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SUNSET®: From Beats to Brix

Paul Mastronardi has always had a passion for music. From the age of 14, he was a well-known DJ in his community, progressing each year from weddings and school dances, to self-promoted music festivals, and eventually to the Detroit club scene. After University though, you could say his taste changed from Flavor Flav to Flavor Bombs™. Today, this CEO oversees a company with thousands of employees, hundreds of products, and multiple growing centers operating 24/7/365, but he sums up his entire business in one single word: FLAVOR.

“Flavor has always been the driving force for Mastronardi Produce,” Paul says seconds after welcoming me to his company’s state-of-the-art headquarters in Kingsville, Ontario. “That was true when my great grandfather started the business, it’s what my father taught me, and it’s the inspiration for every decision we make today.”

As if on cue, we walk by a wall illuminated by the glow of hundreds of LEDs framed in copper and arranged to spell out: INSPIRED BY FLAVOR®. Literally and figuratively, the message is clear—at Mastronardi Produce, flavor reigns.

Without question, the first major accomplishment in Mastronardi’s flavor empire is its Campari® tomato.

Aerial view of SUNSEt® 100 acre greenhouse in Coldwater, Michigan

“Campari was the world’s first branded tomato when we launched it in 1995, and the tomato continues to dominate the premium tomato category it created. That was a game-changing moment for the produce industry and for our company as well,” Paul says as we head into the greenhouse. “We created the first branded tomato that consumers could recognize at a glance and ask for by name in the produce department. More importantly, we gave them a reason to look for it—superior flavor.”

The success of Campari ignited an era of unprecedented growth for Mastronardi Produce, where the company has added thousands of greenhouse-growing acres to keep pace with consumer demand. Despite the company’s exceptional performance, Paul has never stopped innovating.

In 2002, while taste testing cherry tomato samples from the trial rows, inspiration struck Paul.

Consumers are incredibly busy, so we wanted to come up with a product that makes their lives easier, without compromising flavor.

- Paul Mastronardi, CEO

“Seeing all these wonderful colors and unique tomatoes. I thought, why not combine all these flavors and create the ‘box of chocolates’ for the tomato category? The result was the concept for our SUNSET® Wild Wonders®, the first mixed tomato brand in the category which created a whole new premium segment,” Paul tells me as we stroll past row after row of immaculate looking tomatoes. “Our competitors have tried to duplicate the success of Wild Wonders which is the leading brand in the mixed segment. But, just like Campari, no one can touch the quality and flavor due to the exclusive varieties we grow.”

With exclusivity comes an element of secrecy. When I ask Paul for a tour of his R&D facility, he flashes me his trademark grin and says, “I’ll let you have a sneak peek behind the curtain, but only in certain areas.”

I have been lucky enough to tour parts of Mastronardi’s state-of-the-art trial center, the epicenter of SUNSET innovation, to see where it all begins.

Clockwise from left: Keri Butler, Logistics; Peppe Bonfiglio, Sales; Justine Chevalier; Marketing, Frank Peters, Grower; Jason Whitcher, Procurement; Scott Kress, Packaging; and Paul Mastronardi, CEO

“This trial center is the largest indoor tomato trial center in North America, carrying hundreds of trials at any given time,” Paul tells me.

You’d think this staggering number of trials would require a map or handbook to navigate, but Paul effortlessly and passionately describes the trials as we pass them, and I can see that this business is truly in his DNA. I watch as he samples various trials using his sophisticated palate and I realize that he’s a modern-day tomato sommelier. His passion for his business, especially when it comes to R&D and future innovation, is obvious.

As we end our greenhouse tour and make our way to the office’s test kitchen, Paul proudly shares SUNSET’s most recent product innovations and successes. 2017 was an especially productive year for the Mastronardi product development team, beginning with the most recent launch of the company’s You Make Me™ line of pasta kits. Developed in partnership with celebrity chef and SUNSET Culinary Director, Roger Mooking, these ultra-convenient pasta kits contain everything a consumer needs to prepare a healthy, flavorful meal at home: fresh tomatoes, perfectly portioned pasta, spice packets, and some kits come with gourmet infused olive oil.

