Naples Daily News: Student-Operated Social Enterprise Taste of Immokalee Introduces New Products

Posted on August 24, 2018

This story originally published in the Naples Daily News August 21, 2018.

By Laura Layden

 

Taste of Immokalee has gotten tastier.

The social enterprise, created and operated by high school students in Immokalee, has launched two new offerings — and enhanced all of its salsas and sauces with farm-fresh ingredients, including locally sourced tomatoes from Lipman Produce, one of North America’s largest field tomato growers.

The company has introduced a pineapple mango salsa and a mandarin tangerine barbecue sauce.

Taste of Immokalee’s profits are spent on student education and community relief efforts. On top of that, the company also raises money for community causes.

The faith-based nonprofit 1 By 1 Leadership Foundation helped students start Taste of Immokalee in 2014 with the aid of grants from insurance giant State Farm. The enterprise grew out of a desire by Immokalee High students to reduce the extreme poverty in their community.

Students gain real-world experience
Taste of Immokalee is not only designed to be a model “business for good” but to equip high school students with business and leadership skills. Students involved in the enterprise gain real-world experience and learn both the rewards and challenges of entrepreneurship.

“Our students have been involved with every aspect of our new product launch, including product testing, package design, manufacturing, accounting, sales and marketing,” Marie Capita, executive director, said in a news release. “They learn to be innovative thinkers, diligent workers and astute problem solvers along the way.”

The enterprise now has six sauces and salsas in its menu of offerings.

Products are created in partnership with professional mentors, chefs and other food industry specialists, with health concerns in mind. They meet nutritional criteria such as low calorie and low or no fat, and they’re cholesterol-free.

Work on new products began last summer
Work on the new products began with a group of summer interns more than a year ago based on feedback they received from customers and the community of Immokalee, which included wanting to see more local produce used in the salsas and sauces. Using local tomatoes required a switch to a new co-packer, IPAC, in Winter Springs, , Capita said.

“It’s very different to use fresh tomatoes because you have to process it,” she said in a phone interview. “You have to put more work into it.”

Fresher ingredients have improved the taste of all the company’s products, changing “the whole flavor profile,” Capita said.

Taste of Immokalee products can be purchased locally in select Publix and Neighborhood Organic stores, or purchased online through the Taste of Immokalee website.

“We are in all Publixes in Collier County,” Capita said. “We are moving to Lee County soon.”

The company is busiest at Christmas, when it sells food baskets online.

Program expands its reach
More than 100 students have been involved with the corporation since its founding. While the entrepreneurship program initially involved only kids from Immokalee High, it’s grown to include students from Lely, Gulf Coast, Palmetto Ridge and Naples high schools.

Students start as apprentices to learn the ins and outs of the business before they can become paid interns. Applications are being accepted for the apprenticeship program, which is held every other Saturday from September to May, when school is in session.

As interns, students start at minimum wage. Those who stay with the program can move up the ladder, giving them more responsibility, more learning opportunities and more pay.

Currently there are 10 interns, who also serve as a junior advisory board.

Students stay involved
After graduating from high school, students who have been involved in the program can stay involved as members of a college advisory board. One alumna, who is one of the founders and has graduated from college, is getting paid to help the organization apply for grants and to help with analytics.

The company has only one full-time employee, Capita, but has several paid consultants who head up departments and give students one-on-one training in areas such as accounting, sales and marketing, human resources and operations.

“Taste of Immokalee allows you to apply what you learned in school into the company and get more training,” Capita said. “When you are learning something in school, it stops at the books, but here we go beyond the books.”

A new favorite?
Taste of Immokalee launched with five products, four of which it still sells. It no longer sells a spice because it wasn’t moving off the shelves, Capita said.

Asked what the enterprise’s most popular product is, Capita said it has been the fire-roasted tomato salsa with jalapenos. But she said she wouldn’t be surprised to see the new barbecue sauce become the new favorite.

“It’s going to do well,” she said. “Let’s see how the community responds to it.”

 

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