My profession and personal life have been interwoven and influenced by Albert Lusk over the decades. He was driven by his passion for organic agriculture and founded Albert’s Organics in 1980 when Whole Foods had one location.
I was working at Community Foods, a Natural Food Store in Santa Cruz, in the early 1980s. When Albert began delivering organic produce from Southern CA, our store expanded its organic offerings.
He came to be a friend and a mentor, sometimes a competitor, and he married my good friend, Claris Ritter.
Over time his company became the largest certified organic wholesale distributor of organically grown fresh produce in the United States. It was purchased by United Natural Foods Inc. (UNFI) in 1998. A few years later, UNFI purchased my company, Source Organic. I became part of the Albert’s Organic family and carried on his legacy there.
Albert retired and moved to Costa Rica. He was fond of hiking to a wild waterfall in Braulio Carillo National Park.
In late September, he went missing with his car as the only clue to his whereabouts near this densely forested region.
While the search is not over, the story of this organic pioneer can be heard from the many produce veterans who helped him build a nationwide organic produce network.
Bill Sutherland, CEO and founder of Sutherland Produce, first met Albert Lusk in 1978, working at a packing house.
Bill remembers, “Albert always had an eye on developing relationships with organic growers and starting his own business. After working at The Food Chakra, a health food store in Topanga Canyon, he began delivering produce himself. One man, one little truck, and the business just got bigger and bigger.
There’s an entire list of people who came out of Alberts that helped shape the organic produce industry.”
Peter Oill, currently with Fresh Venture Organic Farms, is one of the many people who began with Albert’s.
Peter told me, “We met when I was working at Cooportunity Produce in LA. Albert would come down in a big blue truck schlepping avocados and citrus from Santa Barbara or Ojai into the LA market.
He brought in a friend from elementary school, Robert Demonte, to do the accounting, operating the business out of his house in Venice. Eventually, we rented a little wooden podium that was part of the Rainbow Produce stall in the LA market.
Back in those days, if you went up to Santa Cruz, you were conquering the organic world.
Soon we were shipping air cans of organic produce to the Midwest, Florida and East Coast – up to 50 air cans a day. Soon we started trucking it across the country, opening small warehouses.
Albert’s Organic was the force that drove organic produce across the country.”
Robert Demonte commented, “I have known Albert since grade school, but we really became good friends when we roomed together in Glassboro State College in southern New Jersey.
Albert and I became partners in the Alberts Organics in 1984, and I worked with him until the sale of the company. Albert is a visionary, and his vision in the health industry became mine and many others. Albert was determined to make the world a better place. And he did.
The many people that supported Albert saw the clarity and drive of his vision, and we loved him for it and the endless commitment to making the world healthier.”
Corinne Shindelar has done many things that shaped the organic industry. She was the Founder and former President/CEO of INFRA, Co-founder of NCG, and Founder of All-Natural Strategies, LLC.
She reflected, “Funny this journey we call life and how we cross paths with individuals who share our passions for all-things organic.
Albert Lusk is just such a person for me. Picture two scrappy professionals, a shared level of tenacity and perseverance to get s*#t done, one of us with strong tactic, and the other with more tact, and you now have an image of mine and Albert’s relationship.
When Albert approached me with his grand scheme for a private label brand for independent retailers and co-ops, he was persistent, to say the least. ‘You have to do this, Corinne, because everyone I talk to in the industry keeps pointing back to you to make this happen.’
No matter how many times I said “no,” Albert kept showing up and poking.
What I came to love most about Albert [was that] he gave me permission to be myself right out the gate. I didn’t have to finesse my conversations with him, and he didn’t really care if you agreed with his opinion or not, and he certainly was comfortable telling you what he thought. This level of transparency created a rare friendship that remained throughout the years.
Even after Albert relocated to Costa Rica, he continued to push me to support whatever current effort he was doing in the organic food space. [During] my last trip to CR, we focused on chocolate, and as with most things, Albert had educated himself to a level of depth around chocolate that I couldn’t keep up with. This type of passion continues to inspire me, and I hope to build on some of what I learned from my friend Albert Lusk.”
Robert Vera worked for Albert between 1987-2007. He remembered, “Albert gave the opportunity to work in different departments. I did quality control, inventory, shipping and receiving, produce buyer, and the last role was as a transportation manager inbound and outbound.
Albert taught me how to treat everybody equally and with respect and to see the potential in a person. He also taught me ‘when to kick ass and when to kiss ass.’
He once told me, ‘Rob, when you learn this, there is nothing to stop you from achieving what you want.’ Long live the king, Albert Lusk!”
Lisa Murphy is currently with Four Seasons Produce. Her words are testimony to the many people his work influenced. “So many of us are in this industry because we want to help get better food to people. We want to ensure farmers and workers in the front line of producing food are treated fairly and paid well; we want to help make a better world. Albert accomplished so much of that and paved the way for us to continue doing so.”
Gerald Prolman is President at Everland LLC. He founded Made In Nature in 1989, and Albert was one of his first customers. Gerald told me that, “Albert’s early support for the Made In Nature brand was fundamental to our success and the organic farmers we represented. The association was a personal source of pride for being accepted by a most respected industry pioneer. I am forever grateful.”