You Make Me™ Pasta Kits

“Consumers are incredibly busy, so we wanted to come up with a product that makes their lives easier, without compromising flavor,” Paul explains. Ready in minutes, each kit can be a dinner for two, or used as four sides, and with four different flavors to choose from—Classic Italian (“You Make Me Fresh”), Spicy Arrabbiata (“You Make Me Hot”), Creamy Parmesan (“You Make Me Blush”) and Cold Pasta Salad (“You Make Me Chill”)—there’s a You Make Me pasta kit for every taste.

Innovation at SUNSET is not just limited to new products like You Make Me pasta kits; packaging innovation is also a key driver for this progressive company.

“As a leader in packaging innovation, we were the first to introduce Top Seal technology which uses 20 to 30 percent less plastic than ordinary clamshells and has become an industry standard,” Paul says.

SUNSET Flavor Bowl™The company has also won numerous packaging awards over the years for introductions such as the paper touch bags in its Organics line, Eco Flavor Bowl® packaging system—made from recycled materials and is 100 percent recyclable—and its specially designed One Sweet® Ready-to-Eat snack packs that extends shelf-life to help reduce food waste.

In 2017, SUNSET continued to push packaging boundaries by introducing two exciting limited edition items: the Sweet Bites® pail and the football-shaped SUNSET Flavor Bowl™.

“We wanted to provide retailers with ‘in-and-out’ items that would create excitement in the produce department and provide consumers with offerings that would surprise and delight them. These limited edition items were designed to encourage impulse purchases and drive incremental sales, which is something all retailers want,” explains Paul.

Sweet Bites® Pail

Launched in October 2017, the award-winning Sweet Bites pail jumped off the shelf with its clever design and sturdy handle for easy carrying, but the real prize was the reusable snack pack container packed inside the pail. Made from durable plastic, this easy to open container holds a serving of cherry tomatoes and fits perfectly into any lunchbox, purse, or messenger bag to encourage healthy snacking for kids and adults. SUNSET followed up the Sweet Bites pail with the equally creative SUNSET Flavor Bowl. Shaped like a football, the SUNSET Flavor Bowl fits right in with the game day party scene and features an ingenious lid that, when removed, doubles as a base that locks the bowl in place. The SUNSET Flavor Bowl kicked off in produce departments nationwide just as the college and NFL playoff races were starting to heat up and was a hit with football fans and flavor lovers alike—talk about scoring a touchdown.

While Paul is honored to be the face of SUNSET and the creative mind behind some of the company’s best ideas, he is quick to point out that it takes a team of thousands to bring his vision of flavor and innovation to life.

“Our products are only as good as the people who grow them, pack them, sell them, and ship them,” Paul says as we look out over his bustling distribution center. “And those people need to be supported with technology, accounting, marketing, management, and administrative professionals to ensure we’re meeting all of our obligations as a business, as a brand, and as an employer of choice.”

Trust me, the people in this organization have no intention of being ordinary. They are 'extraordinary' and I'm proud to work alongside them every day.

- Paul Mastronardi, CEO

When I asked Paul how he creates the kind of corporate culture that attracts top talent, puts them in the best position to win, and retains them over the long haul, he proudly replies, “We have created a culture that attracts and retains talent. I believe if you create an environment that people enjoy being in, and you provide them with the tools they need to succeed, they will continue to work hard and be passionate about what they do. We are still a family business and we keep those core values close to us even as we grow.” Paul adds, “It’s no secret that I’m very particular and that I push my employees to try hard, be innovative, and always think outside the box. But it’s through constant collaboration and challenging the employees that we continue to harness their strengths and enhance their skills, and the results are award-winning. Without this, we would just be ‘ordinary’ and trust me, the people in this organization have no intentions of being ordinary. They are ‘extraordinary’ and I’m proud to work alongside them every day.”

This constant drive is clearly working as SUNSET has been awarded one of Canada’s Best Managed Companies for eight consecutive years—a testament to the dedicated, extraordinary work force that propels Mastronardi Produce forward.

