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Tiny and terrific

The Bender clan are potato people. From raising tubers especially for potato chips to the everyday table spud, they are experts in growing America’s most popular root vegetable. Given that, it should come as no surprise that they have revolutionized the way we think about, cook, and consume potatoes. They are the cultivators of the sweetest, creamiest, and arguably the most versatile potatoes of all—the bite-size.

As pioneers of one of the hottest trends to make the plate since macaroni met cheese, the team behind Tasteful Selections® has remained close to the land while innovating. From their roots in Nebraska as chip potato growers to their current position as the leading producer of bite-size taters in the nation from their Arvin, Calif., headquarters, they simply love their work.

“When we were digging potatoes in Nebraska and would take some home for dinner we’d always take the really small ones,” company COO Nathan Bender recalled. Potato growers “test dig” the spuds to determine their set and size, and often dig in the soil to determine moisture levels. During summer grilling season in Nebraska, the potatoes are still small and not yet ready to be turned into chips. “On my birthday we were cooking steaks at my buddy’s cabin, and we didn’t have anything to go with them. I just went to my bucket, grabbed some, and roasted them over the fire with the steaks.”

The little leftovers would turn out to be a huge success for the Benders. After graduating from the University of Nebraska at Lincoln in 2006, Nathan moved to California. His father, Bob, had moved to the state years before to broaden the family’s growing business. “I’d just graduated college and I was just doing sales in San Diego and living life, trying to figure out what I was going to do for my career. Then my dad called.”

The elder Bender learned that very small potatoes were becoming a hit in Europe and found a new direction for his passion. “The light bulb went off,” Nathan said. “We knew what we were going to do. I had always been interested in growing potatoes, and this was something different from growing table stock. Not to minimize those growers, but table stock potato farming has a 0.2% growth rate, so it isn’t as challenging as growing bite-size potatoes.”

In 2007, Nathan moved from San Diego to Bakersfield “That’s the problem when you’re in ag—it’s in your blood. I’ve been offered plusher jobs for a lot more money, but it’s not as exciting. As a farmer, you feel like you’re doing something that’s good. That’s a lot of it. And getting to work with my father was a once in a lifetime opportunity,” he explained.

The Benders didn’t know how to pack, market, or sell potatoes, but they were expert growers. “We knew that if we could get the product in the hands of customers, they would love it, but our challenge was that we didn’t know how to do that,” Nathan admitted. “We really knew there was a business here. We just didn’t have the skill or the time or expertise to go to market.”

To fill their knowledge gap, the family (operating as CSS Farms) partnered with Wisconsin-based produce marketing and sales specialists RPE and Plover River Farms. In 2010 the joint venture became Tasteful Selections®.

A Partnership for Growth

If there’s something every farmer knows well, it’s the power of partnership. Linking up with a company that could sell 18 million cases of onions and potatoes in a year was a bold strategic move, and one that the family knew would prove successful. RPE, the marketing and sales division of the Wysocki Family of Companies, brought the necessary talent to get Tasteful Selections® off the ground.

“RPE has a fully loaded bench of sales and marketing throughout the US. CSS has a fully loaded bench with a diverse group of agronomists, so we had the best of both worlds working for us and pushing us to be better every day,” Nathan said. “It sounds like a cliche, butif we were going to make this company get off the ground, we had to be on our A game because we started getting customers quickly and we grew fast.”

Fast? Try at lightning speed. In 2010 the company grew from one customer to putting products in 19 of the top 20 retail outlets in the nation. “We were shipping to more customers than we could count.”

The tiny tubers were a huge hit, skyrocketing the company’s sales projections and facility capacity into a whole new field of play. With initial projections doubling, the company was challenged to stay flexible enough to handle its success.

“We’ve been growing by double digits every year,” he reported. “I became a partner in 2014, about the same time we were moving into our facility in Arvin. We were in a smaller building that we thought would hold us for three to five years, but two years later we decided to build a new facility. Since moving into that facility in 2015, we have been expanding ever since, finishing Phase IV in 2020.”

The decision to move to California proved to be a tremendous advantage for the enterprise, given how much shorter the potato growing season is in the Midwest and Plains States. Tasteful Selections® is able to grow year-round, delivering fresh product to customers and continually adjusting for changes in demand. Growing in more traditional locations lends to a more traditional model of a big crop that sits in storage for six to eight months or as needed.

California’s year-round growing season gives the former Nebraskans the versatility needed to respond to demand.

The growing process begins in a Colorado greenhouse, where seeds are generated. After three years at seed farms, the plants go to farms in California, Arizona, and Nevada to be grown for retail. Tasteful Selections® owns the entire process, from seed to bag.

