’Tis the season for farm-fresh fruits and vegetables, but for those in the business of providing those ingredients – growers, chefs, restaurateurs, juicers – food is a year-round passion
[dropcap]T[/dropcap]here is something more delicious about eating dishes cooked with ingredients grown in our own backyards. The stories that follow celebrate businesses that don’t just operate in New Jersey, but have succeeded because they’ve sprouted here. They remind us that New Jersey Pride isn’t just Springsteen, Bon Jovi, or a low gasoline tax. It’s also driven by the entrepreneurial spirit.
Melick’s Town Farm
Founders: The Melick Family
How they are homegrown: Working the soil in N.J. for 300 years
Apples may not be the first thing people associate with New Jersey, but the tasty treat has been at the core of one New Jersey family’s business for nearly three centuries. Melick’s Town Farm bills itself as the largest apple grower in New Jersey, boasting 30,000 apple trees and 5,000 peach, nectarine, plum, pear, and cherry trees on some 650 acres of land spread out across multiple towns.
The operation is currently run by the 10th generation of farmers – siblings Peter, Rebecca, and John Melick – with the support of their parents, George and Norma. The family has deep roots in the Garden State, tracing its presence here back to the early 1700s, when Johan Peter Moelich arrived in the area with his two brothers.
“We’ve been farmers all along,” says John. But along the way, his grandfather’s relatives drifted away from agriculture, and “Our father, George, 80, was an only child, so the farm didn’t get carved up when his parents passed away, ” Today, the Melicks’ farm holdings are made up of a series of major locations that are not contiguous: two sites in Lebanon Township, one in Tewksbury, and
another two in Clinton, where the family has two locations.
“New Jersey is a relatively affluent state, so people are willing to pay more to get highquality, fresher food.” – John Melick
“About 30 years ago, our dad bought a farm in Lebanon Township [supplementing his Tewksbury land], next to the town of Califon, in an attempt to spread the risk. For a fruit grower, it’s better to separate your orchards so there’s less chance that they’ll be affected by any adverse condition.”
Following that strategy, John and his siblings also began to buy up farms, eventually acquiring the two Clinton sites, in addition to a second one in Lebanon. “In some ways it would be an easier harvest and distribution if the properties were all together, but they’re close enough that it’s not a problem,” says Melick. Harvesting is a little tougher “because we’ve got to move equipment between different locations, but the fact real estate is hard to come by means less competition, since the barriers to entry are so high. Plus, New Jersey is a relatively affluent state, so people are willing to pay more to get high-quality, fresher food.”
The bulk of the family’s business is conducted at retail locations like three family-owned seasonal farm markets, and at communal farm markets across the region “since the margins are better,” but about 30 percent of the company’s produce is wholesaled to local supermarkets and restaurants. About five years ago, the Melicks further diversified by adding community-supported agriculture, or CSA, where individuals can buy a share of the harvest. “It’s an additional revenue stream, and enables people to get a fresh, diverse stream of foods,” Melick reports.
In a typical CSA, a farmer offers a certain number of “shares” to the public, giving consumers the right to receive a box, bag, or basket of seasonal produce each week throughout the farming season.
More recently, the family got regulatory approval to produce “hard cider,” or an alcoholic beverage made from the fermented juice of apples that’s sold at local liquor stores and restaurants
under the Melick’s Hard Cider brand. “There was a lot of paperwork with the New Jersey Division of Alcohol Beverage Control,” Melick says. “But it was worth it to open up this opportunity. We’re looking at the venture as a long-term one, and we expect to be cash-flow positive in about two years.”
The Stone House at Stirling Ridge
Founders: Frank and Jeanne Cretella
Hometown: Staten Island, N.Y., residents with deep connections to New Jersey
How they are homegrown: Using self-grown and locally sourced food
The Stone House at Stirling Ridge, owned by Frank and Jeanne Cretella, provides guests with a rustic, serene, yet sophisticated setting. “As part of the experience, our Executive Chef Jerry Villa believes that the best meals start with the freshest ingredients, which is why he brought the farm-to-table [local sourcing] concept to life at Stone House,” says Jeanne, who also serves as the 2016 chairwoman at the New Jersey Restaurant & Hospitality Association. “Chef Jerry was instrumental in starting the local organic farming cooperative Dancing Goat Farm, which lives on Stone House’s property” in Warren.
