PETALUMA -- Two fresh-produce distributors in Marin and Sonoma counties have come together under one centralized roof in Petaluma, serendipitously providing a home for the People's Harvest occupational training business Buckelew Programs has been trying to launch for two years.

[caption id="attachment_74925" align="alignright" width="315"] Marin-Sonoma Produce owner Mike Kleinheinz reached an agreement to have Buckelew Programs' People's Harvest business operate this fresh-cut processing room in his new Petaluma facility. (image credit: Jeff Quackenbush)[/caption]

Mike Kleinheinz acquired Marin Produce in 2002 and Sonoma County Growers Exchange in April 2011. He consolidated warehouses of 5,000 square feet in San Rafael and 7,000 square feet in Santa Rosa as of this month into half a 25,000-square-foot light-industrial building he purchased at 1240 Holm Rd. in Petaluma.

After about six months of negotiations, his new combined produce business, called Marin-Sonoma Produce Co. (707-773-2211, marinsonomaproducecompany.com), entered a joint venture with San Rafael-based behavioral-health nonprofit Buckelew (415-457-6964, buckelew.org) to have People's Harvest manage fresh-cut produce processing in the new facility.

"Our original business model was, beyond processing, to do sales and distribution and develop relationships with suppliers," said Dan Waters, a coordinator of the People's Harvest project for Buckelew. "This arrangement allows us not to have to acquire business but supply existing business. We'll have a base of business to start with day 1 and will drive sales in areas where Mike has not done sales."

Sonoma County Growers Exchange had a fresh-cut operation in the Santa Rosa facility to offer diced celery, chopped carrots and other vegetables in bulk to restaurant and retail clients willing to pay a little more to save preparation time.

[caption id="attachment_74926" align="alignright" width="385"] (from left) Mike Kleinheinz, owner of Marin-Sonoma Produce; People’s Harvest trainers Enthela Hernandez and Rosa Nevarez; David Derryck, Buckelew Programs consultant; and Leticia Wiesner, assistant program director for Buckelew Employment Services. (image credit: Dawn Stranne)[/caption]

"By bringing the San Rafael and Santa Rosa facilities under one roof, and partnering with People’s Harvest for fresh-cut produce, we hope to create the premier produce distributor in the North Bay area," Mr. Kleinheinz said.

It wasn't a big part of the business, but Mr. Kleinheinz said he hoped to grow it. But fresh-cut produce was central to the People's Harvest plan, and it has inquiries from San Rafael, Mount Tamalpais and other Bay Area school districts about supplying cut vegetables.

"I'm simply offering them a vehicle to do that," he said.

Buckelew in October 2011 announced it would open People's Harvest in an 18,000-square-foot leased facility at 1297 Dynamic St., about two miles away from the new site. The organization had entertained various ideas for making use of all the space, including a regional food-processing business incubator.

But by the middle of last year, a Buckelew official told the Business Journal it would scale back the endeavor "due to the unexpectedly high buildout costs" of the larger-than-needed facility, initially estimated to cost $1.1 million to open. Mr. Kleinheinz said he stopped by the Dynamic Street facility while People's Harvest was in planning, and Buckelew officials approached him when the plan changed.

In the Marin-Sonoma Produce building, the fresh-cut processing room occupies a couple thousand square feet. Buckelew officials wouldn't disclose how much it is spending to launch People's Harvest at the new location, but it is expected to be more than $300,000 from a Roberts Enterprise Development Fund grant and Marin Community Foundation matching funds received for the first year.

Though People's Harvest has been scaled back in size, it is projected to give employment training for about the same as previously planned -- 80 to 100 a year. The operation will run 4 p.m. to midnight Sunday through Thursday, providing 10 to 20 hours of work experience for 15 people at a time over four months each is in the program.

Marin-Sonoma Produce employs 25.

Buckelew has three other "social enterprise" businesses: cafes in Napa and San Rafael and a janitorial service mainly serving Marin County businesses.

Improvements to the Petaluma facility started in December and were designed by Lori Weseley of 2V Design in San Francisco.