An interview with one of the most visionary people in produce wouldn’t be complete without having a conversation about the future of the business. Paul doesn’t hesitate.

WOW™ Berries

“Strawberries,” he says. “Back in 2005, we were the first to produce high-tech strawberries that were full of flavor and virtually pesticide-free. I truly believe our Wonders of Winter™ (WOW™) berries are the best strawberries you’ll ever taste,” Paul proudly states as he passes me a bowl of freshly-washed berries.

These WOW berries don’t disappoint and it’s no wonder that these Wonders of Winter won the Superior Taste Award from the prestigious International Taste and Quality Institute (ITQI) in Belgium.

“In the years ahead, let’s just say you can expect us to produce a lot more of them,” Paul continues.

By now, I’ve learned not to ask Paul for details about the growth plans about which he’s hinted, but I do seize the opportunity to ask him about one of the bigger headlines he made last summer with the acquisition of Backyard Farms in Madison, Maine.

“We’ve admired Backyard Farms for the quality and consistency of the company’s tomatoes since they hit the market in 2007,” Paul explains. “By shipping exclusively to retail and wholesale partners within a 12-hour drive of their greenhouse, Backyard Farms focuses squarely on delivering the freshest, best-tasting product possible, and in the process, sets a new standard for locally-grown produce. Backyard Farms is a perfect fit for our organization, and I’m excited to watch the company expand their operation with our support.”

Backyard Farms and its shared commitment to taste bring us back to Paul’s favorite subject—flavor. I ask him about two recent Superior Taste Awards that Mastronardi Produce received from the International Taste and Quality Institute.

Aloha™ Peppers

“These awards were especially gratifying because we received one for our Minzano® tomatoes, which is the perfect saucing tomato, and one for our Aloha™ pepper which is a beautiful striped pepper we will be in full launch with this spring,” Paul shares. “I’m especially proud of the Aloha pepper which is a SUNSET exclusive product and is as pleasing to the eye as it is to the palate. The different colored stripes create a pepper like no other on the market as it elevates any dish. Finding products like this is what I love most about this business. It never gets old.”

In the Mastronardi family, passion for produce is passed down from generation to generation.

“My father, Don Mastronardi, taught me everything I know, not just about what it takes to run a successful business but what it takes to be a successful human being. It was a tremendous honor for the entire Mastronardi family to see my father receive the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Canadian Produce Marketing Association. He truly deserves it,” Paul tells me. “My father instilled the importance of giving back to the community, which is a legacy we’re proud to carry on today with contributions to food banks, local schools, and supporting worthy causes such as Movember, MS Society, Autism Awareness, and Pink Ribbon Produce, just to name a few.”

Recently, SUNSET was awarded the Beacon of Light award by the Food Bank Council of Michigan for donating five million pounds of produce to Gleaners Community Food Bank in 2017. And if that wasn’t enough, SUNSET donated over $600,000 to various charities throughout the year.

Paul Mastronardi, CEO, Mastronardi Produce

“Everyone here at SUNSET is involved in our philanthropy and they share in the joy of giving back to our community. We are so proud and excited to see our charitable donations increase every year,” Paul comments. “It’s stunning to think that despite the size and scale of Mastronardi Produce we are still a family business—a family business behind the largest national and organic brand on tomatoes, peppers, and cucumbers across the United States, and a leading innovator of new products, segments, and packaging that will most likely again have others try to duplicate.”

Impressive for sure, but as Paul might say, the proof is in the product and the consistently excellent flavor that SUNSET is known for. With all of these accomplishments, it’s no surprise that in Canada’s 150 year celebration, the country selected Mastronardi Produce as part of its WE ARE THE BEST series of features to showcase Canada’s superpower status in the booming greenhouse industry.

We conclude our tour in the bright, modern lobby where we began. With one last attempt to get Paul to share some inside information, I ask him what he’s most excited about for 2018. As the smile I’ve come to recognize spreads across his face, I can almost predict his response.

“Wait and see.”