The last berries of a Concord grape delivery make their way from the receiving station to the de-stemmer.
Photo by Melissa Hansen
The Concord grape juice industry, though known for up and down swings in production, is a stable one, with little change from year to year in acreage numbers or new markets. So, when a new player, even if minor, enters as a concentrate processor, it warrants attention.
FruitSmart, with roots going back to 1982, is a private, locally owned business in Grandview, Washington, that’s been building a niche in the fruit byproducts world the last 30 years. First known as BRB Seeds, the company dried fruit pomace to sell as fruit fiber, along with seeds, to food manufacturers.
In 2005, following mergers, facility relocations, and equipment additions, FruitSmart was renamed and ultimately settled in Grandview. In 2010, the company moved into the Safeway processing plant that had been vacant for a decade. Combining the two separate juice and fruit byproduct processing facilities under one roof brought synergy to the business, said Terry Chambers, FruitSmart president and general manager. “We believe it’s the model of the future,” he said, explaining that there is synergy in knowing what happens to every ounce of fruit—from peel to seed to juice—during processing. The facility was equipped in a modular fashion, allowing a set up that drives efficiency through minimal changeover time when switching fruits and products.
The principal owners in the company are Jim Early and Jim Gauley. Chambers, president and general manager, was hired in 2006 to assemble a production team that collectively brings decades of fruit processing experience to the organization.
FruitSmart isn’t a typical fruit juice processor. Its goal is to utilize every ounce of fruit processed to make premium fruit-based ingredients—juice concentrates, purees, fruit essences, extracts, fruit fibers, seeds, oils, and fruit seed powders. Organic products are also available.
The value-added components produced from the byproducts of juice processing (extracts, fibers, seeds, etc.) are considered functional ingredients that can add texture, mouth-feel and nutrition to foods like ice cream, yogurt, and health protein bars. The company processes a variety of fruits, but the major ones are apples, cherries, grapes, cranberries, peaches, and berries.
“Our goal is to carve out a niche in producing a super-premium, finished product that carries a competitive price,” Early said. “We’re not trying to be ‘me too’ but are plowing new ground in niche markets.” He adds that the premium food market, like other high-end markets, has taken a hit the last few years from the down economy, making things challenging.
“We’re trying to create long-term, stable markets for all of the fruit ingredients that we produce,” he said. “We have to be careful not to price ourselves off the shelf, though it is sometimes necessary to raise prices when fruit costs, energy, and labor are high. It’s a careful balance between offering growers enough to secure raw materials without losing customers on the other end.”
Juice grape concentrate
In Washington State, a handful of major juice grape processors handle the bulk of the state’s juice grape production. Thus far, growers have welcomed FruitSmart’s entry into the Concord deal.
“More competition is always a good thing,” said Prosser grape grower Dennis Pleasant, adding that he believes FruitSmart will help develop new grape concentrate markets. “They had a few issues last year when starting up, but this year, FruitSmart has really been putting the grapes through the plant, and they’re doing a nice job with the fruit.”
FruitSmart is a minor player in the grape concentrate deal and has only a very small percentage of the market, Early said. But that’s by design, as their focus has been to produce a high-quality grape concentrate with deep color.
Adding juice grapes to their apple and other fruit processing helps the company offer a full line of fruit products, and they can also better utilize processing equipment. Early pointed out that, just as in farming, diversification and not being tied to any one crop or product help in weathering over- and undersupply and shifts in market demand.
Chambers said that the equipment used in the juice grape line is on the small side because they want to move juice through the process quickly. “In Concords, the longer it takes to heat things, the more color you lose. The equipment we put in has done a great job of maintaining color by minimizing the amount of heat and length of time the juice is exposed to the heat.”
Grapes can be turned into concentrate within a couple of hours from receiving.
FruitSmart also works closely with its Concord growers to shorten the interval between harvest and delivery. “We have the cooperation of our growers to not harvest too far in advance of processing, so that we can minimize any color loss from grapes sitting in trailers waiting to be delivered,” Chambers said.
Though a small player in juice grapes, FruitSmart is growing its grape concentrate volume. In 2012, its second year of grape processing, the company added a second 160,000-gallon storage tank for grapes. The increased storage allows more tank space to store grape concentrate for the four to six weeks needed for cold stabilization and tartrate formation.
According to FruitSmart’s Web site, the facility has just under a million-gallon storage capacity for all fruit juices and concentrates.
FruitSmart is a small part of the fruit-processing world, but they’ve found a niche being a locally owned business with a strong grower connection and are optimistic about future growth.
“We welcome growers through our doors to tour the plant,” said Chambers, adding that growers are the key to their success. “Because we’re local and not a large corporation, we can make decisions in ten minutes. We take pride in our grower partnerships and also in bringing the old Safeway plant back to life.”