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Multi-billion dollar Nogales distributor expands during pandemic

Posted at 12:50 PM, May 27, 2021
and last updated 2021-06-01 10:18:59-04

TUCSON, Ariz. (KGUN) — There are about 150 members of the fresh produce association of the Americas. And Jamie Chamberlain is one of them.

"We’ve been importing Mexican fruits and vegetables through the Nogales/Arizona port of entry for over a century," says Jaime Chamberlain, Chamberlain Distributing. "And we’re responsible for feeding a lot of North America, something we’re very proud of in this community."

Right off the interstate in Nogales, you’ll find Chamberlain Distributing. And it’s not a small operation.

"We’re bringing in around four and a half-billion dollars worth of fruits and vegetables from all over Mexico from as far south as Oaxaca. But our main areas of import are from Jalisco and Sonora," says Chamberlain.

Speaking of imports, this multi-billion dollar business handles a lot.

"We’re bringing in tomatoes, bell peppers cucumbers, beans. Just a lot of the traditional vegetables that you’ll see in your grocery store every single day," says Chamberlain.

And Chamberlain says being a distribution hub in Nogales gives them an advantage.

"We actually make and build loads here, so a customer from Chicago or Philly or Toronto may call us up in the morning and say ‘I’d like four pallets of squash, three pallets of beans’. And we build that load here," says Chamberlain.

Chamberlain Distributing has been doing this for more than a century, and because of that, they have customers in foodservice, wholesale and change stores. And the distribution reaches far beyond the communities of Southern Arizona.

"All over the United States, all over Canada. We go to Asia with hard squash, we go to Asia with our melons," says Chamberlain.

But when COVID-19 made its appearance last year, everything changed. Many companies, like Chamberlain Distributing, run off of contracts. And when most restaurants were closing during the pandemic, those contracts couldn’t be fulfilled.

"A lot of our produce was trying to get funneled through the distribution channel of chain stores. And those types of stores don’t typically have a lot of room," says Chamberlain. "So it was impossible to get the amount of produce that was available into those chain stores."

And remember walking into a store months ago with nothing on the shelves?

"It wasn’t because there was no food around the country, there was a lot of domestic product and product from all over the world. Except, we just couldn’t get it on the shelf fast enough," says Chamberlain.

But when many operations were slowing down or even closing, this businessman took on, what some may call, a risky challenge.

"As soon as the state closed up for COVID, I started building my new building. I felt there was an opportunity there," says Chamberlain.

Opportunity indeed. That new building we’re talking about is 60,000 square feet, completely refrigerated, and is a brand new option for handling exotic fruits that are grown in Mexico, like papayas, mangos, and avocados.

"I wanted to have a facility where all of those products could be transported at a cheaper cost through Mexico and come out here to Nogales and distributed to the west coast a lot easier," says Chamberlain.

It takes a lot of business sense to take on a project of this size during a global pandemic.

"I just felt that when the desperation is at an all-time low, that’s when you go forward and that’s when you see some great opportunities," says Chamberlain.

But the benefit may have outweighed the risk. It’s a small-town operation going on its 50th year in business, continuing to bring fresh food to not only all of us in Southern Arizona but the rest of the world, too.