Up close with... Uncle Matt's Organic
May 15, 2009
Uncle Matt’s Organic, Clermont, Fla., started with three acres of orange groves in Founder and Chief Executive Officer Matt McLean’s father’s backyard. As the company celebrates its 10th anniversary this year, Uncle Matt’s Organic now boasts 1,000 acres that are capable of producing organic citrus between McLean-family holdings and 15 other groves the company manages.
Today, Uncle Matt’s Organic says it is the largest organic grower and packer of fresh citrus in Florida, and that it also is the oldest operating organic orange juice brand in the United States. Citrus runs in McLean’s family. McLean’s great-grandfather, grandfather and father all raised citrus in Florida. In the early 1980s, the McLean family had amassed 400 acres in Lake County, Florida, on which they practiced conventional farming methods. Sadly, freezes in 1983 and 1985 completely wiped out the groves, and the family sold its land and began to work as citrus consultants.
With aspirations of leaving the citrus business, McLean attended the University of Florida, and obtained a business degree. But after graduation, McLean was drawn to what he knew best, and started a business exporting juice and fresh fruit from Florida to Europe and the Middle East. In 1995, one of McLean’s German customers requested he find a source of organic juice. This sparked McLean to look into the organic industry and organic farming.
“On a lot of different levels, it just made sense,” McLean says. “It’s how we use to grow. It’s how we used to farm. Why do we need a lot of the pesticides that we need today?”
McLean talked about organic farming with his family to see if it was possible in Florida. The answer from his grandfather was, “Not only can we grow it, but we should be growing it.”
Organic farming in Florida brings with it the challenges of growing in a sub-tropical climate with more rainfall and humidity than any other U.S. state. The climate increases weed and disease pressures for organic farmers, McLean says.
“Organically, we have more challenges that we face in Florida, but the flip side of that is we also have the best-tasting fruit and juice out of this state because of our climate,” he says. “We have 10 years of experience in it now. We have four generations’ experience to pull on, and we get better each day with our production practices and being more innovative to work within the problems that we have in Florida’s climate.”
From the three acres Uncle Matt’s Organic began with, the company slowly acquired acreage in Lake, Polk and Highlands Counties in Central Florida. In addition to the land it owns, the company manages about 500 acres of small independent farmers, and consistently finds more growers transitioning into organic. The company currently co-packs its juice and fresh fruit.
Uncle Matt’s Organic operates with 11 employees in the office and field, and some working in both areas. For example, Benny McLean, Matt’s father and production manager, and Dave Gurney, manager of operations, work in functions in the office and in the groves.
From orange to juice
While growing oranges was a part of the business McLean could manage, it took him a while to figure out how to launch a retail brand. McLean, who had no experience in distribution, retail, packaging and marketing, attended Natural Products Expo East for a couple of years and began his steep learning curve. By June 1999, he launched Uncle Matt’s Organic Orange Juice.
“I never wanted to be just another orange juice,” McLean says. “We’re a premium orange juice. We’re a blend of Hamlin and Valencia.”
Available in With Pulp, Pulp Free and With Calcium and Vitamin D varieties, the orange juices are made with a proprietary blend of Hamlin and Valencia oranges. The blend was chosen partly by using McLean’s experiences with consumers from European and Middle Eastern countries.
“I really cut my teeth on what makes a juice taste good when I was in the juice broker business,” McLean says. “It really was about flavor, the different profiles, and the different Brix/acid ratios, oil content and color. All those things make up what’s a good orange juice and a good flavor.”
McLean combined his knowledge with his grandfather’s knowledge and favorite variety. “The Hamlin was his favorite,” McLean says. “He really enjoyed the high vitamin C content. It’s one of the highest vitamin C content oranges that we have.”
But the Hamlin’s pale juice color does not resemble a traditional orange juice color, McLean says. So Uncle Matt’s Organic combined the Hamlin orange with the Valencia variety, which has a deeper color and is McLean’s favorite. Those two varieties combined make a unique flavor, he says.
“The flavor has a lot of fresh notes,” McLean says. “The Hamlin has a unique flavor by itself that, really, if you blindfolded yourself, you’d think it’s got the best fresh-squeezed flavor. The Valencia is sort of a more robust, mild flavor. Those two together just make what we think is a sweet and smooth, consistent flavor profile.
‘Ground to grocery’
Because of the orange blend’s sweet and smooth taste, Uncle Matt’s Organic Orange Juices appeal not only to consumers interested in buying organic, but also those looking for a premium orange juice.
“We get a lot of e-mails that [consumers] talk all about the taste and flavor, and they don’t even mention organic,” McLean says.
Uncle Matt’s Organic products are distributed in states east of the Mississippi River with the addition of Texas and Minnesota. The Southeast and Florida are the company’s strongest markets. The company is working to reach certain economies of scale in hopes of becoming a national brand. The orange juices currently appear in mainstream grocery stores like Jewel, Publix and Harris Teeter, and specialty grocers such as Whole Foods Markets. This fall, the company anticipates expanding its citrus offering with a grapefruit juice, and adding to its orange juice line with single-serve offerings.
Even in this economy, McLean expects certain parts of the organic market to continue to thrive. Organic raw ingredients and organic products in which consumers hold the most value will do fine, he says. But organic products that consumers think are too processed or not a necessity may struggle a bit.
“Our core consumer is sticking with us, and luckily our core consumer makes up the old 80/20 Rule,” McLean says. “They are a small voice, but they aren’t going to switch. Our family is a prime example. We’re not switching off of any of our core organic items just because of the economy. We still believe organic is better, and that’s what we’re purchasing.”
The company’s support of organic products also prompted it to join the Organic Trade Association. McLean has served on the OTA’s board for three years and was selected last year to serve as its vice president.
“We’re committed on a variety of levels of being authentic to what we do,” McLean says. “…We’re from the ground to the grocery stores. It’s what we love. It’s our passion, and we think it shows in our end product.”