Florida Specialties

April 15, 2011

Florida Specialties has seen tremendous growth through Blue Ribbon, a private label created to market its packaged, value-added green beans. Released in early 2010, the label has performed well enough for the company to open a new processing and packing facility in Immokalee, Fla., with plans for further expansion in the next few years as new customers purchase the products as fast as they roll off the line.

The new facility is the second wave of an expansion that began in early 2010 to accommodate green beans processed under the Blue Ribbon name.

“Since we finished the first phase a year ago, we needed to expand further. With the new addition, we were able to triple our production to about 45 million pounds,” said Myles Strohl, Florida Specialties owner, who has played an integral role in moving the company in new directions since he acquired it in 2009.

Food safety and consumer convenience became the inspirations behind the beans. The packaging helps in protecting the green beans from contamination, whether from consumers who handle bulk beans with unclean hands, or contamination from dirty floors. It also aids retail markets in limiting shrinkage in the produce department.

For consumers, the packaged products provide a healthy alternative to processed foods, and the value-added nature of the products offers consumers more convenience, especially in preparing healthy meals in households with two working parents.

The label was released in March 2010, to positive reviews and received glowing support at the Produce marketing Association’s Fresh Summit International Convention and Exposition in Orlando, Fla., last October.

“The reception was outstanding. People were really interested in the fact that we’re the growers, and can go from field to bag in 24 hours,” Strohl said. “Our tests have shown trimmed beans can last up to 21 days from the time of packaging.”

Florida Specialties opened a new facility to process and package the products, but quickly realized the limited space could not accommodate the expanding interest from retailers and food service outlets, so groundwork of a new facility began in August 2010. Construction was completed in February, increasing floor space to 75,000 square feet. The company introduced new technologies and state-of-the-art equipment into the facility, from snippers and scales to automatic packaging machines, and increased the company’s workforce by 100 employees to operate the new equipment. The company also introduced transparency into the facilities, instituting a closed-circuit video system tied to the Internet that buyers can log into to watch the packaging process.

The new facilities were designed with food safety and cleanliness in mind, leading to Kosher and Primus certifications for the company. The cleanliness has not gone unnoticed by buyers, especially those within the foodservice industry, who are already used to extensive cleaning measures in restaurant kitchens.

“We have had a number of food safety personnel come in and inspect our new facility, and it just blows their mind.” Strohl said.

In response to the increasing popularity in the products, Florida Specialties has begun work with independent companies to market beans under private labels, increasing market share of the products.

“We have been contacted by several companies about private label opportunities. They are purchasing trimmed beans from us for the retail and food service outlets they serve. Our beans will be all over the country, it just won’t be marketed as Blue Ribbon on the bag,” Strohl said.

Florida Specialties was formed in 1986 as a cooperative among several growers in southern Florida. Although most of the farms’ acreage is devoted to beans, some acreage is planted with squash, eggplant and peppers. The company historically dealt primarily in bulk produce, but began moving into value-added products when Strohl took over the company as sole owner in 2009 after selling his successful business, Strohl Systems, in Pennsylvania.

With the success of the Blue Ribbon label, and an expanding market for value-added beans, Florida Specialties is set to further expand in the next few years. That certainly includes expanding operational facilities for the green beans, but it may also include finding a specialty market for their other crops, especially peppers. But peppers don’t currently have a viable value-added market, and until that market opens, the company is focusing on producing value-added beans, and they have already designed a new facility to accommodate their continued growth.

“Right now, peppers go out conventionally, and if there’s an opportunity in value-added (peppers), we’ll certainly look at the opportunity. We’ve spent about $12 million on a new facility, and we want to devote time to make it more successful,” Strohl said.

“There are five organizations that have purchased the majority of our production capacity, so our next move would be to expand and build another facility. We already have the design, we’d just like to get a return on our initial investment before we build the next phase.”

-By Everett Brazil III, Contributing Writer