Among the challenges the nation faces are staffing shortages at hospitals and health care facilities, which in a very specific way, affects Country Pure Foods’ business. As one of the nation’s largest suppliers of portion juice, the company manufactures and distributes nearly a billion servings per year to health care facilities, schools, airlines and restaurants.
“It’s very difficult to pour that many portions, so we package juice in cups and other packaging for convenience and the ability to serve a large number of meals,” says President and CEO Raymond Lee. Because portion juices are pre-measured. the server does not have to worry about calculating dietary requirements for each serving.
“Most of our end users are health care organizations including hospitals, nursing homes, extended-care facilities — anyone that requires portion juice,” he adds
Like any perishable product, juice must be stored carefully. Traditionally, portion juice is shipped frozen to extend shelf life up to a year. It’s thawed before serving, but must be handled properly. Once thawed, it must be refrigerated until use.
“Here’s the problem: when you thaw it out and don’t use it all, you have to be able to identify which day you thawed the product,” Lee says. “Country Pure Foods is always looking for new products to help streamline processes for our customers.”
When staffing rotations or employee turnover occurs, the food service system must be foolproof in terms of identifying product end dates. To prevent problems, Country Pure Foods, under its Ardmore Farms® brand, has come out with a new packaging approach for portion juice: date-coded cups, which are refrigerated but not frozen. Each individual cup is coded with a use-by date.
The Ardmore Farms® date-coded product has a longer shelf life than most other refrigerated juice products. Also, the labeling safeguards take the guesswork out of end dates and handling.
“We promise our distributor customers that date-coded cups will have a minimum shelf life of 45 days upon delivery, but it’s really closer to 84 days from the time of production,” Lee explains. “You now have it refrigerated; you don’t have to thaw it; it is date-coded so you know exactly when it expires.”
Lee says it’s more costly to code individual cups and to distribute refrigerated juices despite the longer shelf life, but hospitals are in the business of getting things right, so the new packaging is catching on. “They want to know exactly how they’re handling food service items and in many instances, it satisfies compliance with local health department procedures,” he says.
Country Pure Foods was formed in 1995 by the merger of Natural Country Farms, which was founded in the 1950s, and Ohio Pure Foods, which dates back to the 1940s.
Smaller acquisitions followed, along with the large acquisition in 1998 of Ardmore Farms, then a division of Quaker Oats.
Today, Country Pure Foods has annual sales exceeding $125 million. Growth is steady but modest. Despite the health benefits of antioxidants and vitamins in juices, people on trendy, low-carbohydrate diets avoid juice because it contains natural sugars. Country Pure Foods is looking into some low-carb alternatives with artificial sweeteners for its retail channel.
Manufacturing locations are in Akron, Ohio; Ellington, Conn., and DeLand, Fla., supported by a national distribution network. Each operation has more than 90,000 square feet of production and warehousing and can manufacture juice cups, cartons, and K-paks, an environmentally friendly portion juice pack that is easy for kids to open. The K-pak is a paper pouch with a pull-tab and pre-punched straw hole. The Ellington plant also has a plastic bottle packaging line. These multiple operations give Country Pure Foods a competitive edge.
“Our primary advantage is geographic diversity — having three plants to service national accounts,” Lee says. “Multiple plants allow us to meet customer demand and to offer competitive freight rates to our customers.”
Aside from fresh Florida orange juice, raw ingredients come in the form of concentrates, purchased from both domestic and international sources. Orange, apple, grape, and cranberry are the most sought-after flavors.
Squeezing the Competition
Ardmore Farms® is the company’s label for its core food service business. However, Country Pure Foods also sells 100 percent juice products to consumers through its retail channel. The retail operation allows consumers to enjoy Ardmore Farms® Select Grove® brand orange juices in original, country style, and calcium added. Another line, Natural Country Nectars®, is newly re-branded to target Hispanic consumers with flavors including guava, mango, orange-mango, apple, and pear.
It also provides private-label juices and juice drinks for many well-known grocery chains and superstores. In retail production, the company does everything from procurement through packaging.
Country Pure Foods’ co-pack (contract manufacturing) channel is one of the largest in the chilled juice industry. It serves virtually all of the nation’s top brands, packaging primarily in extended shelf, half-gallon paper cartons from International Paper. Along with its advanced extended shelf life technology, Country Pure Foods can guarantee shelf life in excess of 75 days from the date of production.
Production processes are similar for the company’s own brands and contract manufacturing, however, logistics are very different for customers’ proprietary formulations.
“In contract manufacturing, we’re not packing for a chain, we are packing for national brands of juice.” Lee says. “They supply virtually all ingredients and packaging materials … we supply the labor, overhead, technical support, quality assurance and often shipping.”
Country Pure Foods has a broad range of packaging alternatives. It processes 100 percent juices and concentrates, blends and fortified products. All products are pasteurized with rigid quality assurance standards.
“The fact that we package for the top national brands in co-manufacturing gives us credibility versus the competition. We all produce cups, we all produce similar packages, but to service these national accounts (Country Pure Foods) has a certain infrastructure in place that separates us as a quality supplier,” Lee says. “When a customer tours our plants and sees a national brand that they’re currently carrying in their stores, they know we have a high level focus on procedures to satisfy those constituencies.”