Ravine’s Lowrey Bros. brand heading to national shelves

“Waste not, want not.” The popular proverb, dating back to the 1700s, is deeply engrained in any farming operation of today. And it’s a philosophy that has been passed down through five generations of working the land at Ravine Vineyard Estate Winery in St. David’s. 

The idea of throwing away bruised or marked fruit seems heretical given the work and effort that goes into farming, says Ravine’s logistics manager John Keen. And while the winery converted from a fruit and vegetable farm to primarily grapes back in 2004, that ideology lives on.

“Using what has become known as ‘seconds’ in canning celebrates the effort that goes into farming outside of the growing season as well as providing a source of income year-round.” 

This business model of using seconds to grow the reinvention of their Lowrey Bros. canning label and take them from a local to a national brand, brought Ravine to Niagara College’s Canadian Food & Wine Institute (CFWI) Innovation Centre last year for expertise in helping them realize this goal. 

The Lowrey-Harber family started the Lowrey Bros. Canning Company in 1897 with an initial canning of peaches from the property and then extended to produce from its neighbouring farmers. When they relaunched the Lowrey Bros. label in 2014, one of the first items they produced came from peach seconds from a farm down the road.

“The fruit was being destroyed at a rate of 100 pounds a day, and from this, we produced our line of Honey Bourbon Peaches as well as our Lowrey Bros. Peach Cider,” says Keen.

Today, Ravine is home to an organic vineyard, a winery, a restaurant, a cidery and a retail grocery store, where they sell out of their popular line of Lowrey Bros. Gourmet Food Products. And while sales have tripled since relaunching, the ultimate goal is to be on store shelves across Canada.

In collaborating with Niagara College, and its award-winning Research & Innovation division, the objective was to develop innovative food products, using seconds that are safe, sustainable, scalable, profitable, and of course, delicious.

“Scaling up to national grocery levels and the standards surrounding health and safety were not something we were familiar with,” notes Keen. “The CFWI Innovation Centre has the knowledge, expertise and experience we were lacking and were enthusiastic about the partnership.” 

The extensive project involved an array of food science experts at the Centre conducting product ideation; product and process development; co-packing identification; product scale-up; packaging; and regulatory/labelling claims. 

The Centre’s research team first carried out an in-depth study of regional produce and their seasonal availability, and market analysis determined flavour and product prospects for a variety of SKUs. Ravine then selected four products for optimization and scale-up: two of their current products (blueberry barbecue sauce and asparagus relish) and two new products for development (a tomato ketchup and a pasta sauce).

“This gave us the opportunity to see development both from a scale-up of existing recipes and de novo generation of new product lines,” says Keen. 

“This initial foray into scaling up, working with larger co-packers and understanding the standards for health, safety and labelling have been an education and the College’s team have been remarkable in leading us through this process.”

Working with the CFWI Innovation Centre has allowed Ravine’s Lowrey Bros. brand to grow from selling products in their own store to selling them in third-party specialty retailers, adds Keen.

“We now plan on taking all we’ve learned and the associations we’ve built towards expanding our market reach to the big box grocery stores soon.”

Nathan Knapp-Blezius, a research associate with the CFWI Innovation Centre and graduate of NC’s Culinary Innovation and Food Technology program, worked on the Ravine Winery project, helping the research team with product development and scale-up, using fruit and vegetable seconds.

The outcomes of the project will incrementally increase revenues by approximately $8M in sales over a five-year period, says Keen, and provide year-round revenues to help ensure the viability of the farm for generations to come.

“Our partnership with Niagara College has produced tangible and meaningful improvements in our procedures and processes, which has translated into measurable growth for our business.”

For Nathan Knapp-Blezius, a research associate with the CFWI Innovation Centre and graduate of NC’s Culinary Innovation and Food Technology program, it was an opportunity to work alongside experts with a creative vision to help solve the real-world challenge of rampant food waste.

“So much edible product from local farms becomes lost income because of blemishes, and can even end up costing money just to dispose of wastage,” says Knapp-Blezius. “Not every project has such a noble intention at its core. That goal, to create an uncompromisingly delicious product while generating a local opportunity is something we’re proud to be part of.”

The team was able to take on this project thanks to funding through the Ontario Centres of Excellence Voucher for Innovation and Productivity (VIP) program and the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) through its Engage grant program.

This is just one example of innovation from the College’s CFWI Innovation Centre, which offers a full suite of services to support industry innovation and commercialization of new products and processes. To read more about what the Centre offers, visit the website.