This year’s United Fresh show in Chicago this past June was the first trade show for Here, a company based in Chicago that specializes in locally sourced juices, dips and dressings. Their booth, which featured a sampling of their entire product line, was consistently packed with attendees.
Safe to say, it was a good start for a company that’s just getting off the ground.
“We want to give people local food year-round,” said President Megan Klein.
Nearly every ingredient used in Here’s products is sourced in the Midwest. Its tomatoes, for instance, come from MightyVine in nearby Rochelle, Ill. Greens come from hoop houses in Indiana and Illinois, and the wheat grass comes from different farms in downtown Chicago.
The focus on local food is also in the company’s DNA, as Klein’s previous jobs were as an energy and environmental policy lawyer and as president of FarmedHere, a vertical farm operation based in Chicago. Her decision to found Here actually stemmed out of FarmedHere, as FarmedHere, which is no longer in business, originally sold what are now Here salad dressings for five years using basil that couldn’t be shipped to local grocers. (It was perfectly fresh, but considered “ugly” and not retail-ready due to small imperfections in its appearance.
“We want to do more of that, and we’re foodies ourselves,” Klein said.
From there, Here saw a need for juices and dips that paired with available products from local producers. Chicago and the surrounding area — which Klein calls “the capital of urban farming” and a hub for local food — provides everything Here needs.
“We knew that we had a good base for the juices, and worked with our chef to come up with flavors that were not only locally sourced, but unique,” Klein says.
Expanding the business model
Here’s business model of sourcing, and then selling, locally has been successful so far despite the business only being around a short time. In the Midwest, they are in every Whole Foods store and various other stores in the region. During United Fresh, Klein says several grocery store buyers showed interest in Here’s products. She says it’s for a simple reason.
“We’re giving them something new,” she says. “We’re doing something new that no one else is doing.”
Growing the business could mean expansion, which isn’t as easy for Here as it might seem. According to Klein, were Here to expand to any other region in the U.S., it would take time. To set up shop in places like the West Coast or New York, Klein says it would take about a year to find the right producers and right recipes for new markets.
“We want to make something that’s really great that people want to eat it again and again because it tastes good and it supports Midwest farmers,” Klein says.
Tomato research and the science of taste
Vineland Research and Innovation Centre aims to find the perfect tomato for consumers.
By Maddie Capron
There may be no such thing as a perfect tomato, but thanks to research by Amy Bowen and Dave Liscombe at the Vineland Research and Innovation Centre, growers are one step closer to producing the next best thing.
In 2012, the Ontario Greenhouse Vegetable Growers organization put out a list of research priorities, and one of those priorities was to improve or differentiate flavor in tomatoes. The focus was on tomatoes on the vine — the ones consumers can buy in clusters, Liscombe says.
The team received a grant for the project from Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada and got started in the spring of 2013. The goal was to discover what consumers wanted in a tomato, and provide growers with tomatoes that have the right mix of naturally occurring chemical profiles to grow.
Finding a tastier tomato
“What we want to do is understand what is it that makes one tomato more flavorful than another tomato for the consumer?” says Bowen, who headed the flavor side of the research. “Then this information is being connected with our biochemistry group, which is where Dave Liscombe comes into play. He’s looking at the biochemistry of the tomatoes and how their chemistry relates to different flavors that are perceived by the consumer.”
To discover what consumers were looking for, Bowen and her team, including Vineland’s sensory panel of 15 people (all of whom had no ties to the food industry and were selected based on their ability to describe and differentiate different horticultural products), initiated a study.
“They created a lexicon of terminology that we could use to basically differentiate one tomato from another,” she says.
The panel came up with 20 different attributes that could be used to distinguish one tomato from another, such as sweetness, acidity, juiciness and others. They then took 56 varieties of tomatoes and decided which were similar and different based on those attributes.
The researchers could then select a diverse variety of tomatoes to take to consumers to test which varieties they liked better.
“Now, when we go to consumers, we’re looking for people that would be representative of the population that are going to be purchasing our product,” Bowen says. “We can use that to create what we call the preference map, which identifies different segments of consumers based on their preferences for the product, and also gives us the sensory attributes that are driving preference for the product.”
The consumers indicated that texture is incredibly important when it comes to tomatoes, even if the flavor is enjoyable. If texture is off, consumers will not favor it.
“Anyone who’s shopped for tomatoes in the grocery store [knows that] people tend to feel them, pick them up and squeeze them,” Liscombe says. “This is the tricky thing about tomatoes and any other produce that we need to grow in mass quantities to feed everyone.”
After texture, specific flavor factors such as sweetness and acidity were also important.
“What we found, in general, was that if it was too juicy and soft, [consumers] didn’t like it,” Bowen says. “If it was too firm with a meaty or grainy texture, they didn’t like it. It had to be a strike zone somewhere in between those two.”
That information was then sent over to Liscombe and his team in order to understand what the chemical makeup looked like for the favorable tomatoes. One way the team did that was by analyzing the aroma of the tomato.
“We basically measure all these chemicals in all the tomatoes that were tasted and then look for correlations between the levels of certain chemicals and how much people liked them,” Liscombe says. “If all the tomatoes that are very much liked by consumers had very high levels of certain aroma chemicals, we conclude that they’re important [factors].”
Only about 10 percent of a tomato’s volatile chemicals that make up its aroma influences a consumer’s perception of flavor, Liscombe says, but they can be manipulated to create a better taste.
Liscombe also says it’s important to not only have good flavor and taste for consumers, but also good production traits that growers are looking for, such as disease resistance.
“The main goal here is to develop varieties that the greenhouse growers will be able to grow,” he says. “They’re not really going to be responsible for figuring out which ones are liked or disliked by consumers. That’s really what we’re going for, essentially developing varieties in the seeds for those varieties to sell to the growers.”