Getting kids to eat their vegetables isn’t always the easiest thing.
But an Akron juice company is continuing its quest to give kids more alternatives to consuming their veggies — in the form of vegetable juices.
Country Pure Foods, headquartered in Akron, produces and packages 325 different juice products in 65 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 portions of fruit and vegetable juices under the Adrmore Farms brand or Juice4U to schools, hospitals, nursing homes and jails.
In just a few weeks, the company will debut its two newest V Blend flavors in its line of vegetable/fruit juice blends at a school nutrition show in Boston.
The V Blend line is the company’s products which meet strict nutritional guidelines from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. With more U.S. children being served meals at school, the market has been ripe for companies like Country Pure to develop new products to meet the guidelines.
But meeting the guidelines and pleasing picky kids’ palettes is another thing, said Country Pure President and Chief Executive Officer Ray Lee.
The two new products — Vampire Red (a blend of tomato concentrate, carrot and sweet potato juices and pumpkin puree) and Sunset Sip (a blend of sweet potato, carrot and pumpkin juices) meet the government’s “red/orange vegetable” category, meaning they can be substituted at times for more traditional vegetables, such as carrots, on school lunch trays.
But the challenge, Lee said, is that you are limited to those vegetables.
“Now, you’ve got to make it taste good for kids,” he said. “Adults will probably like [Vampire Red] because it tastes like a Bloody Mary. [Sunset Sip] tastes like carrot. That’s the challenge. Are kids going to migrate to that?”
The V Blend drinks mostly come in milk-carton sizes, with fun caricatures of vegetables — such as a vampire with a tomato head or a rapping sweet potato, pumpkin and carrot — to try to appeal to the kids without overly emphasizing that they’re drinking vegetables, Lee said.
“I recognize kids aren’t going to want to drink this because ‘Wow, this tastes great,’?” said Lee, an Akron native. “That’s half the battle — getting them to try it.”
Initial taste tests performed by the company have shown that 60 percent of adults and kids like the new flavors, he said.
While Lee said it’s his goal to get the kids to like and want the V Blend drinks, he really needs to get past the adult gatekeepers — school district dieticians who set the school lunch menus.
The company also makes three other flavors: Dragon Punch (sweet potato, jujube, apple, pear, kale, celery, lettuce and spinach); Wango Mango (mango, sweet potato, carrot and the same green vegetables as Dragon Punch) and Cherry Star (many of the same ingredients, plus cherry and star fruit). The flavors come in the fun, caricature cartons as well as regular juice boxes with pictures of fruit to appeal to the high schoolers, Lee said.
Preliminary results for a study funded by Country Pure and completed recently by University of Akron marketing and finance students shows that youngsters are more likely to drink the V Blend juice than eat vegetables.
The study, conducted by Emma Salzbrenner, Sarah Wright and Lindsey Maiani and supervised by UA Associate Professor of Marketing and International Business Deborah Owens, collected data over a two-week period at two Akron Pubic Schools, McEbright and Voris.
The students weighed lunch trays before and after children ate to see whether the kids were more likely to throw away vegetables or the V Blend juices. The UA students also measured the thrown-away vegetables and juices separately. They did not interact with students for the study, said Owens.
The preliminary results “show that students were significantly more likely to obtain the needed nutrition of vegetables when served the Country Pure Foods V Blend Vegetable/Fruit Blend juice than when given a traditional serving of plated vegetables [carrots, broccoli or sweet potatoes],” said Owens.
The students have also received funding through the Smucker’s Leadership Institute at the UA to likely present their findings at a conference.
Getting children to eat healthier options is a struggle, said Owens, who served on the state school board under the name Deborah Owens Fink from 1999 to 2006. While on the state school board, she served as the chairwoman of the state’s wellness task force.
“Changing behaviors, whether it’s ours or students, is difficult. One area where Country Pure has been very progressive is developing beverage products meeting stricter vegetable standards,” she said.
Companies like Country Pure have an uphill battle to market to kids, Owens said.
The company is trying to get kids to “drink these juices they’re not familiar with and they haven’t seen them drunk by people they want to emulate, like LeBron James. That makes it more difficult,” she said.
Country Pure sells its products nationwide via distributors and more recently to Puerto Rico and the Caribbean.
The company’s headquarters are in Akron and there are also plants in Ellington, Conn., Deland, Fla., and Houston.
The company, with $185 million in yearly sales, employs 460, including 100 at its South Akron plant and headquarters. A variety of products and flavors are produced at the Akron plant, including the existing V Blend drinks, but the two new flavors will initially be produced in Connecticut, said Lee.
The company earlier this month, acquired the portion juice and juice concentrate business and certain assets — no employees or facilities — from Fruitbud Juice, LLC. It was the first acquisition since 2012 for the company, which is owned by private equity firm Mistral Equity Partners of New York.
Lee said the company, which sells over a billion single-serve portions of juice across the United States per year, continues to look for other growth opportunities and has looked at between seven to eight in the last two years.
The company remains committed to Akron, Lee said, and is in the midst of a $5 million investment to add a new high-speed drink box line to its facility on Waterloo Road. The company is landlocked, but is replacing a room used as a cooler with the new equipment, which will increase productivity by 40 percent and produce juice boxes 3.2 times faster than existing equipment, he said.
The company’s 4.23-ounce juice box is the fastest growing size for the company since breakfast is expanding in schools.The company’s traditional juice, such as apple juice, is packaged, for instance, with a Kellogg’s breakfast package with cereal and a Pop Tart and served at schools.
Country Pure solely sells through distributors and to institutional clients or via its national brand-name clients, though Lee said the company often gets requests from consumers wanting to buy the product via traditional retail channels.
The company toyed with the idea of selling via Amazon.com, but it would require a different business model, said Lee.
“For now, we’re capturing the low-hanging fruit. We’re probably not the right company for retail,” he said.
And next on Country Pure’s list of vegetable categories to tackle is probably not “green,” said Lee.?Green juice eventually turns brown — and that will not work for kids, he said.
Betty Lin-Fisher can be reached at 330-996-3724 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her @blinfisherABJ on Twitter or www.facebook.com/BettyLinFisherABJ and see all her stories at www.ohio.com/betty