I have a very unique opportunity to travel around the country visiting the farms and farmers who grow the fresh produce that we use every single day at First Watch as well as the manufacturers who make a lot of our high-quality products. As a Florida native, I’ve always understood how important agriculture is to our state. I’ve been fortunate enough to work in restaurants that value the hard work that goes into every case of fruits and vegetables that come through the back door just as much as I do, so when I get a chance to go on one of these exciting trips in my own backyard, I always jump at the opportunity!
As you drive almost straight across our beautiful state, you quickly begin to realize that when civilization, neighborhoods, stop lights and gas stations on every corner end, that is where the true fun begins! Many people think the allure of Florida is all about our beaches and sunshine. There’s actually a lot more to it, namely in the center of our state where you basically go from cattle ranch to orange grove to sod farm – yes, sod farm. They have to get that stuff somewhere, don’t they? Eventually, you move on to civilization again and to the beautiful beach on the east coast. There are a few pretty large patches of swampland sprinkled in there as well.
A couple of weeks ago, I got to make this journey! We just opened a new restaurant on the east coast of Florida in a little town on the Treasure Coast called Port St. Lucie. When I knew that I was going to be visiting the east coast, I made arrangements to stop and see one of our long-time vendor partners – United Juice. Their plant is only about 30 minutes away from our new restaurant.
It’s important to understand that First Watch is – and always has been – dedicated to bringing the highest quality and freshest product to the table. Our Orange Juice is no exception. Our partner, United Juice is a small company that contracts with local farmers to take in their fresh fruit, squeeze it, chill it, bottle it and deliver it directly to your local First Watch restaurant. No preservatives are added – just fresh squeezed juice. This process helps us achieve our goal of a consistent flavor profile with the perfect amount of sweetness in every single glass of juice we serve. That’s not always easy when you are dealing with fresh fruit, but through this partnership with United Juice, we are able to deliver a high quality glass of cold OJ every time.
So the owners of United Juice, two fantastic gentlemen named Marc and Dan, wanted to help us better understand the journey our oranges take from “grove to glass” – yep, that’s a thing! Marc and Dan contract with a handful of the best growers from the middle of our state to bring in some of the most consistent and balanced oranges to be processed. These little babies were adorable! If you have ever been to Florida and seen huge 18-wheeler trailers full of oranges headed down the road, then you know exactly how these little guys get from The Groves to the plant. One of those trailers will yield about 3,000 gallons of juice!
Once the oranges arrive at the plant, a hydraulic lift picks up the trailer and dump the oranges into the start of their journey toward becoming a beautiful and refreshing glass of juice. Step 1 is to wash them, as these little fellows have traveled quite a distance to arrive at the plant. They all go through a wash then a rinse, then onto a table where any orange with a defect is called out – by hand. A defect could be broken peel, exposed flesh, or any other issue that would make an orange less than perfect. The interesting thing about our product, because it is not pasteurized and only minimally processed (By minimally, I mean they juice the oranges and chill the juice – that’s it, period.) is that the FDA says that there can be zero defects in any orange that’s used to make fresh, not pasteurized, juice. On the contrary, the pasteurized guys are allowed up to 10% physical defects on the oranges, since they go through the pasteurization process after selection. I just want to make sure I put that in perspective. We choose to use the higher quality, less processed product because we feel better about it and it tastes better!
So, once all the bad oranges are called out, the remaining fruit goes through a sanitation process, one more visual inspection and then on to get juiced. The juicer parts, or the extractors as they’re called, are basically a spiky cone with a little tube in the center. The oranges are fed into the cup part of the cone and then another spiky cone presses down from the top, piercing the orange and immediately allowing the juice to flow down through the little tube. And when you write that out, or read that in your case, it’s a bit hard to envision, which is why I took these photos. Let me also mention that this is happening to 5 oranges at a time and at a rate of about 300 oranges per minute. It’s an impressive sight!
From there, the juice is pumped into a giant radiator-like system where it is quickly cooled and passed along to the bottling line, where one-gallon jugs are filled in a very smooth and seamless operation. The jugs are then capped with a plastic tear-tab in tamper-resistant cap and sent off to be placed into cases and held to ship to our restaurants across the country.
Now, to be clear, in the early morning every day at every First Watch, we are juicing fresh produce like kale, cucumbers, Fuji apples, carrots and whatever seasonal ingredients make up the feature juice that’s in season. These have included beets, watermelon, honeydew and turmeric. We love the fact that all recipes will remain consistent throughout the year and that we are able to pinpoint the 5 or 6 groves where our citrus juice comes from!
Some people have asked me, “Chef, wouldn’t it be better to just juice the oranges fresh?” In short, my answer is “no.” In order to ensure that we are getting a consistently flavorful and balanced sweetness in our juice all year round, this process is without a doubt the best approach. If we were to juice oranges in-house, the sweetness would fluctuate greatly throughout the year, and we would not be able to pin-point where the oranges that were being sold to us came from. To me, it is extra special that this product is fresh, meaning it has never been concentrated and rehydrated, heated at all, or tampered with in any way. The product that we are proud to serve everyday truly is from Grove to Glass! Just like Georgia is known for peaches and Wisconsin for cheese, Florida is known worldwide for our oranges. They may not be the prettiest oranges, but they always produce the best juice!