Marygrace Sexton’s story is one of those classic feel-good American success tales.
The inspiration for the juice company she founded came in 1989. She credits her husband, Robert Sexton, a fourth generation Florida citrus grower who, with his family, runs a packing house at Vero Beach, for planting the thought in her head.
She then worked as business manager for a group of radiologists, and didn’t need another job. As a mother of a young child, she had plenty to occupy her time away from work. If she felt the need to switch to another career, she could always go back to being a dental assistant, her original profession.
“I met Bobby when I worked on his teeth,” she says.
Robert, a descendant of legendary citrus industry pioneer and Vero Beach-area developer, Waldo Sexton, thought there might be a market niche for a premium fresh-squeezed orange juice. He had no time to devote to such a venture, so Marygrace started looking at the possibilities.
“He kept saying, start it, start it, somebody needs to work on this. I had a fulltime job and a busy life but I began thinking about it. Bobby said to go in business; six people who knew the business said, don’t,” she says.
“The idea was to have a premium value-added orange juice, all Florida, all the time. Florida oranges are the best juicing oranges in the world.”
A month or so later, Orchid Island Juice Company was born. She got a juice extractor from an out-of-business fruit stand and started making orange juice. She called it Natalie’s Orchid Island Juice, named for her infant daughter. After putting together enough for samples, she took some to the fruit market in Miami to see if she could drum up some business.
“I went to the Miami market at 2 a.m. This was before cell phones. It was in a bad area of town, a dangerous situation. I was wearing a dress and high heels. I had no clue what it was all about,” she says.
She made an interesting discovery, though — people liked her orange juice.
“We got our first customer and he wanted us to have a huge order out in six days. At the time, I didn’t even have a business permit yet. It was going to take six weeks to get it. Somehow, it all worked out and we got the company going,” she says.
That first order also came at Thanksgiving, not the most convenient time for a young wife and mother. Undeterred, she borrowed a refrigerator truck and personally made the delivery.
One full-time employee
Thirty days after she started the business, Marygrace’s brother, John Martinelli, joined Orchid Island Juice Company. Now the company’s executive vice-president, at the time he was Marygrace’s only full-time employee.
John, who towers above his petite sister, played center on Georgetown College’s football team and was NAIA and AFCA first-team All-America in 1978. In 2011, he was named to the Georgetown College Athletics Hall of Fame.
Marygrace, John and the Martinelli family’s two other sons grew up in Connecticut and south Florida. John had enough confidence in his sister’s abilities to not hesitate joining her team.
“Her level of dedication and commitment to excellence is difficult to aspire to. She’s a perfectionist in every way. In a company like ours, where the emphasis is on quality, that’s a great thing,” says John, who is two years older than his sister. Their younger brother Bill works as the company’s Midwest sales representative.
“This company has a very distinctive boss. Marygrace has the vision and the goals and we are invited to be part of them. We are allowed to have opinions. Sometimes suggestions are accepted and implemented, and sometimes not. If they don’t meet with her standards, we go in another direction.”
Over the past 23 years, Marygrace’s fledgling company she was advised not to launch grew to become established in the juice business, now with sales in seven countries in addition to the U.S.
In a business dominated by large corporations, her family-owned juice company not only found a market but also flourished and now employs 85 people, headquartered in Ft. Pierce.
It thrived, she says, because of consumers’ drive for authenticity as well as high quality in their food.
“We’re family-owned and will remain family-owned because that’s the only way to control quality. We don’t want to become a huge company. What we want is to make premium juice products,” she says.
Along the way, they bagged numerous taste-test awards. Cook’s Illustrated, Good Housekeeping, Real Simple, bon appetit and the NBC Today show all have cited Natalie’s as the best-tasting orange juice.
The reason it tastes so good? Marygrace says it’s because the juice is fresh-squeezed daily, year-round.
‘Florida growers produce incredibly good oranges. That makes good juice. We just put that goodness in a jug. We put nothing in the juice and take nothing out of the juice. Our orange juice is pasteurized for the shortest length of time possible so it retains the taste, the enzymatic activity and the nutritional value of the juice right out of the orange,” she says.
