All-in on organic

Features - Cover Story

In 2021, Pure Flavor expanded its organic produce portfolio. Here’s why.

January 21, 2022

Photos courtesy of Pure Flavor

In 2021, Pure Flavor added two new organic products, both tomatoes. The additions are part of the company’s long-term bet on organic crops.

“The organic segment is booming, one which we are fully embracing year-round with both acreage and product assortment expansion,” says Chris Veilon, the operation’s chief marketing officer. “[We] offer an extensive product line of USDA certified organics that is available year-round from our growers that are strategically located throughout North America.”

Pure Flavor is based in Canada, with most of its growing taking place in the greater Ontario region, with other facilities in Mexico, Michigan and Texas. But as part of its growth over the last several years, the company built a greenhouse in Fort Valley, Georgia, (about two hours away from Atlanta) and, most recently, built a distribution facility in Byron, Georgia (about an hour and half from Atlanta). Both sites are located in Peach County, Georgia.

“The strategic investment in Peach County is one that will not only expand our acreage,” says Pure Flavor President Jamie Moracci, “but also creates opportunities to strengthen and grow our retail and foodservice partnerships across the southeast with Georgia-grown vegetables.”

The plan, then, is twofold: grow organic and grow more.

As of 2022, Pure Flavor has greenhouses and distribution facilities in Ontario, Canada, Mexico and several cities in the United States.

How to grow organic

According to Veilon and members of Pure Flavor’s growing team, the way the company grows its regular line of products versus its organic offerings isn’t all that different.

The growing methods, for example, are not drastically different — the company uses bascially the same processes for all of its crops. There are some minor differences — notably in the growing media used when applicable — and that has made adding organic crops easier. This is key to Pure Flavor’s growing strategy.

“From a smartphone, we can precisely control and manage the growing environment (by targeted zone in the facility) that the tens of thousands, and sometimes, based on size of the growing area, where hundreds of thousands of plants are coming to life to literally produce millions of pounds of fresh, greenhouse-grown tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers,” Veilon explains. “The precise amount of water each plant gets, to the temperature and general humidity of the greenhouse climate, right down to individual plant nutrition, can be monitored via a smartphone. Optimizing plant environment ensures that the crop can thrive.”

Key elements of Pure Flavor’s system include glass greenhouse structures, the use of recycled growing media, the use of an integrated pest management system and supplemental lighting. The design of the facilities remains largely the same, whether they're in Canada or in Georgia.

As for varieties, Moracci says that Pure Flavor trials hundreds of different varieties in a given year to find the one they ultimately want to produce. That’s become especially important in the organic category, where they hope to add more varieties in the coming years. For Pure Flavor, the R&D process entails everything from working with their seed partners to get the right variety, to working with their retail partners to get them the right products for their customer base. The idea is to be collaborative from beginning to end.

In the organic category, the newest offerings are the Organic Luna Sweets Cocktail Tomatoes and the Organic Roma Tomatoes. Both are products aimed at catering to consumers who are both cooking at home more as a result of the pandemic and want organic vegetables, according to executive vice president Matt Mastronardi. The two tomatoes join their organic line that already includes organic beefsteak tomatoes, organic mini sweet peppers and organic long English cucumbers.

According to the company’s own research and interaction with potential customers, one-third of customers will purchase more organic produce in the next year. Additionally, the same research says that 80% of customers would be more willing to purchase organic products if it came from their preferred retailer. So, the idea is to get customers who already buy Pure Flavor products to spend just a little bit more on Pure Flavor organic products.

“Our organic product acreage and assortment continues to grow and expand, season after season, year after year. With plans to further expand our acreage over the next two to three years, we work with our retail partners to determine volumes and product types to meet the demands of their customers,” Moracci says. “We recognize that organic food consumption is an important trend that will only continue to grow over time, and we’re committed to providing consumers with the consistently delicious organic produce they demand.”

“There’s a gap in the market for premium, greenhouse-grown, organic cooking tomatoes, and we’re making it easier for shoppers to find the fresh, organic vegetables they prefer,” says Mastronardi.

A key part of Pure Flavor's approach to growing is collecting data and precisely managing inputs in any greenhouse facility.
Whether crops are organic or not, Pure Flavor's growing process largely remains the same, with only a few small adjustments.

Georgia on their mind

In picking Georgia — and specifically Peach County — as the company’s hub for the Southeastern United States, the idea was to reach as large of an area as possible with the retail partners it already had in place.

In 2021, when the distribution center opened in Byron, it also marked the next step in the company’s expansion model. When the company enters a new area — starting in Ontario, then into Michigan and Texas — it opens a distribution center to make shipping easier in the area.

“The addition of the Peach County facility helps reduce food miles to retail and foodservice partners through the entire southeastern seaboard,” explains Veilon.

Via the distribution center, Pure Flavor can now ship its full line of products to retail partners in the Southeastern United States without having to bring them in as far away as Ontario. Additionally, the facility serves as a hub for products that will be coming from Pure Flavor’s growing facilities in Canada and Mexico.

Georgia, Veilon notes, has also embraced greenhouse-grown products as a key agricultural export for the state. In the last few years, the company’s ‘Georgia Grown’ program has put an emphasis on products grown in controlled environments. Atlanta, for instance, has become one of the major urban agriculture hubs in the United States and has also partnered with Georgia Grown. As part of the Georgia Grown program, products produced in the state have special branding to emphasize their locality.

“This greenhouse is impressive, very impressive,” says former Georgia governor and former U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue. “It will enable them to grow locally here and provide fresh vegetables to our Georgia market year-round, this is a good location for them. The investment and technology that goes into these facilities is tremendous, these folks have done their homework.”

Further growth

According to Veilon, Pure Flavor still considers itself to be in a growth phase. Taking advantage of that growth phase involves more R&D and more product reaching consumers, but Veilon says they have to meet customers in other ways too.

“A number of consumer habits shifted due to the pandemic that will have long-lasting impact for years to come,” Veilon says. “The first is that more consumers are cooking more at home and snacking more often. We’ve responded to this trend by promoting healthy snacking items like our convenient Mini Munchies snack packs and Cloud 9 Tomatoes and specialty cooking items like the Craft House Collection.”

He says that the company has also tried to make itself more digitally nimble, working to meet customers where they are, both in-person and on their screens.

“Because the pandemic put people in front of their phone screens more often, we developed new content to reach these consumers at home,” Veilon says. That includes recipes and blogs that cater to what consumers want right now, as well partnerships with social media influencers aimed at promoting healthy snacking. At the same time, as the pandemic has moved out of its initial phase, they’ve increased in-store demonstrations of their products at various retail partnerships.

With this investment, plus increasing their growing space and producing more organic crops, Pure Flavor has its eyes on continued growth beyond right now. The hope is that this is just the beginning of a long-term boom.

“The entire CEA space is expanding like wildfire; the emergence of venture capital/private equity investments are spawning expansion, mergers and acquisitions, and the like,” says Moracci. “Expansion projects eight to 10 years ago were 5 to 10 acres in size. Today, they range from 25 to 75 acres on one site. The cost to build at scale has prompted grower/marketers to invest significantly as the demands increase for a consistent supply of fresh vegetables.”

“Our brand presence is growing as consumers begin to really appreciate the value of greenhouse-grown produce and demand more sustainable products like what Pure Flavor has to offer,” he continues. “We’re in the middle of a historic boom for the greenhouse industry and Pure Flavor is poised perfectly to capitalize on this trend.”