by John McCurry/contributing writer
Orange juice has been among the products flying off grocery store shelves since the coronavirus pandemic took hold. That has resulted in dramatically increased sales for juice companies. Among them is Fort Pierce, Florida-based Natalie’s Orchid Island Juice Co.
“When the virus kicked in, there was a lot of panic buying of all consumables, including a lot of perishables, and we had a marked increase in sales at that time,” said John Martinelli, VP at Natalie’s. “The thing that is surprising to us is that the demand has stayed pretty steady.”
Natalie Sexton, VP of marketing and the namesake of the company founded by her mother, Marygrace Sexton, 31 years ago, said orange juice sales spiked 25 percent during the second week in March, and an additional 18 percent the following week. This was for all retail sales, but as is the case with many brands, Natalie’s has experienced a decline in foodservice sales. However, she said foodservice orders picked up again in mid-April, as many restaurants began heavily promoting—or figuring out how to offer—takeout and delivery.
For some consumers, it may be a case of rediscovering an old favorite as a means of boosting their immune systems. For others, it’s a response to the return to families having breakfast together during shelter-in-place mandates.
“With more people not rushing out in the mornings, there are more joining together around the breakfast table,” Martinelli said. “They are going to the grocery store and buying something that will be pleasing and acceptable to the whole family. One of the reasons Natalie’s brand is really thriving is when the shopping guest goes in the grocery store and looks for a breakfast drink, they want to get something new and invigorating, in order to help everyone’s enthusiasm for being in the house and make the breakfast together special.”
Martinelli is Natalie Sexton’s uncle and helped found the company in 1989 with Marygrace Sexton.
Martinelli said the lockdowns have hurt citrus growers, as some of the larger juice companies haven’t honored contracts to buy fruit like they would in a normal years. Natalie’s took a different approach.
“Rather than have them (citrus growers) bear the entire burden of these juice companies pulling out and not buying the fruit that they committed to, we decided to double down, and promoted all of our half-gallon and quart sizes,” he said. “We are on strong promotion for the entire months of April and May. We want to move as much orange juice as we possibly can, not only for our own benefit, but to support the citrus growers.”
Natalie Sexton said Natalie’s consumers consider quality and value when making a purchase. They understand what goes into the production of a high-quality juice.
Natalie’s fans are loyal. The company’s consumer research bears that out. Sexton said the juice maker routinely receives higher net promoter scores.
“Once they try it and experience Natalie’s they are going to continue,” she said. “If Natalie’s is not in stock, they just won’t purchase juice. Even when other brands are on promotion, our customer loyalty is unmatched.”
Sexton and Martinelli agree that their agility comes from being a smaller, family-run operation, giving Natalie’s an advantage in difficult times.
“That’s what sets us apart,” Sexton said. “We have the ability to innovate more quickly and to service customers’ needs faster. No customer is too big or too small for us.”
Natalie’s serves retailers in 35 states and 29 countries. The company hopes to eventually reach all 50 states.
Orange juice is by far the company’s top seller, followed by tangerine, strawberry lemonade and natural lemonade. An emerging favorite is blood orange juice, with sales rising rapidly the past two years. The same juices are top sellers for foodservice accounts.
In addition, pure lemon juice and pure lime juice are popular among foodservice buyers for hotels and restaurants.
Natalie’s employs 205 people at its 50,000-s.f. processing plant and its 40,000-s.f. refrigeration facility. Rapid growth over the last four years has necessitated acquiring additional space, so the company recently purchased a 55,000-s.f. facility.
“We’ve been growing 20 percent every year for the last four or five years,” Sexton said.
Natalie’s juices are available at more than 5,000 retail locations. The company recently expanded into Whole Foods Market locations across the Southeast.
Through mid-April, Natalie’s employees had thus far avoided contracting Covid-19. Supervisors monitor employees’ temperatures, and everyone is required to wear masks, gloves and gowns.
“We have a very extensive sanitation plan that was already in place prior to the virus, so we had those practices long before this,” Martinelli said. “But we have added the cleaning of the offices twice a day, with special attention to any surface touched by human hands.”