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Faces of Manufacturing: Tropical Harvest

Tropical Harvest Slushies & Juices is a Queens-based producer of slushies and juices made from natural ingredients. The company combines fruits and vegetables to create exotic, flavorful, and nutritious drinks meant to meet a demand for authentic, tropical, and natural-flavored beverages.

“There are a few reasons why there is a need for the juice,” said Kishana Mills, owner of Tropical Harvest. “One is that our millennials—even if they or their parents are from the tropics—often don’t know these flavors authentically. Some of these flavors are new to the American market. The other reason is that the majority of the juice products you find in our community don’t contain much nutrition. They are made mainly from synthetic materials: powders, dyes, and flavorings. There is a need for natural ingredients, natural taste, and authenticity.”

Youthful Curiosity

Mills grew up in Jamaica, in the lowland hills of the Blue Mountains, where she was exposed to a wide variety of fruits. She lived with her grandparents, who would use native produce in a number of ways.

“I was very curious,” Mills says. “My grandmother could make anything, and she taught me. I would bring home bags of produce and ask her what she could make from them. So, I learned very early how to do a lot in the kitchen.”

As a teenager, Mills moved to the city, where her mother was a nurse. There, she connected with church and community groups who would both learn from her and teach her. Before graduating from high school, where she majored in agriculture, she did an externship at the Rural Agricultural Development Authority (RADA) but was also connected with a home economics officer who helped women make the most of their husbands’ farm resources. This helped Mills to understand the importance of agriculture and how it should fuel the food industry in developing value-added products with farm produce.

“There was an abundance of pumpkins, and [the home economics officer] would make drinks and chips and casseroles and pies,” Mills recalls. “That stuck with me, hence my knowledge of how you can use one product in varying ways.”

However, it is the curiosity of her own sons that Mills credits for the creation of Tropical Harvest. They were born in Jamaica but raised in the United States. Mills was in college, studying nuclear medicine, so she sent the boys back to Jamaica for boarding school. There, they tasted the same fruits and juices with which she had grown up. When they returned home, they asked their mother if she could make fresh Caribbean juices.

“Here and there I would make it and they would enjoy it so much and so did their friends,” she said.

“Then I guess the news spread and family started asking, ‘Can you send me a bottle?’ I started thinking about how I could really get into making it because I realized there was a need.”

Learning on the job

Tropical Harvest officially began operating in 2017. Mills started out selling at community and cultural events and her products were always well received.

“Wherever we would sell it, wherever people would consume it, they would love it,” she said. Yet Mills did not always know what she was doing when it came to setting up for events or anticipating demand. For example, she did not foresee that slushies would be more popular than bottled juices. At one event, she had to resort to someone opening 16-ounce bottles and pouring them into a slushie machine to fill orders, rather than having large batches of juices for that purpose. She also could have used more slushie machines to meet the demand.

“There were a lot of mistakes that wasted a lot of time and resources, but we learned,” she explains.

One day her son, then 25, offered to distribute the bottled juices to local vendors, including barbershops and hair salons, and brand awareness grew. Mills has since taken over delivery, keeping it to a manageable number of customers. She is now in the process of hiring someone full-time to handle distribution so that the company can expand.

Tropical Harvest continues to do events about once a month, although they have been much smaller than the ones Mills attended before the pandemic—such as her biggest event to date, the 2019 Reggae Festival in Queens.

Seeing the (UV) Light

Mills has a team of five per diem workers who help her with production or events. They work at Stony Brook University’s Food Business Incubator at Calverton. About every two weeks, Mills orders fresh produce and has it delivered to the Long Island facility for production.

“We go in and wash, prep, shred, press, boil, and bottle, then load the van,” she said. “We get back to Queens and do distribution within a day or two.”

Mills has developed nine varieties of juices but is currently licensed to sell four: Pineapple Ginger, Jamaican Ginger Sorrel (Hibiscus), Beetroot & Lemon, and Guava Passion Fruit. The company markets its products as having “the nutrition you deserve and the flavors you know and love.”

Now Mills is putting her science background to work in an attempt to make her juices even more nutritious. She is working with the Center of Excellence for Food and Agriculture at Cornell AgriTech to test the hypothesis that putting juices under ultraviolet light enables them to better retain their nutrients. Samples of products treated with UV light will be compared to those processed thermally.

Once that study is completed, Tropical Harvest will obtain its official nutrition label and barcode, enabling it to scale up and sell its products in supermarkets.

Mills has big plans for Tropical Harvest’s future. Within five years, she sees the juices being widely distributed as the demand grows for what she calls “healthier alternative products”.

“We are laying the foundation to do private labels for the hotel industry and other places that might want fresh, tropical flavor and nutrient-rich products,” she says.

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