When Kendra Stallings first saw bottles of JuVn8 smoothies on the shelf at a Food Lion in Emerald Isle, she couldn’t contain her excitement. At the beach for a family vacation, Stallings showed the smoothies to her parents, who each then announced to anyone within earshot, “My daughter made these!”
Stallings earned her NC State master’s degree from the Department of Food, Bioprocessing and Nutrition Sciences this past May. During her time in that College of Agriculture and Life Sciences department, she developed the recipes for JuVn8 muscadine smoothies that now grace the shelves of grocery store chains throughout the Southeast.
“As soon as I started in Dr. [Keith] Harris’ lab for grad school, we received a request from a local farmer to help develop two muscadine smoothies: one with blueberries and one with strawberries,” Stallings said. “That’s how my project began. And it ended with a product that they could commercialize.”
The road to JuVn8 started in 2008, when Faison farmer Ron Cottle and former Extension agent Whit Jones approached Harris with the idea of creating a smoothie from frozen muscadine grapes, strawberries, blueberries and apple-juice concentrate.
“This project has dramatically moved forward since then,” Harris said. “Muscadine Time was our first effort to put smoothies into a bottle. The smoothie was heat processed to be shelf stable, but we quickly discovered that the long, intense heat overcooked it.”
So Harris and his team began to investigate ways to modify the process to preserve the smoothie’s real fruit flavors and also maintain safety. This was about the time that Stallings joined his lab, in summer 2012.
“My work began right downstairs in our basement pilot plant,” Stallings said. “I started by looking at other smoothies on the market, to get sugar levels and pH values, to give us some guidelines of what was selling on the market.
“And I just started mixing and tasting, and once I had formulations that I thought were in a good pH range and sweetness level, we held informal taste panels to get feedback.”
The next step was a formal taste panel conducted by the FBNS Department’s Sensory Service Center, which included analyses of flavor, texture and other attributes of the smoothies. Once the formulations were set, Cottle chose the two that he wanted to commercialize: blueberry muscadine and strawberry muscadine.
From seed to bottle, the smoothies are produced entirely on Cottle’s farm, an expansive fruit and vegetable operation headquartered in Faison. Cottle Farms grows a complete line of vegetables, in addition to 100 acres of muscadines, 70 acres of strawberries and 115 acres of blueberries (plus markets 1,000 additional acres of blueberries for other growers). Cottle Farms produces blueberries year-round, with growers in Florida, Chile and British Columbia.
The only smoothie ingredient not produced on the farm is the apple-juice concentrate.
“One of the best things about this product is that it minimizes all the loss we have on the fruit, especially the fruit that’s too ripe for grocery store shelves but still tastes good,” Cottle said. “That’s where it all started. We have all of this byproduct. It’s a shame to let it go to waste.”
After the grapes are harvested, they’re placed into a cold-storage facility on the farm until they’re rinsed and sorted. Those deemed too ripe are removed from the line and routed to a processing facility where more cleaning and sorting takes place. Then they’re ground – fruit, peel and seeds – into a puree that’s stored in 50-gallon drums.
The grape puree is then combined with the other fruit ingredients, pasteurized, bottled and shipped right from Cottle’s farm.
“There are different levels of pasteurization, and the one used here is gentler, meaning that time and temperature are lower than the extreme heat processing,” Harris said. “The treatment kills off the pathogens that might harm you, but it does not eliminate all of the potential spoilage microbes and needs to be kept under refrigeration.”
That’s why you’ll find JuVn8 chilling on the grocery store shelf alongside national brands like Odwalla, Pom and Bolthouse.
“Keith and his team have been such a great help throughout this process,” Cottle said. “We wouldn’t be where we are today without them.”
Market research, advertising, photography and design – even the unique name of the smoothie – are all products of a family effort. Cottle’s sister, Joy Cottle, designed the logo and bottle label and manages all promotional efforts. Her son stars in the brand’s TV ads.
“Our biggest challenge is getting people to try it,” Cottle said. “It’s not a question of whether they’ll like it or not. Almost all of the feedback we get from in-store demos is positive. People love it. There are some who just aren’t familiar with the muscadine or who don’t normally drink smoothies. And the people who do buy smoothies tend to be loyal to one brand.”
Grocery store demos have proven to be successful, Cottle said, as sales consistently grow during the weeks surrounding the demos. JuVn8 can be found in a number of grocery chains across North Carolina, Georgia, Tennessee and Virginia, including Food Lion, Lowe’s, Harris Teeter and Whole Foods.
– Suzanne Stanard