May 2018 – Rick Antle was the last industry member to see my father alive. He knew my father was sick, and he called me asking if he could see him. My father was not seeing visitors, but for Rick, my father insisted on getting shaved and dressed and having a reservation made.
We went to a restaurant on top of the Boca Raton Resort & Club, and we talked of old times and new. With Rick’s father, Bob Antle, my father had sold countless trailers of iceberg lettuce to Europe when it wasn’t yet grown in Spain. At the same dinner, I was reminded that I had met Rick as a young boy.
Rick was about five years older than me, and his family had relocated to New York as part of an initiative to open wholesale operations in the leading terminal markets of America. At some produce event, Bob brought Rick with him and my Dad brought me. Rick was given the probably unwanted task of entertaining me while our fathers discussed business.
In time, it was Rick and I who would discuss business. He was one of the “Perishable Pundit Brain Trust” who would call from time to time to pass on some ideas or thoughts that would make the industry better. For all his well-chronicled braggadocio, he was a serious man, with serious goals.
The produce industry is changing and, in many ways, Rick has been at the very forefront of that change. Some people spend their whole lives deeply concerned about winning the approval of elite opinion. Rick’s boisterous manner was a reflection of his being comfortable in his own skin. That same comfort led him to embrace innovation of all kinds.
Some, such as deciding to cut back the size of the Tanimura & Antle booth at PMA, upset many; some, such as buying PlantTape, were almost universally praised. Whether it was moving into greenhouse growing in Tennessee or launching Salad Time and innovative products, such as soups and pastas for sale in the produce department, Rick made the decisions he thought necessary, despite ruffling a few feathers in a family business and close-knit industry.
Indeed, part of the reason Rick’s passing is a loss for the industry is that, for all his engagement with modernity, he was part of a dying breed of produce men. He was a maverick, who, without pretense, thought it best to get on with the work and be a leader.
As the industry transforms itself, I find myself spending more time with executives in private equity who “run” produce companies from a safe distance. They speak in a refined, politically correct manner. No one would mistake them for Rick.
Indeed, over and over again, when I spoke with mutual friends after Rick died, I heard the same story. From offices across the country and around the world, it was of Rick Antle coming to visit, his arrival anticipated as he carried the heft of an enormous and extraordinary organization and the validity of a storied produce name … and yet when he was actually there, it was something unexpected. He would unabashedly go from desk to desk and show his wares. He would open packages of Artisan Lettuce, and you would never know that this was the CEO of one of the most important companies in the world of produce.
In this age, the idea of women accomplishing things through their husbands is not exactly the rage. Women today aspire to accomplish things on their own, and there are not many examples who can top the impressive career of Tonya Antle, nיe Pavich, nיe Hronis. From Frieda’s to Pavich Farms, to Earthbound, to Tanimura & Antle and academia, and, most recently, the Organic Produce Network, Tonya has become the Global Ambassador for Organics. Yet, for those who have known Rick for decades, it is also inarguable that he underwent a kind of transformation when she became his bride in 2001.
It is inconceivable in my mind that Rick would have had the success he has had since then had he not been opened to the world and his spirit uplifted by his marriage to Tonya.
He was known as a fierce competitor, but I got to know him in a different way. I teach at a program that United Fresh and Cornell University sponsor, and when his children and other family members would rotate through these programs, Rick would call and let me know they were coming. Sometimes after the event, he would ask how they did.
I wonder if his children and family knew he was so engaged in their lives.
Perhaps the most touching speech at Rick’s “celebration of life” memorial was given by Natalie Drobny, nיe Pavich, who told the story of how she met Rick as a young girl, and how he earned her love and how, in the end, she asked him to walk her down the aisle. For a time, Natalie worked for this organization in our London division. She got the job on her own, but I wonder if she knows that Rick called me often to check how she was doing. I wonder if he even told Tonya he was doing this.
There will be no more phone calls coming from Rick, but his voice will reverberate in that giant company, in that produce-rooted family, and I will remember standing with him and my father as we looked out over the ocean from a tower over Boca Raton. He asked my father if he was certain the experimental treatment he was undergoing was going to work. My father said, “No, but I’m certain it won’t work if I don’t try it.”
Rick said: “Cheers to that.”