What AMS Exotic offers the world is baby vegetables – cute, delicious and colorful. Lorie Greenspan tells the story of how the company has come to lead in this segment through good farming and processing practices as well as unique and effective packaging.
What’s small, tender, delicate and cute? Well, perhaps a baby, but in the world of AMS Exotic, a more apt answer is: baby vegetables. Grown from a special seed variety, AMS Exotic’s baby vegetables are treated with the best care from the minute their seeds are planted in the ground to when they’re hand-processed in the company’s Los Angeles plant to final shipping and distribution to places near and as far off as Russia.
You could say that all during the process AMS Exotics babies its products.
The company was formed in 1992 as a merger between Advanced Marketing Services and Exotic Produce in Los Angeles and evolved since to contract with a roster of exclusive growers. “We provide agronomists and field technicians because we want the highest quality products from our Grower Network,” says Scott Lehmann, director of sales and marketing. “In any vegetable you want a nice, bright color and firm texture. We take a strong position with our growers to ensure a high level of Good Agricultural Practices (GAPs) are being utilized.”
AMS Exotic’s baby vegetables are difficult to grow because hand-harvesting is required so the company uses a co-op of small growers who do work by hand. The company offers a wide variety, including more than 30 different items in its consumer Earth Exotics™ Fresh Vegetable line, ranging from A to Z: Asparagus Tips to Baby Zucchini Squash. Also for consumers is a clamshell line (vegetables packed in a plastic clamshell-style container) featuring products that can be a meal additive. It also offers a line of steam-cooking vegetables produced by Lunor in France, a company that has been in existence since the 1920s.
The appeal in baby vegetables, Lehmann poses, deals with the fact that they are more tender and delicate than their bigger siblings and offer more flavor. And much like any other baby: “They have the cuteness appeal.” This is because the vegetables look good on the plate, Lehmann says.
After the product is grown and shipped to AMS Exotic’s facility the vegetables undergo a comprehensive processing program that also entails the use of manual labor to ensure the products aren’t damaged or bruised. Take baby carrots, for example. “All of our carrots are hand-peeled,” Lehmann says, adding the company hand-peels four- and a- half-million carrots a month. The company’s cleaning process is also unique: “We’ve developed a triple washing and tunnel dry process to fully wash the product. This process was developed specifically for our Baby Vegetable Program and is unique to us and differentiates our products on the market.” After the cleaning, AMS Exotic’s baby vegetables are … what else? Packed by hand.
To further enhance its operations, AMS Exotic’s main facility, located in the heart of the Produce District in Los Angeles, is certified by S.C.S. (Scientific Certification Services) utilizes Good Manufacturing Practices (GMP) and full Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point (HACCP) Food Safety programs. The company has a network of sister organizations throughout the world. The alliance combines its strengths in order to generate useful synergies that promote global sales and supplies.
Since last year AMS Exotic has had an agreement with George Foods, Pembroke, N.C., a division of Wayne E. Bailey Produce, Inc. (WEB) to co-produce the company’s Earth Exotic’s Premium Vegetables. Wayne Bailey has been a recognized sweet potato grower for 75 years.
The agreement allows AMS Exotic to provide its Earth Exotic’s Premium Vegetables to retail supermarket chains on the East Coast with greater shelf life, shorter lead times, fresh product and lower transportation costs as a whole. It also gave the company the ability to expand Earth Exotic offerings to a larger customer base.
Another way in which AMS Exotic enhances its operation is through the bags that contain the vegetables. “Our bag is designed to extend the shelf life of the vegetables so that our products can be shipped across the United States,” Lehmann explains, even though the vegetables theoretically die through anaerobic process once in the bag.
But these special packages have been created specifically for A.M.S. Exotic and are each designed for the particular vegetable it holds, using micro-perforation technology that allows vegetables to breathe in a specific manner, considering measures such as the respiration rate of the vegetable. The bags themselves, Lehmann says, “have a great crinkly feel and it’s one of the clearest films you can find.” The bags also help to extend product shelf life 12-14 days.
In addition to selling baby vegetables under its own brands AMS Exotic also private labels for supermarkets such as Whole Foods, Kroger, Wegman’s, Gelson’s Market in Southern California and Trader Joe’s. The company’s Earth Exotic Premium Vegetables can be found at the finest supermarket chains throughout America, Canada, Hong Kong, Russia and Singapore.
FOOD SERVICE FARE
Its products also enhance the menus prepared by famous chefs in the finest restaurants across the U.S. The company offers the same baby vegetable line for restaurants distributed through Sysco Food Service. This business has declined somewhat, Lehmann says, partly due to the economy and partly because of AMS Exotic’s decision to further promote its own retail brands, which was Lehmann’s charge when he arrived at the company in 2004 from a long career in the food and supermarket industry. “In 2004 zero percent of our business was retail; today 90 percent of the business is retail. Our company is a microcosm of what’s happening in the industry today; that is, to establish a direct selling relationship with retailers throughout the United States.”
One of the company’s strengths, Lehmann notes, is that AMS Exotic focuses solely on baby vegetables and works exclusively with its own growers – “it allows us to produce products we are confident in. We focus heavily on customers to give them the best customer service. People believe that we offer a special product.” As an example, Lehmann adds: “We have the number-
one branded Baby Vegetable Line in the U.S. We’re pretty proud of that.”