Todd Koons, founder of Epic Roots, started his career in the produce industry in 1978, at the age of 19, as a pantry manager for an upscale French restaurant in San Francisco Berkeley. He spent those days on the road, purchasing fresh ingredients for the menu, including fresh lettuce for the salads. At that time, baby leaf lettuce wasn’t commercially available, so the chefs spent hours stripping off the outer leaves of large leaf lettuce to get to the small, tender leaves inside.
That changed when one of the restaurant’s owners and chef traveled to Europe and discovered mesclun. She brought it back and started a small garden next to the restaurant, tended by Koons and the head chef.
He left that job in the early 1980s and traveled abroad, but ended up back in California working for an urban garden in Berkeley that triple-washed baby lettuce salad to sell to upscale restaurants. That job led to working as a consultant for an herb grower in the Salinas Valley, and it was there that he decided to start his own business.
He formed Todd Koons Organics – TKO Farms – in the late 1980s, with the goal of supplying high-quality, consistent, organic salad mixes year round. Koons started with six salad mixes, and his focus was on diversity. Even the basic spring mix had at least 16 different greens in it, he said.
Koons was one of the first growers to commercialize organic greens, so the processes and equipment had to be developed as needed. He built a mobile washing system and a vertical form filler that filled and sealed bags of pre-washed salad. His efforts, plus the focus on high-quality product, resulted in the rapid growth of TKO Farms. In 1989, TKO sold a few hundred thousand dollars worth of product, but by 1993 that had grown to $15 million. In 1996, Earthbound Farms acquired the company’s interests, and Todd then launched the packaged salad lines for Misionero Vegetables, because he just couldn’t stay away from the fresh-cut salad industry.
In 1998, after seeing a lack of innovation in mixed lettuce salads, Koons started Epic Roots to revive the specialty salad market with field-grown heirloom Mâche and Mâche-based salad mixes. Since then, the specialty fresh-cut market has continued to grow, and so has the Epic Roots line of salad blends.
The company offers heirloom Mâche Rosettes, Loose Leaf Mâche, and four blends in foodservice and retail packs that incorporate other leafy greens into the Mâche mix: Salade Aux Herbes (with sweet greens and fresh herbs), Salade Européen (with radicchio and yellow hearts of frisée), Salade Verte (with arugula and a sweet and spicy mélange of greens.), Red Romance (with Lolla Rosa, Red Leaf, Red Oak and Red Romaine). Epic Roots also offers a ready-to-prepare Chard Mix (with gold, orange, pink, red or white chard). The company is launching a new product at the Produce Marketing Association’s Foodservice Show, July 24-26 in Monterey, Calif. The tasty new blend is a mix of Mâche rosettes and red and green butter lettuce.
The Mâche and other greens are grown locally in the Salinas Valley and processed in the San Juan Bautista True Leaf Farms plant on a line designed and owned by Epic Roots. Because Mâche is delicate and needs to be handled properly, Epic Roots installed a new line with the help of Italian equipment manufacturer Turatti Srl that minimizes human contact and gently moves product through processing.
“The line was built specially for Mâche Rosettes to treat the delicate green with the greatest of care during the washing and drying process” said Catherine Baggott, Marketing and Sales Director for Epic Roots. “A lot of the damage happens when it’s not processed correctly.”
Traditional wash lines were too hard on Mâche rosettes, so Turatti and Epic Roots developed a system that uses specially designed paddles and air to move the product through the wash. A mechanized system dumps the produce into spin dryers, reducing the impact on the leaves. The dryers were designed with a specific depth, width and velocity that eliminate damage during spin drying.
The investment in the new line has paid off, Baggott said, by noticeably increasing the overall quality. Creating less waste is more efficient for the growing and processing operations, and customers get a better product.
Another key to providing quality produce is a focus on growing. In addition to being a certified member of the California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement, the company is involved with everything from selecting the seed to harvest practices. Sustainable growing practices are important to both Epic Roots and its customers, which is reflected in the packaging. Retail clamshells are made from NatureWorks PLA – a corn-based material that is compostable. Baggott said the packaging would switch over to a polyethylene terepthalate (PETE) package in the fall. PETE is a more easily recycled material that is abundant in the municipal waste stream, and it can be incinerated without releasing damaging toxins or greenhouse gases.
“We found a lot of places across North America didn’t have compostable recycling,” she said.
Epic Roots’ goal is to provide customers with a uniquely flavored, highly nutritious and versatile product, a product that is extremely popular in Europe, Baggott said. To promote the flavor – sweet and nutty – the company has done co-promotions with other produce items. In July, Epic Roots will do a promotion with Northwest cherries to promote fruit and salad, and in August the company is working with California pears.
”The Mâche flavor lends itself to fruits and nuts, and combining with the leaf vegetable is a “nice alternative way to eat fruit,” Baggott said.
To educate consumers who might not be familiar with the Mâche rosette salad green, Epic Roots has a wide selection of recipes on its Web site, www.epicroots.com. There are recipes for salads, appetizers, side dishes and various entrées, as well as recipes from well-known chefs. There’s also a section on the site where consumers can upload their own recipes and view submissions from other users.