Merced County Times Newspaper
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TIMES PHOTOS BY BEVERLY BARELA

Locally grown, white sweet potato cubes have arrived

A new retail product, Mininger Farms White Sweet Potato Cubes, arrived at Save Mart and Lucky’s Supermarkets a month ago, thanks to: Dave McCary, designer of the White Sweet Potato Cubes product bag, Eric Buhrmann, processing plant manager (married to Kimberly Mininger), Amberly Ralls, marketing representative (also, Kimberly’s sister), and Roy Torres, sales director.
A new retail product, Mininger Farms White Sweet Potato Cubes, arrived at Save Mart and Lucky’s Supermarkets a month ago, thanks to: Dave McCary, designer of the White Sweet Potato Cubes product bag, Eric Buhrmann, processing plant manager (married to Kimberly Mininger), Amberly Ralls, marketing representative (also, Kimberly’s sister), and Roy Torres, sales director.

Customers at a product demonstration station in the Produce section of Save Mart Supermarket in Atwater were treated to a sample of a brand new product on May 31 — Mininger Farms’ locally grown and packaged White Sweet Potato Cubes.

Cooking and serving the product for the customers was a team from Mininger — Amberly Ralls, marketing representative, Eric Buhrmann, processing plant manager who is married to Kimberly Mininger (Amberly’s sister), and Dave McCary, who does photography and magazine design for Mininger Farms.

The story of the new product’s introduction into the retail market is one of a local  well-established family business expanding through out-of-the-box thinking.

The idea for the new product was the brainchild of Nathan Mininger, the father of Amberly and Kimberly, who has been growing sweet potatoes in the Livingston area for 30 years and currently farms about 1,000 acres.

During an interview with the Times, Buhrmann said, “What we are trying to do with the white sweet potato cubes is create a niche market that can expand and create a greater demand for sweet potato products by bringing awareness of the other varieties that aren’t orange.”

Ralls explained, “My dad got the idea in 2013 of opening a processing plant in Merced to get the white sweet potato to market through the process of farm to table.  He didn’t want people to be limited to sweet potato casseroles and miss the other food items you can make using sweet potatoes. We’ve been in Save Mart and Lucky’s for one month now.”

Describing the white sweet potato, she said, “It’s a varietal.  It’s a Japanese potato.”

Buhrmann said, “The White Sweet Potato Cubes can go into soups, chili, breakfast burritos — there are endless possibilities.  Its nutritional profile is really good.  It has potassium, calcium and Vitamin A. Another health benefit of the product is its low glycemic index. People with diabetes cannot have Russet potatoes, but can have this sweet potato. You can substitute a sweet potato for a Russet in any recipe.”

He added, “The product has no chemicals — just one ingredient. That’s comforting. We can trace it back to which field it came from.”

When asked what Mininger Farms is primarily involved in, Buhrmann said, “The family farm has 250 employees, and Nolan Mininger has run it for the past 12 years.  It’s a little over 1,000 acres of sweet potatoes, but we’re only taking a little bit of the farm. The majority of the sweet potatoes goes to fresh market. In the industrial arena, we are ingredient suppliers for meal manufacturers from Colorado to Texas to Southern California.”

About the process that ultimately resulted in the new product event at Save Mart, Ralls said, “We came up with four product ideas — hash browns, patties, cubes, fries. We went to the Fresno Food Expo and found out what people thought. We would cook different ideas, and it seemed the thing most liked by the consumers was the cubes. They could be cooked in five to seven minutes, and were the most versatile.”

When recruited to work in the family business by his father-in-law, Buhrmann was going to school, working on becoming an RN.

He said, “It was a big learning curve for me, from the ground up. We found a processing plant that was an old building the County of Merced had used for Meals on Wheels. The plant was empty, and I set up a little office in the back and sat there with my suit and tie on.”

Sometimes when deliveries were made, the workmen thought the premises were vacant.

Ralls laughed, “It was a little weird at first.”

Gradually, Buhrmann learned the food safety regulations, how to order equipment, and all kinds of things, a lot of times by doing research online.

“Now, we have organic certification, and our employees are trained and certified,” he said, proudly.  “The plant has 10 people working as production line people, and five in administration, sales and safety.  Dave [McCary] designed the cubes bag.  Almost everything, like marketing, is taken care of in-house.”

About the final key step in the expansion, getting the product to market, Ralls said, “My dad knew that Roy Torres, who retired after many successful years as the Manager of Atwater’s Save Mart, understood how to make the connection to sell the product at the supermarket. Roy became head of Sales. He came on full-time.”

A well-pleased Roy Torres attended the event at Save Mart, proudly posing for photos with the group at the demo station.

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