Downtown’s Okun Produce celebrates 100 fruitful yearsWritten by Tom Konecny | | firstname.lastname@example.org
The Sam Okun Produce Company celebrates 100 years of operation Oct. 11, a distinction that could also make it the Dean of Downtown Businesses, having achieved all of its success in the heart of Toledo.
Supplying fresh produce to Northwest Ohio businesses since 1914, Okun Produce has changed with the times but continues to thrive by sticking to its original ideals.
“We’ve never lost sight of the values, the priorities and the actual mission of Sam Okun,” said Shelly Okun, president. “It’s based on integrity, honesty, quality of product, quality of service and maintaining strong relationships with our vendors, suppliers and customers, no matter how big or small. That’s never changed from the very beginning.”
The bulk of Okun’s business originally came from independent, family-owned grocers located on seemingly every Toledo neighborhood corner. As those small retail stores began to close and shoppers migrated to big box stores, Okun continued to service the smaller retail chains that remained, but also began to focus on health care, schools, senior living communities and several local institutions.
Okun’s business started thanks to immigration and a simple letter. It was in the early 1900s when Sam Okun’s oldest sister, Fanny, came to New York from Lithuania and happened to visit Toledo. She wrote back to the entire family with the message, “Toledo seems to be a nice place to make a living and raise a family.”
That was all it took for almost the entire Okun family — Sam, his four sisters and parents (two brothers stayed behind in New York) — to move to Northwest Ohio. Sam first used a horse and cart, then eventually a truck, and to deliver produce all over in addition to operating a small market at the intersection of Spielbusch Avenue and Cherry Street. That store moved to Huron Street where the present Fifth Third Field is located.
In 1946, Okun purchased the company’s current Huron Street facility and focused solely on supplying produce; it has maintained the same location since.
The business remains well-rooted in the family, with Sam’s grandson Fred Okun as CEO, and Fred’s daughter Shelly as president. Several other siblings and relatives have played key roles in its success over the years. Okun also has nonfamily employees who have worked with them for several generations, creating an extended group with family-like ties.
“Statistics show that family-owned businesses make it to the third generation, but we’ve made it to five,” Shelly said. “I’ve walked the same floor that all of them walked. Every day I’m in here I feel them. It’s really neat.”
Okun Produce has also achieved official WBE (Woman Business Enterprise) certification by the National Women Business Owners Corporation, which means that a woman has majority ownership and control of a business entity. In truth, though, the business has been led by the women since the beginning, as Sam’s wife Rose was a central figure in Okun’s early beginnings.
“I listen to my dad tell stories, and [Rose] didn’t have washers or dryers, or cars, or the luxuries that our generations have, yet it was a really good life for them,” Shelly said. “And they raised really happy children, who in turn raised happy children, who also raised happy children. That work ethic is in our genes. She was amazing.”
Fred Okun was also heavily influenced by various family members, and learned similar life lessons.
“I just learned different work ethics (from family),” he said. “Their ethics were above reproach. They just worked hard and taught me very good lessons. I admired them a lot.”
Okun’s allegiance to Downtown started out of necessity, but in time it became a mutual loyalty. In its infancy, Okun was reliant on trains with iced rail cars that came Downtown, as truck refrigeration wasn’t yet an option. However, by the time trucks became refrigerated, rail cars had more than doubled in size and their large capacity meant they were still the desired choice.
All this found Huron Street home to 15 wholesale produce companies in its heyday in the 1940s, a fact largely responsible for giving the Warehouse District its name.
As Okun continues to not only operate but thrive, its leadership knows the day could come where they may have to investigate a more modern facility, all in the name of space and safety.
“It’s not on one floor, so using a freight elevator is a grind, and as we get more business it’s getting more apparent that it could change someday,” Shelly said. “At this point, it’s important to maintain integrity and safety of product. We have a third party to judge us on how we keep everything safe for the community we serve. This facility might be too expensive for us.”
Fred added, “Time will tell.”
Okun plans to celebrate with an extended family reunion dinner Oct. 10, and then a company open house Oct. 11. It’s a chance to celebrate all things good at Okun and in Toledo.
“My dad is a very loyal and consistent person in his professional life and personal life,” Shelly said. “He could never give up on Toledo. He still believes in it, and now there’s new, young people investing their time in Downtown much like my dad did. It’s a very cool story.”