An Akron company is hoping its newest product will be a hit with schoolchildren while satisfying new nutritional requirements.
Country Pure Foods, which is 20 years old with a plant on Waterloo Road in South Akron, is a national company that isn’t a household name brand.
The company makes more than 300 different juice products in 73 flavors and counts among its clients national brands and national grocery chains’ private label juices, which can’t be named. The bulk of Country Pure’s business, though, is in single-serve cups of juice or milk-sized cartons sold under the Ardmore Farms brand or Juice4U to schools, hospitals, nursing homes and jails.
The newest product is its V Blend line of vegetable/fruit juice blends.
Ray Lee, Country Pure president and chief executive, said the company had been working hard on a palatable vegetable drink for two years when the U.S. Department of Agriculture changed its rules earlier this year. The new requirements did not require that juices be made 100 percent of vegetables and that they could be blended with fruit juices, which could give a sweeter taste, he said.
That was the key for Country Pure, said Lee.
“There was nothing we liked, let alone kids,” Lee said. “When they changed the rules in April, we spun into action.
“There is a push for health and wellness, but the problem is the kids aren’t eating it. We can make vegetable juices, but we have to make it kid-friendly, so they’ll actually drink it,” he said.
Lee said studies and observations of schoolchildren around the country often show that the vegetables on their lunch plates end up in the trash.
The company worked so fast that it had its product ready in six months when it would normally take a year. The company took blank cartons as samples to some vendors in July since the artwork, packaging and name were not completed.
“We feel we’ve hit the sweet spot where it’s a kid-friendly, good-tasting juice that so far we’re selling in a dozen states, primarily to schools and emergency meal and senior feeding programs,” he said.
The product just launched in October.
The largest client so far is a school district in Colorado with 100 elementary schools. But just recently, the Akron Public Schools signed on to start serving V Blend.
The product is not a typical vegetable juice drink, or similar to V8 vegetable juice. By adding fruit juice, the consistency and taste is different, Lee said. Also, cost is the biggest difference.
“Vegetable juice has always been available, but people objected to the cost,” which can be around $1 per serving, said Lee. The V Blend is about 20 cents a serving.
“I don’t view V8 as a competitor,” Lee said. “This is a vegetable alternative.”
The blends contain 100 percent juice, have no sugar or preservatives, and come in two flavors.
Dragon Punch has sweet potato, jujube, apple and pear juice concentrates, dragon fruit, carrot and Aronia juice, celery, kale, broccoli, lettuce and spinach juice concentrate. It has a fruit-punch type taste.
The Wango Mango flavor has most of the same ingredients as Dragon Punch, but with mango puree juice concentrate instead of dragon fruit. It has a mango taste.
The company is working on more flavors and hopes to have two ready next year.
After developing what the company believed was the right recipe, Lee said the next challenge was coming up with a name. Kids often will reject a food or drink product even if they know it’s good for them, he said.
“They might say, ‘This tastes good, but oh, if you told me there were vegetables in it, I never would have drank it,’ ’’ he said.
“It’s less of a problem with younger kids. Older kids have preconceived notions of how veggies taste,” Lee said. “These are the obstacles. You want to make it obvious to adults, but not so blatantly obvious to the kids.”
The V Blend product is meant to be a choice to meet nutrition requirements for children. But those rules also mean that vegetables in a drinkable form can only be served a few times a week. So it won’t be completely replacing raw or cooked veggies on plates, he said.
Country Pure doesn’t sell its products directly to clients, but through distributors. But Lee said if the company can create demand for the product, then the clients will ask the distributors for it.
Laura Kepler, food service director for the Akron Public Schools, said the V Blend option was the result of great timing. The district has been looking since last summer for a vegetable juice as an option, but the blends were either expensive or bottled in larger sizes than needed or not meeting the USDA requirements, she said. (The USDA increased portion sizes for school children’s vegetable intake and separated the fruit and vegetable portion requirement that a daily vegetable be served. Previously, two fruits could be served and meet the fruit and vegetable requirement.)
“Country Pure’s new vegetable juices are a good fit for our menu. The nutritional value of the juice is good, and they have developed a couple of kid-friendly flavors. We will not replace other vegetables being offered, but this will give us an additional vegetable option to use that we feel the kids will really love,” Kepler said.
Kepler said the district was looking for a product from national manufacturers, so “it is nice to find it was developed right here in Akron.”
The V Blend drinks will be offered at all levels in Akron schools beginning in January or February. The schools have a large number of a 22,000-student population receiving free meals and serve approximately 18,500 meals a day.
The product is currently made in Country Pure’s Connecticut and new Houston plant, but will eventually be made in all of the company’s plants, including Akron in early 2013.
The company grew earlier this year with its first acquisition since it was bought by private equity firm Mistral Equity Partners of New York in 2010. It purchased Cal-Tex Citrus Juice, a fellow competitor that had more of the school market than Country Pure. The acquisition added 100 employees and gave Country Pure the Texas region and surrounding states as well as a manufacturing plant in Houston.
Lee said he sought Cal-Tex out and had been discussing a deal for the last six to seven years.
“The timing was right for them,” he said. Details of the acquisition were not disclosed.
The deal puts Country Pure’s employee total at more than 500, with 100 in Akron at the headquarters and plant. The other plants are in Ellington, Conn.; Deland, Fla., Akron and Houston.
The company is looking at a potential joint venture on the west coast and also has been approached by suppliers saying they should consider shipping their products for sale in China.
The company sources its materials from around the world, including Indonesia, the Philippines and China.
“Freight is very cheap to send [product] back to China [in empty crates]. It’s probably cheaper to ship to China than from Ohio to Houston,” Lee said.
Regardless of its growth, Akron is home and will remain so for the company, said Lee, 55, an Akron native and graduate of East High School and the University of Akron. Lee has been with the company for 18 of the last 20 years (he left briefly) and has been CEO since 2003 and for five years from 1996 to 2001.
The company expects about $200 million in sales this year, compared to $45 million in 1995 and $160 million in 2010. It makes more than 1 billion little juice portions a year.