Doing Business: Tastes Like… A Brighter Future

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By infusing raisins with other natural fruit flavors, Amazing Fruit Products-US is creating a healthy, popular snack and working to generate much-needed jobs.

story and photos by OLIVIA GRIDER

Not often can two major problems confronting society or a community be addressed with a single solution. It’s even rarer for an individual or group with the opportunity to attempt such a feat to possess the necessary courage and perseverance. But the founders and employees of Amazing Fruit Products-US in Fort Payne, Ala., are up to the task.[s2If !is_user_logged_in()]

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Through the company and its product, they’re striving to achieve dual goals: create a healthy food children and adults in a nation facing an obesity epidemic will want to eat; and increase employment in their hometown, which is struggling economically after massive job loss to overseas competition.

Randy McClung, president and co-founder along with Joe Scott, had no experience in the food industry when Amazing Fruit Products-US was formed in May 2013. He did, however, have an extensive background in business. During the first half of his 40-plus-year career, McClung travelled the world working for Ovalstrapping, a Fort Payne company that manufactures packaging systems and processing equipment for the pulp and paper industry. He and Scott founded JSA Machinery, which supplies equipment to the newspaper and commercial-printing industries, 20 years ago.

Due to changes in the printing business, that company, also based in Fort Payne, saw a 90-percent drop in sales around the same time the area’s dominant industry – textiles – was taking a nose dive as popular brands began sourcing their products from factories in other countries.

Fort Payne was once known as “the sock capital of the world,” but now most of the mills that employed more than half the town’s population in 2000 have closed.

“We want to bring jobs to our community,” McClung says. “Many have been lost over the last few years. On a personal level, in January of 2009, I had to call together employees of JSA and lay off almost all of them. We would like to be a part of bringing some jobs back.”

While JSA Machinery is still in business and has increased to 20 employees, McClung says he and Scott had to decide whether to pursue another avenue as well.

When the director of DeKalb County’s economic-development organization presented a proposal from a Canadian company looking for someone to establish manufacturing, sales and marketing operations for the United States and Mexico, they stepped forward. In less than a year and a half, Amazing Fruit Products-US began processing, packaging and selling a line of products called Amazin’ Raisins – raisins infused with other natural fruit flavors, including peach, pineapple and strawberry – using a chemical- and additive-free method.

The company also has met some of the world’s most stringent requirements for food safety and quality, and its products have earned a coveted place on a list used by public-school nutrition directors to satisfy new regulations for providing children healthy food.

Getting to this place wasn’t easy, though. The road was fraught with unexpected challenges and setbacks. After passing a preliminary health inspection, the first building the company planned to renovate for its operations turned out to be unsuitable, and the founders had to start over with a different facility.

Packaging the product couldn’t be accomplished as initially intended, so the company purchased equipment that was supposed to accurately weigh, fill and seal the individual bags needed for school markets. But the equipment didn’t function properly. JSA Machinery helped make design changes and install assemblies to resolve those problems.

When marketing firms with experience in two of the company’s prime market segments failed to produce sales as expected, Amazing Fruit Products-US took over all marketing efforts and rebuilt sales structures. Finding a U.S.-grown raisin that would work with the flavor-infusion process was another hurdle – and a vital step in achieving the “made in the USA” designation that was important to the founders. The patented process initially worked only with the Sultana raisin, produced in South Africa, China and Turkey. The company worked with California growers for eight months and adapted its process, achieving even better taste-test results with the new raisin.

Taste tests in general have proven Amazin’ Raisins are a hit with kids, says Leslie Cannon, vice president of sales and marketing for Amazing Fruit Products-US. I can independently verify this as my own children, ages 12 and 15, quickly devour the tiny treats. My 3-year-old niece is a fan as well.

Amazing Fruit Products are currently served in schools in Georgia, Texas and Alabama, and the company does in-school taste testing. Cannon says children find Amazin’ Raisins to be similar to “gummy” products, but the raisins have nutritional value and lack ingredients with negative health consequences.

She’s invigorated by recent national news that schools aren’t offering any healthy foods kids like to eat. “We have the solution to that,” Cannon says. “It’s a healthy snack. Kids like it. There’s no added sugar; there are no preservatives. It’s all positive.”

Cannon relates a recent trip to North Carolina in which she took samples to the director of a school nutrition program: “He said, ‘This is wonderful. The kids love it. I can put this on breakfast, lunch and a la carte.’”

Cannon, who has 20 years’ experience in the food manufacturing, sales, service and retail sectors and joined Amazing Fruit Products-US in 2013, says she would like to see the company’s products replace those with high-fructose corn syrup, artificial flavors and colors. “It’s been proven these ingredients are unhealthy, and they’re in almost everything we eat,” she says. “We’re literally changing the DNA of our children’s bodies with our diet.”