“Any form of pasteurization, including high-pressure Pascalization, lowers the nutritional value of foods by raising temperature.” – Jess Rosen
The couple – who own a total of seven high-end establishments in New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania that also embrace farm-to-table to varying degrees – didn’t adapt the strategy as a way to reduce costs by buying locally grown ingredients, according to Cretella.
“Buying local may not cost less, but there’s a huge difference in quality, since the ingredients haven’t spent weeks traveling to you,” she reports. “From a business perspective, you have to consider your target market and your competitive advantage. People decide to dine based on feedback from friends, or online reviews, but they come back because of the total experience: food, ambience, and service. People appreciate really good food that is seasonal and local.”
Having a resource like Dancing Goat Farm on-site helps the Cretellas to bring fresh goodies like tomatoes, Swiss chard, arugula, mint, and other homegrown treats directly to the table; but
the limited land available for farming in a place like New Jersey means that Dancing Goat can’t satisfy all of their needs. One way the couple extends their reach is to source meats, cheeses, and other foods from Zone 7, a Ringoes-based fresh food distributor that buys produce and other ingredients from more than 100 local farms – most in New Jersey and Pennsylvania – and delivers them daily to restaurants, grocers, schools, and other establishments.
The Cretellas and Chef Villa are also setting up a hydroponic farm on the Dancing Goat property – it’s only about a half-acre – that will use nutrient-infused liquids, instead of soil, to grow products. “It will let us harvest about a half-acre’s worth of produce every three or four weeks, including lettuce, herbs, tomatoes, cucumbers, and beets,” Cretella says. “The increased yield will also enable us to supplement the local yield of our sister restaurant properties.”
Founders: Bill Geier and Jess Rosen
Hometowns: Middletown (Bill) and Red Bank (Jess)
How they are homegrown: On-site preparation of locally sourced ingredients
Shipping fresh, perishable juice nationwide seems like a risky proposition for a father-daughter business. But Long Branch–based Raw Generation has figured out how to create juice-cleanse products here in the shore area and ship them anywhere in the country.
Almost 20 percent of adults who want to lose or maintain weight have tried a “cleanse,” according to published reports, driving about $200 million a year in sales. Typically, someone on a cleanse will replace solid food with fruit and vegetable juices for a day or more in an effort to feel better by “detoxifying” her body while possibly losing weight.
Raw Generation – a company that produces natural juices aimed at the health-conscious consumer – was launched in 2012 by a father-daughter team of entrepreneurs, Bill Geier and Jess Rosen.
“We have our own kitchen where we make everything,” she says. “We have our sources for the ingredients [going local whenever possible] and we make all of the juices, smoothies, and teas in house.”
She says Raw Generation differentiates itself from competitors by flash-freezing its products – “any form of pasteurization, including high pressure Pascalization, lowers the nutritional value of foods by raising temperature” – and by blending pure ingredients in small batches to ensure quality control.
What’s good about being in Long Branch? “We picked the place we are at now because it was previously used as a foodprocessing facility for a frozen food company, so it already had most of the components we needed,” according to Rosen. “It was quite amazing that we found this place that was so perfectly suited for our needs.”
Being local doesn’t limit the company’s reach, however. “We flash-freeze everything and ship each order frozen via FedEx,” she adds.
Because their product is 100 percent raw and not processed at all, the business is currently limited to selling directly tothe consumer. But Geier and his daughter have leveraged the Internet to extend their reach.
“We do all of our business online and ship the juices directly to our customers’ homes and offices,” explains Rosen. “We’ve had a lot of success on sites like Groupon and market heavily to our growing customer base. At this point, we are about to start expanding into Amazon.com and are always looking for online retailers that we think will be a good fit for us. We are also going to be expanding the products we offer to see what our customer base responds to.”
Rosen is confident about the future, noting that “Last I checked, we had about a 50 percent repeat customer rate.” She and the other entrepreneurs in this article all share some common traits: They were willing to take on risk and blaze their own path, while holding true to their ideals of keeping it local. At a time when goods and services are globally sourced in a race to achieve the lowest costs, these business owners are willing to charge a premium for local quality – and their success proves that customers agree with that strategy.