Couple’s value-added product line keeps growing
MONTGOMERY, N.J. — Theresa Viggiano and her husband, Montreal native Patrick Leger were kind of caught off guard by the runaway success of their value-added products.
The couple launched First Field out of their farmhouse in Griggstown. They started innocently enough, growing tomatoes and other vegetables. They ran an honor-based farm stand on Canal Road in Griggstown, but Patrick’s family has a history of making home-made ketchups at home in Quebec.
“In 2009, we had an abundance of extra tomatoes,” Viggiano explained, “so we thought, ‘wouldn’t it be fun if we could come up with our own improved version of ketchup?’”
She grew up in East Windsor and West Milford in New Jersey and spent time in California before her family moved back to Morristown.
Leger lived in Montreal until he was 10, then his family moved to North Carolina where he went to high school, but he returned to Montreal to attend McGill University, where he majored in history. He worked in technology jobs before going to business school at Vanderbilt University, where he learned investment management and finance. He still works off-the-farm in that industry while their value-added tomato processing business continues to grow.
Viggiano spoke about building their First Field business at last year’s New Jersey Farm Bureau annual meeting. New Jersey Farm Bureau president Ryck Suydam sells First Field’s array of ketchup, canned tomatoes and ultra-pure tomato juices at his farm stand off Route 27 nearby in the Somerset section of Franklin Township.
Leger explains: “During the holidays in Canada, we often eat a lot of gamey dishes, meat pies and venison and things like this, so to complement that, people make homemade ketchup. Our ketchup is more like a chutney, the recipe is not at all based on my mom’s recipe, but the inspiration for making a ketchup was based on my mother’s example.
Theresa came up with the recipe for this version and we launched that.”
Under New Jersey statutes, all food producers who wish to sell to the general public must conduct their food processing in certified, inspected commercial kitchens.
“We worked initially during evenings at the commercial kitchen at Elijah’s Promise in New Brunswick,” Viggiano recalled, crediting Elijah’s Promise’s former executive director, Lisanne Finston, who is now up in Massachusetts at another non-profit agency, with helping them get going.
They started out making 10 cases of chutney-like ketchup at a time. The Whole Earth Center in Princeton was their first retail account.
“They’re still a big supporter of ours and we love them dearly for it,” she said.
Then, at some point in 2011, she said, “we got a note from Whole Foods asking us if we could supply ketchup for all their stores in the Northeast.”
The buyer from Whole Foods had read a small article about their start-up venture in Edible Jersey magazine, but even before that, they had a feature story in U.S. 1 Newspaper of Princeton by that paper’s food writer, Pat Tanner.
Since they only had 15 cases of ketchup in their house they asked if Whole Foods could wait until the next harvest, and they were willing to do so.
Leger and Viggiano credited the Rutgers Food Innovation Centers in Bridgeton and Piscataway with helping them to find ways to simplify mass production of ketchup with no chemicals of any kind.
“We realized we could no longer grow enough tomatoes for our business, so we partnered with them as they had a big tomato field down there in Bridgeton,” she said.
The couple credited Jack Rabin, now-retired associate director for farm programs, for New Jersey Agriculture Experiment Station, and Rutgers Professor Thomas Orton for their expertise along the way.
They also credited Suydam their neighbor in Somerset, with helping them steer their business in the right direction and for giving them hundreds of extra tomato plants about six seasons ago.
Rabin and Orton “introduced us to partner growers down there and Rutgers was able to figure out for us how to bring in fresh produce. But then we hit a wall with that, because a lot of co-packers won’t take fresh produce in, they only want stuff that is manufacturing-ready,” Viggiano said.
They learned quickly there is a difference between heirloom, conventional tomatoes grown by big farmers and backyard gardeners alike and tomatoes grown specifically for processing. Almost all the tomatoes grown for processing are done on large farms in South Jersey.
“Processing tomatoes have higher solids, so you’re looking at a medium tomato with less water. If you use a fresh market tomato for sauce, there’s actually less of that good tomato taste,” Viggiano said.
Initially, they found such a grower in Chip Katona of Katona Farms in Chesterfield.
“They are a great family farm to work with,” she said, but they also found other farmers further south in the Garden State who could keep up with First Field’s demand for processing tomatoes.
“Mike Brooks was another farmer who came out and helped us out,” she recalled, noting “there are only six large farms that grow processing tomatoes.”
Leger and Viggiano credited their current suppliers, who include Dusty Lane Farms in Elmer; Kevin Flaim at Panther Farms in Vineland, Ian Baitinger in Shiloh; Joe Leone in Swedesboro and Zack Heiken at ZRH Farms, also in Salem County. They said Flaim offered to come in and wash their tomatoes, pack them up and get them shipped over to the processor companies, or co-packers.
“They either grew them, washed them or transported them, but they all were very supportive of us,” Viggiano explained.
Reflecting on the up’s and down’s of their exciting entrepreneurial journey from humble beginnings in 2009, Leger said: “We had just one product, ketchup, in 2012, so we relied on our buyers and our customers to tell us what they wanted to see.”
“We now have a tomato soup we just launched,” Viggiano noted and “and our new crushed tomatoes with basil is coming later this year. The canned tomatoes are easier to pack and the pasta sauces are easier to pack.” All of their products are free of [food preservative] calcium chloride.
Their high quality, thicker-than-normal, strained tomato juice has been a hit at Trader Joe’s, Leger said, adding, “a lot of people just add a little water and ice, and it’s delicious tomato juice.”
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