The ‘flash pasteurization’ process heats juice to 170 degrees for six seconds. Then it is quickly dropped to 33 degrees.
“We don’t cook it until the flavor is destroyed. We do what has to be done, and that’s it,” Marygrace says.
“When a customer orders juice, those oranges are squeezed that night. It’s put on a truck at 4 a.m., the next morning. If it goes overseas, the jugs of juice are quick-frozen, then put right on a container ship. I don’t call the juice ‘natural’ because that’s become an over-used word. It’s just an orange, squeezed that day. That’s all it is. There’s nothing but orange juice in it.”
Natalie Sexton, a baby when her mother embarked on this business journey, is now 23. In the early days, Natalie often slept in a car seat in the juice plant as her mother oversaw the nighttime juicing operation.
“We squeeze juice at night so we can get that juice out on refrigerator trucks as fast as possible. We don’t want to squeeze and then have the juice sitting around, waiting to be shipped. That’s why we run all night. We do things a little differently than a lot of other people in the business,” she says.
Just about everything the company does involves quality.
“We want fruit running 12-to-14 Brix. We want beautiful, premium fruit. We look for the best fruit out there. We have upheld our commitment to only use Florida oranges for 23 years,” she says.
“Our growers range from the largest growers in the state to smaller ones. We’re accustomed to dealing on that level and work with as many individual growers as we can. We like to have long-term commitments with people who are entrenched in their crop.”
Because weather conditions affect quality, the company must stay light on its feet.
“We have to be on top of things and monitor market trends and international weather. This is why we use a diverse network of growers stretching from south Florida to central Florida and the northern growing areas. If there’s a freeze or hurricane, we still need to be able to get fruit,” she says.
Overseas customers are particularly demanding, and the company is all about keeping them happy. That means upholding strict quality standards.
“Our international business is extremely specific on what they want. The Japanese are even more stringent than the Europeans. They’re very knowledgeable about fresh fruit and natural products. Our product is scrutinized intensely when it’s marketed to a new customer. They want to make sure the claims we make are true and correct,” says Frank Tranchilla, Orchid Island’s general manager.
Residual pesticide testing
“For international customers, we are required to do residual pesticide testing. They also have tighter specifications on Brix ratio. They know varieties, too. They might want Valencias blended with Hamlins, or Hamlins blended with Pineapples. Then they might want straight Valencia juice. Whatever they want, we work with them.”
The company’s international business grew right through the global economic recession.
“We found that even in the bad economy, people are willing to pay for a premium gourmet product,” Tranchilla says.
Just how premium is Orchid Island’s juice? It often retails for about double the price of juice products marketed by the industry’s bigger brands.
The company expanded its product line and now sells all-Florida grapefruit juice, as well as tangerine, lemon, lime, organic orange, strawberry and lemonade juice.
Marygrace continues to insist on using Florida products, not always a simple easily attainable goal.
“We buy every Florida lemon we can find. We’re the only company that does unpasteurized lemon juice. A Japanese customer really wants that juice. The Seminoles used to be responsible for the lemon crop. Now lemons are hard to find. We bought every lemon grown in Florida two years ago. Last year there were virtually none. We’re buying, if anybody has lemons,” she says.
“There’s no lime crop here any more, so we had to go to Mexico for limes. A nice family there provides us with lime juice. We may have to do something like that with lemon juice. Whatever lemons we can get from Florida, we’ll use. Then, California, and then the balance from Mexico.”
The company received Made in USA certification verified by the Federal Trade Commission, assuring that everything the company produces, even the packaging, is made in America.
“We do everything we can to support U.S. workers,” Marygrace says.
In addition, the juice is certified kosher by the Orthodox Union.
“Our packaging is made in Orlando. Our peel gets trucked to cattle here in the area. Our jugs and bottles are recycled,” she says.
She believes the future for her products as well as the company looks bright.
“Consumers have been so good to us. We have good relationships with them. The company is well positioned. We have no outside debt. We don’t owe one soul a dime,” she says.
“I’m very optimistic about the citrus industry. I believe in it. Our goal is to continue to be a really, really great citrus juice company. We’re going to be all Florida, all the time. We’ll be squeezing oranges until the last Florida orange is gone.”