Greg McAlister, now VP at Braga Farms, reflected, “When I first arrived in Los Angeles in the mid-80sAlbert was one of the first people I met. At my various stops along the way, Ocean Organic, Cal Organic, Grimmway and now Braga Fresh, Albert’s has been my account until recently. Early on, Albert would call me to book PO’s. He could be tough, but sure I learned a lot from him about how to sell produce. I appreciate that I had the opportunity to work with someone who opened so many doors for those of us involved in the organic produce industry.”
Gary Stevens, sales manager at Pederson’s Farms, commented. It’s s because of Albert Lusk, Claris Ritter, Rod Moyer and Kim Moyer that I am lucky enough to be in this industry. My heart is aching, and my prayers go out to all during this time. After he sold the company, he kept me working selling his goat milk brand. Albert touched so many in many different ways; he was a true pioneer.”
Steven Hoffman, with Compass Natural Marketing, explained, “As a young reporter and editor for the Natural Foods Merchandiser and New Hope Network, I spoke often in the mid-to-late 80s early 90s with Albert and his former wife Claris Ritter, as the organic industry was growing into a maturing industry, with their distributorship.
Albert’s Organics was leading the way. There were many issues in the budding organic industry, some conflicts and lots of work to do. Albert and Claris were never shy to speak their minds … or to help a young editor new to the field understand and report on how organic food and agriculture was helping to change business and the world for the better.”
Simcha Weinstein was the VP of Marketing with Albert’s Organics for 15 years. He reminisced,
“In the 80s, there were huge gaps on who could get organic food without paying a fortune.
People in Lawrence, Kansas or Cedar Rapids, Iowa, wouldn’t be having the abundance of fresh organic food right now if Albert hadn’t put the wheels on it.
The role of a Wholesale Distributor isn’t as sexy a story as a grower or a retailer. But Albert’s had the vision to link those two together.
Many of the premiere organic farmers in the industry today are growers that we worked with from the very beginning. Many growers were able to convert their farms over to organic because they saw with Albert’s an opportunity to have their crops distributed nationally.”
He changed the world and the way we eat. I am grateful to have known him because he had an idea and manifested it.”
Many successful farmers today owe their growth and beginnings to Albert Lusk’s vision.
Dennis Holbrook, from South Tex Organics, was one of the many farmers Albert’s worked with in those early years. Dennis said, “Albert was instrumental in helping my company develop a nationwide clientele and provided sound and timely advice that has proven invaluable over the years. He was remarkable in his drive and dedication to accomplish his goals and dreams. [I’m] grateful for your efforts to remember him and the contributions he made to advance the organic food movement.”
Michael O’Gorman was the past Production Manager at TKO Farms, Natural Selection and Jacobs Farm/Del Cabo.
He told me, “I was on the production side, not the sales side, of the explosion of organic vegetables in the early 1990s when I first met Albert. I could see that the same passion, strategy – and fun – was pushing the doors open in the marketplace, just as we were in the field. It made our growth and success possible.”
Ricardo Crisantes is currently the CCO of his family’s certified organic farm, Wholesome Family Farm, that manages almost 700 acres of vegetable production in the US and Mexico.
His early years with Albert were instrumental in his success today. Ricardo recalled, “In 1997, after graduating college, I was sure I wanted to get into the organic produce industry. Not knowing where to start, my father told me he knew a guy that owned a distribution company of organic produce. He said, ‘Here give this guy a call; his name is Albert Lusk.’ I call Albert and ask him for a job. He said, ‘Are you willing to do anything?’ My answer was a resounding ‘YES!’
Albert told me he was opening a new distribution center in Bridgeport, NJ, and I would start at the bottom but that I would learn the business the right way. I started counting inventory, receiving product, quality control, and then made it as a sales assistant. What I learned in the two years working in Albert’s Organics has been invaluable for my career, and I am grateful for the opportunity that Albert gave me 23 years ago.”
Claris Ritter first did business with Albert while working at Santa Cruz Trucking in 1982, which was part of Community Foods. Albert and Claris eventually married in 1989.
She recalled, “I first met Albert at Expo West in 1986. Shortly thereafter, he convinced me to move to LA, and the following year, I went to work for Albert’s and launched our marketing and communications department.
It was such a formative time. What we were doing was helping retailers sell and market organic food. We had shell sheets, sign programs. We held the first farm tour events at Expo West, so customers could meet the farmer and understand what organic meant.
As a pioneer, one of the biggest contributions he made was investing in education. Albert understood that one of the roles of the company was to help the consumer understand organic and grow the market.
We were constantly on the road meeting the farmers and the retailers, building the market and supply at the same time.
He was a great connector, and he didn’t burn bridges; he knew how to move forward. He could be difficult, but he knew how to charm and had a really sweet side.
Albert had this large sense of himself and strength to forge into territories and markets that were unproven and untouched. He is a legend.”
Thanks for reading this long article. I could have included scores more people and memories.
As of this writing, the search for Albert continues. If you have memories of Albert, please share them as comments. Thanks for reading!
Portions of this article were originally printed in Organic Produce Network. If you haven’t already signed up to receive their weekly online newsletter, you can do it there.