New Jersey: A Thriving Food Hub
JUNE 12, 2019
JIM PYTELL | NJ BUSINESS MAGAZINE
When contemplating society’s complex technological landscape, the grilled chicken and vegetables one had for dinner the night before likely aren’t the first things that come to mind. Though upon closer examination, it is technology that serves as the backbone of the food industry, affording millions of people access to large quantities of fresh food in a short amount of time.
“The average person might not know the extent of how much is actually involved in making a quality finished product and getting it onto a store shelf at a reasonable price,” says Executive Vice President of Goya Foods, Peter Unanue. “Without technology, our products would be produced at a small fraction of the speed we produce. Quality control would be much more of a challenge, and the cost of a finished product on a store counter would be tremendously more expensive. Technology helps us have the right quality products at the right place at the right time, and at a reasonable cost.”
And it’s not just the behind-the-scenes logistical ecosystem that technology is impacting. There are countless innovations within the food space that could dramatically alter the future of what food consumption looks like. Food companies are constantly leveraging and analyzing data to make sure they are staying on top of trends and meeting the demands of changing demographics, tastes and preferences – all aided by technology.
“We see new technologies as opportunities for us,” Unanue adds.
WHY NEW JERSEY?
“True to our name as The Garden State, New Jersey’s rich agricultural history serves as the foundation of our food ecosystem,” says Jose Lozano, president and CEO of Choose New Jersey.
The state boasts a $126-billion food industry and agriculture sector, and is home to more than 50,000 food manufacturing companies, research and development (R&D) facilities, distribution centers, retailers and farms. In addition to access to more than 50 million consumers within a two-hour drive from its borders, New Jersey’s logistics infrastructure – including numerous ports and centralized highways – make the state a true international hub for the food industry.
“New Jersey is home to brand giants and innovative disrupters alike,” Lozano explains. “Goya Foods, the largest Hispanic-owned food company in the US, is headquartered in Jersey City, and Aerofarms, the commercial leader in indoor farming, resides in Newark. Our state’s concentration of top talent is key for attracting R&D and innovation centers and our robust logistics and transportation infrastructure makes it a natural fit for food manufacturing and distribution.”
CONSUMER TRENDS DRIVE INNOVATION
The digital age not only produces exciting new technologies for companies to leverage, but it also connects companies with consumers like never before. In many ways, it’s the consumers who are dictating where innovations will go in the food industry.
“Current innovations in food are the direct result of consumers being more cognizant of the impact that our food choices have,” Lozano explains. “We’re seeing more demand for everything from supply chain transparency to more simplified nutritional content labels. This is a fast-evolving ecosystem with new technology and techniques and unless companies are on the bleeding-edge, market forces may just move past them.”
Craig Slavtcheff, vice president, Global R&D, Campbell Soup Company, points to clean label and health and well-being as some of the top consumer trends in the industry today.
“A recent example [of what Campbell is doing in this space] is our new single serve Well Yes! Sipping Soups,” Slavtcheff says. “We know more consumers are eating on-the-go, but still consider soup a staple healthy meal option. Packaging and recipe innovation allowed us to develop a product that meets the needs of today’s mobile and health-conscious consumer.”
Slavtcheff adds that Campbell maintains an omni-channel approach to stay connected with its consumers.
“Even though most Americans live far from a farm, increasingly, they want to know the ingredients in the food they eat,” he says. “Campbell was among the first to lead the industry in transparency by providing consumers with more information online about the ingredients in our products.”
Unanue says that Goya has its own “Better for You” healthy product line which includes a host of low sodium and organic products that consumers are increasingly seeking. He adds that while it’s one thing to identify consumer trends through data and analytics, it’s another to fully capitalize on them.
“Getting [consumers] to try our products involves getting the word out, introducing the products and educating consumers on the use of our foods to familiarize them with us,” explains Unanue. “We participate in many community events and advertise in both traditional outlets including broadcast and digital, as well as via social media to reach more millennials.”
