Thirty years ago, entrepreneur Janice Honigberg founded Sun Belle Inc., in Washington, D.C., as a niche distributor of top quality, foreign-grown berries. Over the years, the firm has evolved and significantly expanded but has stayed true to that early vision.
She quickly learned that receiving product in the old airline E-container was a challenge as the odd-shaped contraption tended to tip over on the tarmac. Now berries arrive by both ship and air, with loaded pallets being the typical conveyance method. Her original concept of being close to a population center was a good one, and she also needed to be near an international port of entry. Today Sun Belle has four locations: Jessup, MD (between Baltimore and D.C.); Schiller Park, IL (near Chicago); Miami, FL; and Oxnard, CA (near Los Angeles). Each is strategically located to service a wide range of nearby customers.
Berries are still the main product with blueberries topping the charts. The top actors in the product line include blackberries, cranberries, red currants, strawberries, vari berries, golden berries and cherries. In each U.S. location, Sun Belle has a large distribution center, which allows it to consolidate products for final delivery.
Over the last decade, the company has developed its organic line, which is marketed under the “Green Belle” label. Blueberries are the item with the most production but several of the other berries also come in with significant volume. Honigberg said the blueberry is the one organic item that offers the most consistent supply and the most promotional opportunities. “We are expecting promotable volume in the January, February and March time frame,” she said, adding that the firm will be sourcing from Chile, Peru and Mexico.
The Green Belle line continues to expand with the firm having supplies of organic cranberries for the first time this year and about to introduce organic pomegranate arils. With regard to the cranberries, Honigberg said this year she has limited supplies for the peak Thanksgiving to Christmas sales period, but next year volume should be more plentiful.
Supplies of any organic product is often a challenge as annual double-digit gains in demand tend to outstrip supplies almost across the board. “So many more people are conscience of the environment and wand to know where their food comes. And they want to do the right thing…especially young people.”
As such, Sun Belle Inc. is in the forefront of a movement called biodynamic farming. The concept is actually a century old and attempts to take organic farming to the next level, according to Honigberg. At its core is the interaction among ecological, social and economic sustainability. The Sun Belle founder said the farming technique has gained more traction in Europe but it also has a following in the United States. She notes it is farming-centric and requires a grower with the passion to stick to the principals embodied in the practice. She said the resulting product, which is labeled as such, does warrant a premium over organic production and it has achieved that status. The company expects its supplies of biodynamic berries to continue to increase.
In fact, Honigberg said organic sales continue to impress as she expects the sales of the Green Belle line to double this year.