BRIDGETON — Patrick Leger stood in a processing room at Rutgers Food Innovation Center on Friday, watching as an assembly line of bottles were filled with pure strained tomatoes, First Field’s latest product.
First Field has grown considerably since Leger and his wife, Theresa Viggiano, formed the company several years ago, making products in small batches in settings that included the kitchen of a New Brunswick soup kitchen.
First Field is one of the more than 700,000 small businesses in New Jersey that generate more than $37 billion in income, according to federal government statistics. Small businesses represent more than 98 percent of all New Jersey employers and employ 50.3 percent of the private-sector workforce.
For Leger and Viggiano, expansion wasn’t easy, and the couple eventually turned to the center for help. Leger admits they “learned the hard way” that things such as recipes for small batches of product just can’t be increased exponentially to work well with large batches of product. First Field now measures its product batches in hundreds of gallons, and the company used an estimated 40 tons of New Jersey-grown tomatoes last year. The products are sold in stores that include Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods and Wegman’s.
Leger said his company will eventually “graduate” from the center, which serves primarily as a business incubator. He said he wants production to remain in Cumberland County.
That might be easier to do in the next few years.
The Cumberland County Improvement Authority will oversee a project that involves a more than 33,000-square-foot processing facility next to the center. The facility would give companies such as First Field a place to make their products for their crucial first few years before moving to other processing sites.
“They need a place to go,” said Lou Cooperhouse, the center’s director. “Our job is to find a pathway for them to go after they leave our facility.”
Plans are still in the preliminary stage in terms of everything from cost to building design, but they could involve as many as eight food-processing stations and shared cold-storage space, Cooperhouse said. The center and the CCIA would work together to help fill the new facility with center graduates or other companies looking to expand or diversify their product base, he said.
Cooperhouse said that could include foreign-based companies wanting to establish a presence in the United States. About 80 percent of the estimated 100 businesses helped by the center each year are within a 90-minute radius of the center on Broad Street, he said.
The combination of the center and the county’s new processing facility could be a significant coup for the region, Cooperhouse said. Research by Rutgers indicates it could be the only one of its kind in the United States, he said. Similar enterprises operate in Canada and Ireland.
“Those programs have a very long waiting list,” Cooperhouse said.
The center opened in downtown Bridgeton in 2001. It moved to its current Broad Street location in 2008.
The center not only serves as a business incubator, but also works with different agencies on various projects. One of those projects involved developing nutritious foods, which included things such as eggplant parmigiana and fruit parfaits, for school lunch programs.
The center was just recognized as the food incubator of the year by the International Business Innovation Association.
Reuben Canada is one of those entrepreneurs who said the center was invaluable in getting his product off the ground.
Canada, now a New York City resident and former patent attorney and software engineer, said he started “playing around” in July 2009 with a product eventually called Jin-Ja, a beverage made with ingredients that include ginger, cayenne pepper, cane sugar and green tea. He said he turned to the center when friends urged him to scale up operations. He said he’s glad he did.
“I wasn’t even in the pool,” Canada said of knowing how to expand production, including how to adjust the drink’s recipe for large-scale batches. “They had suppliers who could take me to the next level. Ginger. Labels. Caps and lids.
“This is a turnkey operation that makes it happen,” he said. “If you’ve got the stubbornness not to walk away from a challenge, they have exactly what you need.”
The 38-year-old Canada now works with a private company to produce and bottle Jin-Ja and sells an estimated 34,000 cases of the drink in about 2,600 stores, including Whole Foods.
Leger and Viggiano, who live in Skillman in Somerset County, also don’t have food-related background. Leger’s principal job is in finance and money management, while Viggiano — who Leger said is the driving force behind First Field — was involved in health-services research.
The company sort of got its start at a farmhouse Viggiano shared with some graduate students, Leger said. He said they started to grow tomatoes on a 20-foot-by-20-foot plot and made some sauces they sold at an honor-box stand.
Leger said he and his wife eventually started making ketchup, in part because of the link to Leger’s native Montreal, Canada. Leger said the region has a long tradition of using different kinds of ketchups.
First Fields pure strained tomato product was being processed Friday, one of about four days a month the company uses the Rutgers center. The product was being bottled while staff from the center, Rutgers and First Fields watched everything from the sterilizing of glass bottles to the temperature at which the tomatoes were cooked.
Leger said he never imagined he would one day be involved in the food industry.
“It’s pretty amazing,” he said.