PARADISE IN PLANT CITY
More Than Five Decades of Delectable Confections
By Jim Frankowiak
America’s favorite brand of candied fruit products has been produced in Plant City since 1961. That is when Frank Weaner purchased the company and adopted the name Paradise Fruit Co., which was incorporated four years later and became Paradise Fruit Co., Inc.
The Weaner legacy has continued since that time and now management and ownership of the company is under the aegis of the family’s third generation.
Weaner, a banker and entrepreneur, was succeeded by Melvin Gordon, who moved to the Tampa Bay area from Chicago in the mid 60’s. His son, Randy, is now company president and his team includes his brother Mark, executive vice president, and brother-in-law, Tracy Schulis, senior vice president with responsibility for fruit sales.
“This is truly a team effort,” said Randy Gordon, who noted the fourth generation of the family is now involved in the company through Tracy’s son Bryan.
Plant City was selected as the company’s home since it was close to Polk County citrus. “Orange peel, a by-product of the orange juice processing business, is an important raw ingredient,” said Randy. Paradise purchases its cherries from the western U.S., Michigan or France, depending upon market conditions and the exchange rate. “All of our pineapple is purchased from Thailand,” said Gordon.
When the company first began operations locally, orange peel was easily obtained from orange juice processors as a by-product of their business, “but that changed as other uses were found for the peel. Today, in addition to selling to us, a good portion of the by-product is dried and pelletized for cattle feed.”
Most Paradise raw materials are processed in the same manner. Upon receipt at the 225,000-square-foot, multi-building facility in Plant City, the fruit is sorted, washed and cut into various sizes. Brine, a preservative, is added and then the mixture is stored in 55-gallon drums waiting processing. “Our products are seasonal,” said Gordon.
“Consumers and commercial bakeries use the vast majority of our candied fruit as they bake for the holidays,” he said. Paradise has approximately 175 full time employees and that number jumps to 225 during peak production periods.
The Paradise Brands of candied fruit include Paradise™, Pennant™, Sunripe™, Mor-Fruit™, Dixie Brand and White Swan™. “In addition, some of America’s leading grocery retailers; The Kroger Companies, Safeway Stores, Inc., Food Lion, LLC and Bi-Lo, LLC offer our products for sale under their own labels,” said Gordon.
“Overall, our brands make Paradise the largest manufacturer and supplier of consumer packaged candied fruit in the world.”
The Paradise candied fruit line includes green and red cherries, natural pineapple, green and red pineapple, assorted pineapple, citron, orange peel, lemon peel, crystallized ginger, cherry pineapple mix, as well as other candied fruit mixes. In addition to being available at most supermarkets, Paradise products are available online via the company’s website:
Local outlets include Publix, Wal-Mart, Winn-Dixie and Felton’s. The Paradise website also includes a range of baking tips and recipes, membership in its recipe club and special coupons.
The initial processing step is the debrining or washing of the fruit or peel. They are then processed with corn sweeteners, colored syrups – at varying times and amounts depending upon the fruit being candied. Once the mix has achieved the desired brix, the syrup is drained and the fruit is packaged.
“We take care and filter our corn sweeteners so they are kept clean while being recycled,” said Gordon. Packing includes clear plastic containers for retail sales and bulk packaging for institutional bakers such as the Claxton Company in Georgia, one of the best known producers of fruit cakes.
Although globally dominant as a candied fruit producer, “we regard that segment of our business as mature,” said Gordon. “That is because fewer people bake today and more women are in the workforce.” However, the company’s legacy has been marked by diversity and acquisitions over the years and those hallmarks continue today.
Thinkfruit dried fruit snacks are case in point. A healthy, natural and delicious dried fruit snack, Thinkfruit is fat free, gluten free, low sodium and comes in the following varieties: cinnamon apple slices, peach slices, pineapple tidbits, whole blueberries, whole cherries, whole cranberries and a combination of flavors called Mix-it-up.
These premium snacks are available at convenience stores, airports, hotels and through the Home Shopping Network. “Thinkfruit gained notoriety a few years ago when it was picked to be the Snack of the Day on the Rachel Ray show,” said Gordon. Over the years Paradise has developed and marketed Paradise liquors, a de-alcoholized wine cooler and jellies and jams.
“We have acquired many of our competitors and we have looked at many different opportunities for expanding our business,” said Gordon. “Despite the fact that my grandfather was an idea guy and he was never afraid to try most anything, it was my father’s idea for the company to become involved in the plastics business more than 30 years ago.”
Paradise purchased injection molding equipment enabling it to produce its own retail packaging. That was the birth of Paradise Plastics, which was further enhanced “as we brought the thermoforming process into our manufacturing capability,” said Gordon.
“Clear plastic packaging is vital since that enables us to sell the colors of Christmas visually with our mix of products and packaging.” Paradise also prints its own lids.
The Paradise Plastics Division manufactures packaging for other industries such as horticulture, aviation, pool & spa, cookies, candy, bakeries, optical and various other applications. “Our Plastics’ facility has more than 100,000-square-feet of warehouse space allowing for storage of a wide range of customers products, enabling on-time deliveries,” said Gordon.
“Our computerized inventory system enables us to track customer’s products from single cartons to multiple truckload quantities. We also have a fleet of tractor trailers for local area deliveries and our location offers complete parcel package, trucking line and rail access.” The thermoforming division is AS9100C and ISO9001:2008 certified. More information is available at ParadisePlastics.com.
Prior to the introduction of clam-shell-type packaging currently used in the retail pack for fresh strawberries, Paradise had been a major supplier of green injection molded baskets used to contain fresh-picked strawberries. “At that time, we produced anywhere from 60 to 100 million baskets each season,” said Gordon.
The company continues its relationship with the local strawberry industry, but in a different way. “As the fresh-picked season draws to a close and west coast berries begin to become available, we provide processing services through which strawberries are pureed or sliced, with or without sugar, and stored in buckets or drums which are then frozen and shipped for varied uses,” said Gordon. Among those uses are as flavorings for ice cream, candy, drinks and drink mixes, as well as many others.
“We supply our stainless plant and labor for berry processing and partner with Gary Wishnatzki of Wish Farms.” Coincidentally, Wishnatzki and Gordon are lifelong friends having grown up together in Tampa.
“Processed strawberries are very popular, but the majority of processing takes place in California,” said Gordon.
Throughout its history in Plant City, Paradise has been involved with the community in a variety of ways. Gordon is a past president of the Plant City Rotary Club and the company is a significant supporter of the Diabetes Foundation, Veterans Memorial Park and YMCA, as well as other community organizations.
“We also support the Paradise Inc. /Frank A. Weaner Scholarship at the University of South Florida College of Business,” noted Gordon. “In fact, that is the oldest scholarship at the Business College.”