Market diversification enables MightyVine to supply multiple clients

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Jim Murphy, chairman of MightyVine, said his company’s locally-grown tomatoes are on the menus of some of Chicago’s top restaurants, including Frontera Mexican, operated by chef Rick Bayless.

Originally published in Issue 16

Although MightyVine has only been growing greenhouse tomatoes for a year, its sister companies have enabled its product to be sold to a variety of clients in multiple states.

MightyVine has been producing greenhouse tomatoes in Rochelle, Ill., for just over a year. But company chairman Jim Murphy became involved in the distribution and preparation of food before the 15-acre greenhouse operation began producing tomatoes.

“Two and half years before we opened the first 7.5-acre greenhouse we started a company called Local Foods,” Murphy said. “We began to source food from over 200 local farmers within 250 miles of Chicago, including grains, produce, meat and dairy, and delivered it directly to restaurants and small retailers. We were basically a distributor, a for-profit food hub. The restaurants really adopted the concept.

Jim Murphy, chairman of MightyVine, said his company’s locally-grown tomatoes are on the menus of some of Chicago’s top restaurants, including Frontera Mexican, operated by chef Rick Bayless.

“We have our own 30,000-square-foot retail and wholesale facility on the north side of Chicago. Local Foods is handling the distribution of the tomatoes grown by MightyVine.”

Another sister company of MightyVine is HandCut Foods.

“This company is a full-service food service company that prepares 5,000 meals a day, mostly for private high schools, colleges and grammar schools,” Murphy said. “The company sources local foods and provides daily from-scratch meals.”

From ethanol to tomatoes

Murphy, who is also CEO of Carbon Green LLC, is chairman of Carbon Green BioEnergy, a 60-million-gallon corn ethanol plant in Lake Odessa, Mich.

“When I first started looking at the greenhouse business, we were interested in trying to use the carbon dioxide and waste heat generated by the ethanol plant,” he said. “We looked into the possibility of locating a greenhouse near the ethanol plant. That’s what initially excited us about the greenhouse operation. But the production of ethanol grew more efficient in the past decade, so there isn’t as much waste heat available. I work with a lot of engineers and technically-educated people who were able to help us evaluate this. In the end, the ethanol plant tie-in was deemed unnecessary. But we loved the idea of a greenhouse supplying fresh local produce year-round to the Chicago market.

“The most difficult thing in terms of starting the greenhouse was finding a good location. We’re risk takers. When we brought the greenhouse online we didn’t have one tomato sold. There were people who were interested in buying our product, but we didn’t have one tomato sold.”

MightyVine partnered with Royal Pride Holland, in Middenmeer, the Netherlands, to construct its state-of-the-art glass greenhouse.

“Our operating Dutch partner has 140 acres of glass greenhouses north of Amsterdam,” Murphy said. “They were instrumental in assisting us to set up our operation in Chicago. The weather conditions between the two locations are similar. We have more extreme cold and a little more heat, but we also have more sunlight.

“We have the North American rights to proprietary seed that the Dutch company uses in Europe, so we are introducing a new flavor concept to the American market. We produce primarily two varietals year-round: cherry tomatoes on the vine and a high flavor TOV (tomato on the vine).”

Expanding market reach

Murphy chose the Chicago market to grow and market his tomatoes because he is from Chicago and he recognized the untapped potential to sell locally-grown produce there.

“Chicago is a great retail food market and a great restaurant market and there are a lot of young people living in the city,” he said. “We currently sell the majority of the product within the Chicago area. We sell to Whole Foods Market, Jewel and Hy-Vee. The tomatoes are also sold in Milwaukee, Madison, Quad Cities, and across northern, central and southern Illinois.

“We distribute some of the tomatoes ourselves, including to many of the top restaurants in Chicago. We also use a Fortune 500 third-party distributor for two of our larger retailers.”

MightyVine began harvesting tomatoes from its phase two 7.5-acre greenhouse facility in December. Murphy said the company is focused on supplying the Midwest market and is not looking to expand production to other locations outside the area. The company is looking at potentially growing other crops.

Promoting the benefits of locally grown

Murphy said tomatoes being shipped in from Canada are his company’s biggest competition.

“The Canadian growers have been at it a long time,” he said. “Many have operations in Mexico, so it can be difficult to know where their product is coming from. Our 15 acres is small in comparison to some of the Canadian tomato operations. They have logistical issues with trying to get their crops picked and out of their facilities. We’re able to get our tomatoes out of the greenhouse in a timely fashion. They don’t sit on site for three to five days.

“We also never sell any tomatoes that we don’t grow. That is an important difference. Most Canadian operations sell tomatoes they don’t grow. They’re more marketers than growers.”

Murphy said picking the tomatoes ripe enables end users to take advantage of the quality and health benefits of tomatoes.

“Our tomatoes are picked ripe and are in the store the day after we harvest them,” he said. “People are eating our tomatoes and getting all of that value from being able to grow the tomatoes all the way through to complete ripeness. There is no cold chain involved because we don’t have to ship our tomatoes a long way.

“People in Chicago know the MightyVine name. MightyVine is on a lot of menus in restaurants and we’ve been very pleased with the support of some of Chicago’s top chefs. Chef Rick Bayless, whose Frontera Mexican restaurants are very successful, loves us. He talks about us all of the time. If you walk through O’Hare Airport you’ll see signs for MightyVine tomatoes. We’re building our brand on quality.”

 


For more: MightyVine, (312) 432-6568; http://www.mightyvine.com.

David Kuack is a freelance technical writer in Fort Worth, Texas; dkuack@gmail.com.

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