GRIFFITH | After 70 years in business but struggling to stay afloat for the past four years in a tough economy, Bakker Produce closed Friday, former Treasurer Michael Bakker said.
“Some of our customers went bankrupt, some left for cheaper pricing from our competition and several were bought out and forced to change vendors by the new owners,” Bakker said. “We paid for health insurance and a pension for our employees, and most of our competition did not; thus, they were able to have lower prices.”
“We always took pride in our superior product, but that just couldn’t keep us going in today's market.”
Although Bakker Produce was down to 28 employees Friday, in 2004 it employed more than 70 people.
A federal judge Friday granted an injunction freezing Bakker’s Perishable Agricultural Commodities Act trust funds until outstanding invoices from four suppliers are paid.
As part of a joint lawsuit filed in Northern District Court, Superior Sales of Michigan is seeking $52,350.25; JAB Produce of Chicago, $6,634; Ruby Robinson Co., of Buffalo Grove, Ill., $48,774.70; and Strube Celery & Vegetable Co., of Chicago, $58,623.25. The companies, which are perishable agricultural goods dealers, allege they sold and delivered to Bakker Produce wholesale products between Aug. 17, 2012, and Jan. 15, 2013, but have not been paid and some checks for partial payment have been returned for insufficient funds.
The plaintiffs also allege Thomas L. Bakker, Charles P. Bakker Sr., Michael R. Bakker, Richard D. Bakker and Charles P. Bakker Jr., unlawfully dissipated monies that by federal law were supposed to be held in the PACA trust fund.
Michael Bakker said there were bounced checks during the past few weeks. He said that was inadvertent and occurred when deposits did not come in to cover the checks mailed, and the company lost its bank's support in covering cash shortfalls.
He said the owners have taken pay cuts and poured their own money into the business to keep it going.
“Tom, Chuck and Rick Bakker are three of the nicest, most generous men you could ever meet and they would have given their last dollar for their employees,” Michael Bakker said.
Through the years, the company donated produce to the Northwest Indiana food pantry as well as to numerous local churches, schools, and organizations.
“If there was a spaghetti dinner in Northwest Indiana, chances are we donated the salad from 1980 through 2010,” he said. “We donated fruit baskets for raffles and ripe bananas for runners at the end of races.”
Stephen Fry, whose great uncles and grandfather owned Bakker Produce, said the hardest part for them to deal with right now is that their employees are out of a job. Fry said they do not plan to file for bankruptcy but will sell the building, trucks and other assets.
Fry said working at Bakker Produce on and off for 10 years during high school and college, he learned life lessons about “working hard and, most of all, how to be a good citizen because of their influence and generosity.”
Diana Bosse, Special Events Director for the city of Crown Point, said in the past Bakker Produce has donated apples and bananas to the citywide picnic.
In his ruling Friday, Chief Judge Philip P. Simon ordered Bakker Produce and its officers to refrain from “alienating, dissipating, paying over or signing any of their PACA trust assets except for paying the plaintiffs $166,382.20 plus interest, costs and attorney’s fees or, by agreement of the parties, for the payment of outstanding wages due Bakker employees."
Julie Bakker Kook, daughter of Thomas Bakker, said when times were hard her father even sold Christmas trees to make additional money. She said when the business was in East Chicago, her parents would bring in clothes to help the employees and their families.
“It was not just a business,” Kook said. “It was all of our hearts and souls.”