food produced in the community in which one lives was even coined. “Since we have been doing it forever, we kind of bask in that light,” said Stocker.

Stocker gives back to the community in more ways than one. In Shutesbury, where he lives, he serves on the finance committee.

Buying from area farmers is part of Squash’s commitment to dealing only in top-quality produce.

“There are hundreds of reasons to buy local things but that certainly would be one of them,” said Stocker. Some farmers sell directly to consumers, but most of them “don’t want to deal with the motoring public,” said Stocker, “they want a truck to show up, pay them a legitimate price for their produce and they want it to go away.”

The business has stayed about the same size for the last 10 years. “We’re busy enough,” he said. “The company works, everything fits in the trucks, fits in the warehouse, we know what we are doing and we are really good at what we are doing.”

With the business now well established, doing what needs to be done remains a constant effort. Someone is usually up until 11 p.m. on market days figuring out what to buy and then around midnight a driver and a buyer show up to make the trip to Boston and back. Then the orders are filled, the food is delivered and it starts all over again.

“Everyone works hard,” said Stocker. “Nobody gets rich but everyone gets paid, that’s the bottom line.”