As the needs and expectations of consumers change, so does the demand on food processors such as Rosenhayn-based F&S Produce Co., Inc. The company boasts a new retail fresh food plant in Vineland that utilizes automated, web-based systems that monitor and control building temperature, air purification and pressurization, chilled water, and process water removal systems. Sam Pipitone, owner of F&S Produce, adds that these systems can be monitored from anywhere in the world to ensure the strictest safeguards to food safety processes are in place.
Additionally, Pipitone foresees that another popular trend – meal-kit delivery – will also continue to evolve.
“As food trucks have become increasingly popular, the next trend we’ll see is likely food truck delivery of meals cooked outside of the consumer’s home or office. While Uber Eats and Grubhub can deliver restaurant-prepared meals, there are sacrifices in food safety and quality. On-demand food truck preparation at your doorstep will solve those issues,” he explains.
FOODS AND FLAVORS ARE KEY INGREDIENTS IN THE INNOVATION ECONOMY
New Jersey has the highest concentration of scientists and engineers per square mile than anywhere else in the world, making the state a premier destination for the research-heavy field of flavors and fragrances. In fact, with 134 flavor and fragrance establishments, nearly 1 out of 10 workers in the industry are employed in New Jersey, according to Lozano.
“In 2018, Nestlé Health Science chose to locate its global R&D facility in Bridgewater, citing the ‘commercial and technical competence’ of [New Jersey’s] workforce as a key factor in the company’s decision,” Lozano says. “Many food and beverage and flavors and fragrances companies exist at the intersection of biotech and agricultural engineering to advance nutrition and flavor breakthroughs. These industries encourage experimentation, creativity and tech integration. This fits squarely within Governor Murphy’s plan to reclaim New Jersey’s place as The State of Innovation. … We’re fostering a stronger startup culture to encourage the next innovative company to plant its roots here.”
One example is Impossible Foods, maker of the plant-based Impossible Burger, which got its start at the Rutgers Food Innovation Center (FIC) in Bridgeton. The company credits FIC as critical to its scale up path to develop production lines and seed the market, and recently announced that it is scrambling to keep up with the demand for its beef-substitute burgers after its explosive rise in popularity nationwide.
Richard McArdle, director of the FIC, says that the center started as a means to charge economic development based on helping entrepreneurs get products to market, but has since expanded to help all sizes of food related businesses.
“We help innovative businesses get to market by giving them the benefit of the information that we have,” he adds. Be it marketing, technical, regulatory or manufacturing expertise, the FIC offers everything to support a food business – both domestic and international – from concept to commercialization, cementing itself as one of the premier destinations for innovative food companies across the globe.
Something should be said about the role New Jersey’s diversity plays in its food space, and Lozano points to the state’s deep immigrant roots lending itself to a thriving culinary bounty, where every culture, palette and delicacy is celebrated.
“From authentic Portuguese food in Newark’s Ironbound to some of the best Indian restaurants in the country in Edison, global influences and olfactory experiences are plenty. We’ve found that many international food companies see New Jersey as a cultural match, thanks in part to our diverse communities and ability to reach key markets.”
While the future is bright and the talent in the state remains high, Pipitone says it is important to properly educate the next generation of talent to be able to get the most out of the technological innovations of the future.
“Technology is becoming increasingly present in our industry, but the employee talent needed to work with it is trying to catch up,” he explains.
Pipitone says that “legacy” mechanics can fix traditional equipment, but they are increasingly being expected to become information technology/systems technicians as well.
“Younger employees tend to be more equipped to engage with technology and automation, but they often lack the skillset or desire to work with manual machines, or in a manufacturing environment,” he continues. “The food industry is relying on the education systems and the Department of Labor and Workforce Development to teach and guide our students in this area, and into the food industry. Without that skillset and knowledge, the advances in technology and innovation will falter.”