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Luke's Premier Foods: Former Retailer Becomes Purveyor of Fine Tomato Juice

November 30, 2009

Heriloom Tomatoes Lead to Gourmet Tomato Juice

Jim Hudson blends carefully selected heirloom tomatoes into a gourmet tomato juice that is about ready to hit retail shelves, starting with the East Coast and coming to a store near you. The idea was born out of the taste buds of his grandson, and made possible with the help of Mike Colwell and the Business Innovation Zone (BIZ).

"In the past four or five years, I've discovered some specific heirloom tomatoes that go together very well, like grapes in a fine wine," Hudson, a retired retail store owner, explained. "One gives the juice more aroma, another increases acidity, and yet another has more of the wonderful garden taste on the back of the palate."

Colwell and the BIZ mixed in business contacts, commercialization expertise and sources for government grants to help Hudson maximize his success, navigate various resources and begin to form strategic alliances to take him all the way to market.

Started in the Garden

After retiring from a long career of selling western clothing and gear at Stagecoach Western Wear in Greater Des Moines (DSM), Hudson filled his retirement by relaxing in his garden and spending time with his grandchildren. When visiting, grandson Luke would head for the garden, leaving half-eaten tomatoes in his wake. Luke even prefers Grandpa's tomato juice to fruit juices in this lunch.

"When visiting, instead of raiding the cookie jar, Luke raided my garden," Hudson said. "I started planting more and more tomatoes and soon realized that I was growing so many tomatoes that I had to start canning them. My mother gave me my grandmother's recipe for tomato juice."

He experimented with the recipe and sent tomato juice home with Luke, but he still had a lot leftover. He gave away jars as gifts for friends and after they tasted it, they began asking for a case instead of a jar.

"I quickly figured out that I had something unique here, so I did some market research and found there's no really good tomato juice on the market," Hudson said. "Most commercial tomato juices are made from concentrate: just water and tomato paste. I use the whole tomato and it tastes like a fresh heirloom tomato in a jar, but very low in salt, so it's healthier, and it makes a great Bloody Mary."

Local Encouragement

Hudson's friend, Paul Trostel, owner of The Greenbrier and Dish, popular Des Moines restaurants, agreed with virtually every top chef in Des Moines' high praises, and encouraged him to market it commercially.

That's when the juice maker contacted Colwell of the BIZ and asked him if he thought it had potential. Before long, Colwell helped Hudson make the contacts and resources necessary to get the product from homemade to commercial production.

Ripe Opportunity

While doing his research, Hudson discovered the raw material opportunity that existed. Tomato farmers typically sell their best-looking tomatoes to grocery stores and restaurants. Those that are a little too ripe or not as attractive, but still delicious and nutritious, typically get thrown away. He could purchase these "seconds" at a huge discount.

"All of the sudden, I'm their hero, I get a low-cost supply of tomatoes that are just as good as firsts. It's a new source of income for the farmer, and the 'foodies' have a new ingredient. It's a big win for everyone," he said.

The BIZ is helping Hudson's company, appropriately named Luke's Premier Foods, write a business plan and find resources to take it from the kitchen to a commercial operation. With the additional help of Iowa State University's Kris Johansen, introduced by Colwell, Hudson has applied for two kinds of federal Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) grants to develop the process and a marketing plan. Hudson also made connections with food scientists at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln who are helping commercialize the product.

When Hudson offered samples of Luke's Heirloom Tomato Juice and Tomato Nectar at the Fine Food Show in New York City in April 2009, it quickly became known as the success of the show and was christened the Dom Pérignon of tomato juice among attendees, including buyers from Williams Sonoma, Target and Whole Foods.

Tomato Nectar

Trostel, and head chef, Troy, also had rave reviews for Hudson's Heirloom Tomato Nectar. Tomato nectar is the strained, pale yellow juice of pureed ripe tomatoes that needs only to be seasoned with a bit of salt before becoming an intensely flavored beverage and a base for cocktails and soups. Gourmet Chefs love to use it to poach fish and lobster or as part of vinaigrette, making great Dirty Martinis, and in hundreds of other recipes. Separating it from the tomato is a slow and tedious process, and the tomatoes must be full flavored and ripe. It took years for Hudson to figure out how to commercially separate it from the pulp, and he's now marketing the product under the brand name Luke's Heirloom Tomato Nectar.

"We have looked online and we believe we're the only company in the country to sell this delicious heirloom ingredient," Hudson said proudly.

Available in 2010

Working with an East Coast grower, Luke's Premier Foods hopes to begin with an East Coast launch in the near future. Luke's has recently teamed up with Original Juan's in Kansas City to broaden distribution more widely by the second quarter of 2010.

Square One DSM, an initiative of the Greater Des Moines Partnership, is formerly known as Business Innovation Zone (BIZ).