Tasteful Selections® plants approximately 250 days of the year, and harvests for about 340 days annually. They are the only bite-size potato producer that grows 12 months of the year, consistently bringing the freshest possible product to market. “Right now we’re planting in Bakersfield, we’re harvesting up in our higher elevations, and we’re constantly rotating. We’ll go down to the desert and grow in the winter, and come here in the the spring, then make a loop.”

Comfort Food, Consistency, and COVID-19

Cast your mind back to the hazy days of 2010. You’d be hard pressed to find much in the way of diversity on your local grocer’s shelves, at least when it came to potatoes. “You had big russet potatoes, big reds and yellows for mashing and boiling, and then you might have had a bag of small yellow or small reds but they weren’t consistent. There was nothing special about them,” Nathan said.

Furthermore, a bag of smalls would have varying sizes, and to get them to cook evenly meant cutting them in equal sizes—an inconvenience no matter the cooking technique. “Those were not grown to be small; they were grown as big potatoes. The small ones that were left at the end of the run got thrown in the bag or in the box and sold. We looked at that and realized they needed to be broken into five sizes,” he said.

That early differentiator got the momentum going. “In the existing market in 2010, what others had of one size, we made into five sizes. It would have been a lot cheaper to throw all those small potatoes in a bag and go. We went out and found varieties of potatoes that were being discarded in the market because they were too small. Everyone wanted big potatoes, big yields, lots of pounds. We wanted to find small potatoes with a flavor profile unlike what you were finding in stores. That was always top of mind.”

Tasteful Selections® owns the rights to those flavors. “That sets us apart from emerging competitors that figure out how to size and put them in a bag, and copy that. Other companies aren’t going to go to the trouble of sizing them. We have the smallest potato on the market. We capture everything we grow. We try to save every potato that is grown and find a home for it. That’s our goal.”

The company’s proprietary varieties, which include Honey Gold®, Purple Passion™, Ruby Sensation®, and Gold Fingerling® are uniquely thin-skinned, making them easy to prepare. Their convenience offerings feature a range of pre-seasoned and microwaveable options, each designed to make life a breeze for cooks of every experience level. Their Nibbles® are the world’s smallest potatoes and boast a velvety texture that delivers a delightful burst of flavor.

“We wanted a different experience,” Nathan noted, adding that the flavors are so tasty that there’s no need to bury their spuds beneath a mountain of cheese. Or butter. Or anything at all. The careful cultivation and sizing has transformed the much maligned starch-bomb of the past into today’s healthy side. “We decided that the No. 1 thing when we select a new variety of potato has to be flavor.”

Farmers are well acquainted with the unexpected, from the vagaries of the weather to economic upheaval, and now, to the impact of a global health crisis. When COVID-19 struck, the team at Tasteful Selections® shifted into high gear, making sure employees were cared for, and that stores had product on their shelves.

“We went out and packed 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and got as much product out as we physically could to keep food on the shelves,” Nathan said. “There might be people who stock up and buy 10 bags, but there’s still that one person who just needs to feed their family that night. It’s up to us to make sure that when that mother or that father needs a way to put nourishment on the table we have kept the supply chain going.

“It was really difficult for a lot of us in the food industry when this happened, but we were way ahead of COVID-19 … we had masks before the first cases came to our area, we tried to keep people safe before anything happened and made sure that nothing was going to happen in any part of our facilities. We can go to sleep at night knowing we kept our employees safe, and that’s really important to us. Even though we have partners, we treat our business as a family.”

The culture at Tasteful Selections® is passionate, to say the least. “We’re doing something great in feeding America,” Bender said. “Our people think of their work as more than a paycheck. It’s fun and exciting, and we’re always challenging ourselves. There’s always something more going on.”

Sustainability Commitment

As you might imagine, one of the biggest things going on at Tasteful Selections® is their commitment to sustainability. Attaining zero waste is an ongoing initiative. The firm recently partnered with How2Recycle®, a labeling system that clearly communicates recycling instructions to consumers to empower them to dispose of packaging responsibly. “We’re putting cogeneration and solar battery systems at our facilities to get more energy independent,” Nathan added, “and trying to be as carbon neutral as we possibly can.” Given that they plant 20,000 acres of crops, that neutrality is assured.

A self-propelled harvester that doubles the amount of input and saves on fuel has enabled the company to eliminate up to eight tractors a day. The water used to wash potatoes is reused, and what can’t be used to wash is applied to field crops. Five thousand acres have been transitioned from a flood irrigation system to a more efficient linear irrigation system that also conserves 60% more water.

“We’re leading the way in challenging the past and bringing a different approach to growing crops,” Nathan said. “Whether it’s organic or conventional we are constantly making sure we’re stewards. Feeding the country is our livelihood, so we do everything we can to make the ground better.”

And when that ground yields some of the tastiest bites you’ll ever enjoy you know they’re doing everything just right.

sourse: thebossmagazine.com

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