Cannon is obviously overjoyed to be working for Amazing Fruit Products. “I can believe in this,” she says. “I can believe in selling this. I can feel good about people eating it.” Few food salespeople can make such claims, she says.

What makes the fledgling company’s accomplishments more impressive is the fact it has only six employees. While its leaders have big plans for growth – and two countries worth of expansion room Amazing Fruit Products is still largely a family affair. McClung’s wife, Kathy, has a health background and makes sure the company meets food safety and quality standards. She also handles finances. The couple’s son Ryan, plant manager, oversees operations with the help of production supervisor Donna Watkins, and another son, Scott, handles technical support.

We ask McClung to tell us more about Amazing Fruit Products-US.

LA: How did the company get started?
McClung: In May of 2013 Amazing Fruit Products-US was formed and obtained the rights for all production and sales of the Amazin’ Raisin in the United States and Mexico.

Knowing that school nutrition directors and meal planners were under scrutiny to find foods meeting new nutrition guidelines established by the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 [a federal law that, in an effort to fight childhood obesity, created stricter standards for food sold in public schools and began taking effect in 2012] and that these were foods with a taste that the kids would like, we wanted to move as fast as possible to be a part of the solution for them.

Renovation of an existing facility in Fort Payne began. Requirements for the building and grounds were extensive in order to meet local, state and federal requirements for safe food production. We transported production equipment from Atholville, New Brunswick, to Fort Payne. We then began rebuilding and updating the portions of that equipment we intended to use. We also started to manufacture additional equipment that we would need and initiated the purchase of other equipment to establish our processing line and packaging operations. Production began on our processing line in September of 2013. We produced only bulk product at that time, utilizing a company outside of Chattanooga, Tenn., to package our product. In September of 2014, complete production of the finished, packaged product began taking place in Fort Payne.

Our first product is flavor-infused raisins packaged in five flavors. Our slogan is “Looks like a raisin, tastes like a … strawberry, orange, peach, sour lemon or sour pineapple.

LA: What else takes place at the Fort Payne facility and how does this facility fit into the company’s overall operations?
McClung: The 15,000-square-foot Fort Payne facility is the only facility for our company at this point. It houses all of our production and our marketing/sales department. Our plan is that this facility will grow and expand to supply the major portion of our growth into the Southeastern, Northeastern and Midwest regions of the country. Beyond that distance, distribution points may require additional facilities in other locations.

Our expectation is that the Fort Payne facility will always be the corporate home and the hub of our operations.

LA: How do you infuse raisins with other fruit flavors?
McClung: As with most good patented processes, the flavor-infusion process we utilize is very simple. Utilizing the mixture of the right raisin, citric acid as an agent, only the essential oil of the fruit, hot and cold temperature modulation along with mechanical manipulation and that one last secret we will not be able to reveal, we are truly able to achieve flavor infusion that produces a healthy, tasty food that is all natural.

LA: Please tell us about the health aspects of your products and how they compare to other snack food.
McClung: The Amazin’ Raisin is all natural with no sugar added, kosher, gluten free, fat free, GMO free, vegan and produced in a peanut/tree-nut free facility.

Our products only have three ingredients: California raisins, citric acid and the essential oil of the chosen fruit. Citric acid is a natural component of many foods, and essential oils are not a derived mixture to achieve a similar flavor result nor are they an artificial flavor. This is an important factor in regard to food allergens.

Our process allows us to add a flavor burst of the chosen fruit by utilizing the essential oil of the fruit and achieving true infusion. It is common for sugar to be used to make a flavor adhere to the outside of a product in order to achieve the desired flavor and sweet taste; our process achieves the same results without the use of refined or any other type of sugar or sugar substitute – truly a much healthier way of achieving this.

Amazin’ Raisins are certified kosher by the Orthodox Union, the largest of the Jewish organizations granting kosher certification. We are inspected two times a year by the organization.

Our products are listed on the Alliance for a Healthier Generation’s Smart Snack Navigator list. This organization was formed by the American Heart Association and the Clinton Foundation to focus on healthier school meals, among other priorities. They created the Smart Snack calculator that many school nutrition directors and meal planners use to create meals and snack offerings that
are compliant with the Healthy, Hunger Free Kids Act of 2010. This act changed the world for public school food programs.

We are excited that not only does our product work in the Smart Snack calculator but we were able to further achieve listing in the Smart Snack Navigator, which has a more stringent set of requirements for healthy food offerings than even the calculator requires. Amazin’ Raisins are four of 59 fruit products listed in the navigator.

