Still fresh-squeezed and simple
Marygrace Sexton lives and runs her business following one simple premise.
You want your food to go bad.
That belief continues to drive the evolution of Natalie’s Orchid Island Juice Company, a multimillion dollar business that produces minimally processed refrigerated juices squeezed in small batches using only fruits and vegetables from Florida farmers and American growers. They’re fresh, have a shelf life of between 26 and 35 days, and Sexton wouldn’t have it any other way.
“If you go into the produce section, your bananas and apples spoil in two to three weeks,” said Sexton, founder and CEO. “So should your food. So should your juice. Truly clean products should go bad.”
Nearly 30 years ago, Sexton’s fourth-generation Florida citrus grower husband Robert had noticed there was a dearth of truly fresh-squeezed orange juice at retail. The supply chain to move a product with shorter shelf life wasn’t fully developed to manage fresh products properly, said Natalie Sexton, Robert and Marygrace’s daughter and now Natalie’s director of marketing.
That didn’t change until “fresh-cut lettuce came into the market,” Natalie said.
“They started having refrigerated trucks and the produce section started having good refrigeration so (product) wouldn’t spoil,” Natalie said. “The whole thing with fresh juice is it’s like fresh produce. You have to keep it cold. Twenty-nine years ago, the infrastructure was just getting started.”
Meanwhile, Robert had determined that Florida oranges could be kept in cold storage over the summer and saved for processing into juice later on. While other juice processors might use California oranges, then Florida when in season, the Sextons realized they could use Florida oranges fresh off the tree when harvested, and put the rest in cold storage to be processed in the summer.
“He saw there was a demand for high-quality juice,” Marygrace said. “We had the resources, we had the fruit, and there was a market for it.”
They just had to figure out how to produce, market and distribute juice. With her husband too busy running the family packinghouse, Marygrace stepped in and made it happen based on the idea that it would be formulated with the best produce available, squeezed today, gone to market tomorrow, maintaining cold temperatures all the while.
Borrowing a refrigerated meat truck, she delivered her first orders. And the rest is history – a long, dedicated history to expanding into other juice flavors, widening distribution and figuring out how to adapt their products for export, all while staying true to the original principles of offering a “clean” product.
“I don’t believe in research and development,” Marygrace said. “If you have to research and develop something, it’s not a fresh product.
“The biggest thing we have to research now is when we want to make a fresh carrot juice, make a great fresh tomato juice, the pH has to be just right for safety reasons, to do that naturally. That’s one of the things we’re really studying – we don’t want to cook it, we don’t want to sterilize it. We want something fresh, and that’s what we’re working on.”
As it’s turned out, Natalie’s Orchid Island was in the right place at the right time as consumers have increasingly sought minimally processed, fresh foods made from simple ingredients of clear origin.
“We say we were chic before (fresh juice) became chic,” Marygrace said, with Natalie adding, “For 20 years, this company grew purely based off the taste of the juice. So when this juice trend came along, it helped propel our momentum without spending extra dollars.”
Today the company operates a 65,000-square-foot facility in Fort Pierce where it processes juice. They also have a 45,000-square-foot cold storage facility where fruit is stored in the summer, and expect to purchase a new building for juice production soon. About 200 people work for the company.
While they do a little Florida distribution themselves, most of it gets to customers through distributors. Natalie’s products are in 33 states – grocery store chains, foodservice and other outlets. Sizes range from eight to 128 ounces, with six options; a 16-ounce. grab and go is the most popular. They expect to do about $60 million in sales this year.
“We squeeze the juice, bottle it, and customers place orders on an as-needed basis,” Natalie said. “For example, a large retailer placed an order today, (so) we produce it, and ship it out within the next day or 48 hours.
“Product never stays in our facility for more than two days. It’s constantly moving it out and filling orders as they come in.”
The Sextons figured out that they could export by freezing the juice. They ship to more than 40 countries.
“We have two lines – a squeeze-fresh line, and we have our frozen-fresh line,” Natalie said. “It’s actually the same process as our chilled juice – squeeze and bottle – but we have a machine that freezes the products so it locks in all the nutrients and quality.
“We’re able to ship the product frozen in the retail package. They just take it out of the box and sell it.”
The company limits production of frozen product from January to May because they only use fresh-off-the-tree Valencia oranges for it.
“It’s very expensive to store the fruit, so we make it when it’s coming off the tree and freeze it and ship it,” Natalie said.
Beyond orange, the company offers more than 20 juice flavors including lemon, orange beet, carrot ginger turmeric, and tomato. A new flavor – matcha lemonade – is coming soon. They’re also willing to produce flavors and blends – if they are doable – at individual customers’ request.
“Natalie’s is no longer just a citrus juice company,” said Benjamin Walker, senior director of marketing and development, Baldor Specialty Foods in the Bronx, New York.
“They are extremely innovative and developing unique and interesting flavors that haven’t been available on the market previously.”
The company has worked on the idea of producing popsicles, but aren’t there yet. In the meantime, Natalie’s supplies its juices to other companies that are making popsicles.
Meanwhile, the company is expanding. They just hired a sales representative in Denver and opened a marketing office in New York City. In the west, the company is testing the feasibility of expanding, starting with Colorado. The company wants to increase its visibility by participating in consumer events, pop-up shops at art galleries, food festivals, athletic events and various festivals in both New York and Chicago.
They’re also looking at switching out packaging from an opaque (HPE) jug to PET clear plastic bottles, though that’s a work in progress. Besides being more expensive, PET bottles don’t say “homegrown” like the current containers – also recyclable – might to loyal customers, Marygrace said.
It’s all part of a re-branding that capitalizes on the fact that Natalie’s is a second-generation, family-run business committed to clean ingredients and processes.
“What our customers appreciate is we’re a personal brand,” Natalie said. “We’re a family brand.”