Business Monday

Tierra Nueva: A sweet business adds ‘edible coffee’ to its line of chocolates

CHOCOLATE CHILLIN’: A batch of warm chocolate sitting in trays at the Tierra Nueva factory is vibrated to remove air bubbles as it cools. After cooling, it will move to the wrapping and packing section. The company sold 1.4 million pounds of chocolate last year to customers in the U.S. and overseas.
CHOCOLATE CHILLIN’: A batch of warm chocolate sitting in trays at the Tierra Nueva factory is vibrated to remove air bubbles as it cools. After cooling, it will move to the wrapping and packing section. The company sold 1.4 million pounds of chocolate last year to customers in the U.S. and overseas. MIAMI HERALD STAFF/FILE

John Alexander, the president of Tierra Nueva Fine Cocoa in Miami Gardens, wanted to be very clear about what his company does: “We make chocolate. We don’t melt chocolate.”

Alexander, who arrived in Miami from Cuba in 1959, pointed out that Tierra Nueva is the only company that really produces chocolate in Florida and the Southeast on an industrial scale.

“There are a lot of companies that buy chocolate in bulk, melt it down and convert it into different products and shapes,” said Alexander, who founded Miami-based Camrose Trading, a large, diversified distribution company, and grew it into a multimillion-dollar enterprise.

“We import select cocoa mass and cocoa butter from Ecuador, Peru and the Dominican Republic and convert it into chocolate at our plant.” Cocoa solids and cocoa butter are heated and mixed with sugar and other ingredients in a vat, kneaded for hours, checked for uniform quality and consistency, tempered, cooled and finally poured into molds.

Tierra Nueva can produce milk, dark and white chocolate, and it adds nuts and flavors — like orange — all depending on what customers want.

There are only a few other companies that actually produce large volumes of chocolate in the U.S., like industry giants Mars and Hershey.

About six years ago Alexander and his partners, including Brazil’s Cruz family, which has about 130 years of experience in coffee, cocoa and chocolate, decided to set up a chocolate plant in Miami Gardens for producing private label chocolates.

Studies showed that most of the private label chocolates sold in the U.S. came from producers in Eastern Europe, Spain and France. While only a small part of the total U.S. chocolate market, private label sales were still very attractive. But major players like Mars and Hershey did not compete since volumes were too small.

So the group set up Tierra Nueva as a Florida company in 2009, found a suitable location in Miami Gardens, imported a chocolate plant from Brazil, hired chocolate production specialists and began making chocolate in 2011.

Miami offered the best strategic location for importing raw materials and shipping products to customers in the U.S. and overseas, Alexander noted.

Tierra Nueva’s plant has the capacity to produce nearly 1.6 million pounds of chocolate per month, and 65 employees work in production, quality control, packaging, sales and other activities.

The company began selling private label chocolates to local retail chains, like Sedano’s and Navarro Discount Pharmacies (Navarro’s exclusive label is Vida Mia), and expanded through distributors and direct contacts with other retailers. Private labels allow U.S. retailers to offer customers quality chocolate at better prices than the dominant brands.

Today, Tierra Nueva sells its own chocolate brands — Cruz Classic and Cruz Origin Supreme — and private label chocolates to about 30,000 retail locations throughout the U.S. It also sells its products in Latin America and Japan. Cruz Classic bars are a value brand, while Cruz Origin Supreme is a higher-end chocolate. Cruz Classic bars (4.6 oz.) typically retail for $1, while Cruz Origin (3.5 oz.) sells for $1.99.

Aside from Sedano’s and Navarro, Tierra Nueva chocolates — appearing either as Cruz or as private labels — are carried today by chains like Walgreens, Family Dollar, Big Lots and the H-E-B grocery chain, with about 350 stores in Texas. Retailers in places like the Dominican Republic, Panama and Aruba sell large Tierra Nueva souvenir chocolate bars carrying the country’s name and emblazoned with colorful images. In addition, cruise lines, like Norwegian, sell Tierra Nueva chocolate bars carrying the name of the line as souvenirs to passengers.

As it began to produce chocolate, the company also developed its own brand of “edible coffee,” Alexander said. These are small, sweet squares called “Coffee Thins” available in espresso, latte and house blend flavors. Tierra Nueva makes the thins and smaller Coffee Bites from imported coffee beans. Coffee products and chocolate are made at the same plant, but each product run is entirely separate.

This product is sold under Tierra Nueva’s Coffee Thins brand and under private labels. At Walgreens, for example, the thins are sold in different flavors as “Delish” coffee bites.

The company also is making a new coffee base called Cafene, using 100 percent of the coffee bean in the production process. Tierra Nueva will begin promoting Cafene later this year on a wide scale for use in bakeries, ice cream and other food service applications. One major ice cream company is already using Cafene to make a new coffee flavor, Alexander said.

Currently, chocolate accounts for 75 percent of Tierra Nueva’s sales, while Coffee Thins represent about 15 percent and Cafene 10 percent, said Victor Garcia, commercial director at Tierra Nueva.

Most sales — about 95 percent — go to domestic customers, he added.

Last year, Tierra Nueva sold 1.4 million pounds of chocolate and 250,000 pounds of Coffee Thins. (The volume of finished goods made at the plant is much smaller than production capacity.)

For 2015, the company is projecting sales of 1.8 million pounds of chocolate and 650,000 pounds of coffee products, mostly Coffee Thins.

“People love to drink coffee, and Coffee Thins are a tasty, natural energy bar that you can take with you,” Alexander said. The company already sells Coffee Thins at many retailers, and is negotiating with a major coffee chain to carry the thins at their stores, he said.

“Coffee consumption is increasing all over the world, and we sell coffee you can eat.”

The writer can be reached at josephmannjr@gmail.com.

Tierra Nueva Fine Cocoa LLC

Business: Uses imported cocoa mass and cocoa butter to produce a range of fine chocolate products under its own brands (Cruz Classic, Cruz Origin Supreme, Cruz Minis) and tailor-made brands for private label clients. The company makes milk, dark and white chocolate with or without nuts or fruit flavor, as well as cocoa powder. It also imports whole coffee beans and makes “edible coffee” in the form of Coffee Thins (espresso, latte and house blend flavors) and Cafene, a new coffee base product that can be used in baking, ice cream and specialty foods.

Headquarters: 1130 NW 159th Drive, Miami Gardens.

Management: John Alexander, president.

Founded: 2009. Production began in 2011.

Employees: 65.

Plant: 50,000 square-foot facility with a monthly production capacity of nearly 1.6 million pounds of chocolate. In separate manufacturing runs, it also converts whole coffee beans into a coffee base product and Coffee Thins.

Customers: Retail chains such as Sedano’s and Walgreens (both under their private labels), and distributors. Products are available in approximately 30,000 outlets in the U.S., as well as in Mexico and Japan.

Sales: In 2014, Tierra Nueva sold 1.4 million pounds of chocolate and 295,000 pounds of Coffee Thins.

Ownership: Privately owned by John Alexander, founder of Miami-based Camrose Trading, a diversified distribution company; the Cruz family of Brazil, with more than 130 years of experience in coffee, cocoa and chocolate; and Victor Henríquez, co-founder of financial services firm Hencorp, who has more than 30 years of experience in finance, emerging markets and commodities.

Website: www.tierranuevacocoa.com or www.tnmcruz.com

Source: Tierra Nueva

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