LA: Who are your primary customers and what markets do you serve?
McClung: Currently, school systems in the Southeast are our primary customers. Amazin’ Raisins are produced and packaged for the following markets: USDA school feeding and snack programs; retail sales (grocery stores); vending sales; institutional/restaurant feeding programs; and ingredient supply.

LA: How does packaging differ for different markets?
McClung: The school feeding packaging is based on a 1.3-ounce bag, which meets the ¼-cup dried fruit equivalent of the ½-cup fresh fruit requirement per USDA meal serving and snack guidelines.

We offer these same bags as an individual bag purchase for retail and vending sales. These bags are also grouped into multiple-bag packaging for retail sales. Clamshell packages for higher volume single purchases (4 ounces and 11 ounces) are offered, and they are usually found in the produce section of a grocery store. These provide customers who add our raisins to their cereal, oatmeal, salads or use them for baking a better volume option over the bags. Bulk packaging is offered in 5- and 20-pound quantities for commercial manufacturers and feeding programs.

LA: Where can people purchase Amazin’ Raisins?
McClung: In our local area, the Amazin’ Raisin can be purchased at Bruce’s Foodland stores [in DeKalb and Jackson counties in Alabama]
and at the United Grocery Outlet store and JSU Little River Canyon Center Gift Shop in Fort Payne.

The product is also available in health food stores in northeastern Alabama and northwestern Georgia and through our website, amazingfruitproducts.com.

LA: What is the company’s guiding philosophy?
McClung: Food and employee safety first; deliver on our commitments to our customers; help the thousands of public school nutrition personnel achieve their goals; produce healthy food that kids and adults like to eat.

LA: What are the advantages of operating in northeast Alabama from a business standpoint?
McClung: In my career I have traveled for more than 40 years. I have been in every state in the United States on business. I have traveled to Canada, Mexico, Brazil, Chile, Argentina, Haiti, all over Europe, Japan, Russia, Sweden, Finland and many more countries. I have been in the Amazon jungle in the summer and Siberia in the winter.

Almost every place you go there are aspects of the area and the people that hold some advantage to operating a business. Not many have a combination like northeast Alabama. Our quality of life here is not exceeded in any other place. Our area is truly pro-business. As we have brought this business into being, it has amazed me how much help and cooperation we received from our local inspectors and leaders all the way to liaisons with direct contact to our governor.

It is not easy to establish a food-processing facility. There are a lot of requirements to be met. An individual in the state health offices in Montgomery stated, “If needed, I will come to Fort Payne and stay until it is right.” Unless you have been involved with food processing, you might not understand what a tremendous statement that was for us to hear as we worked on creating our first facility.
Another factor that is of major importance to any business is the local commitment to excellence in education. This is a factor for children of employees and the quality of the future workforce available to businesses. We are very fortunate to have a local system totally committed to excellence in education.

Also of great importance to our local quality of life is the abundance of natural recreational opportunities available in our area, starting with Little River Canyon National Preserve.

LA: How do the area’s people contribute to the company’s success and what does this area offer employees in terms of work/life balance?
McClung: I think most would agree that any company’s success is to a great deal dependent on the folks who work there. How those individuals feel about life in general is probably the biggest factor in their day-to-day performance for the company.

The quality of life in any area is thus important to business success as it directly affects employees. Education, employment, safety and recreation – probably those are the most important factors in quality of life. As a whole, we are very fortunate to be in an area that can boast about our quality of life.

LA: What are the company’s plans for the future?
McClung: We want to expand on our goal of providing schoolchildren healthy food they want to eat. We have and will continue to do in-school testing. It is overwhelming to see the response we get from the children, but it is just as fun to have the opportunity to interact with them. We also want to continue growing the opportunities to offer the same to adults.

LA: What else should we know about Amazing Fruit Products-US?
McClung: As a part of our commitment to producing safe foods we have achieved Safe Quality Foods certification. This is an extremely
stringent international standard that assures buyers and customers that food has been produced, processed and handled according to the highest standards.

SQF certification goes way beyond how you produce the product and incorporates the listing of every item in your facility, coding each item for easily recognizable usage, detailing the construction of your facility the surrounding grounds of the facility, how pests are to be prevented, who can enter your facility, etc. This just starts the list. As we examined this standard, we first were astonished at what our costs would be and how constraining it appeared to make the workplace. However, we immediately realized that above all the other things we were required to do as a food-processing facility to create safe food, adhering to this standard’s requirements would put us into a position to make food safety the norm for our company, as was our desire from the inception of our efforts.

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