If you haven’t tasted a pineapple guava or heard of a scaly fruit called cherimoya, sixth-generation farmer Nick Brown is hoping to change that.
Brown is the owner of Rincon Tropics, a business that ships freshly picked fruit sourced from his family’s farms to customers nationwide. And not just any fruit but rare, tropical types, some of which his family introduced to the U.S. market.
“The general public is largely unfamiliar with the fruits we grow,” says Brown. That includes finger-sized caviar limes, pink and purple-fleshed dragon fruit, tangy-sweet pineapple guavas and cherimoyas, a custardy-flavored fruit traditionally grown in Latin America. Brown’s father was the first in North America to commercially develop the cherimoya some 40 years ago. One customer described the cherimoya as looking like a dinosaur egg.
“These fruits are generally grown in very, very specific areas of the world, and it’s unlikely they’d be in a grocery store,” says Brown. It turns out one of those “special areas” is his hometown of Carpinteria, situated along the central California coast north of Santa Monica. The temperate microclimate—not too hot and rarely below freezing–makes for ideal growing conditions that allow tropical fruit to thrive.
“A big part of my business is educating the customer. ‘No, the cherimoya isn’t an artichoke. No, the passion fruit isn’t a plum or a prune,’” he says. Brown cites the avocado as an example of a fruit once considered exotic but is now ubiquitous. “I’m trying to do that with some of the fruits we grow.”
Sourcing fruit from Rincon Tropics is a family affair. Brown’s produce comes largely from the orchards of his mother, father, godparents and uncle, who collectively own hundreds of acres in the area.
Brown grew up on his family’s ranch. It was a way of life that went back generations. His ancestors arrived in covered wagons in 1871 and started farming immediately. Following in his family’s muddy footsteps, however, wasn’t his ambition. Brown went away to college and studied film and sociology. But when he returned home after graduation, he started managing his mother’s farm and then handling marketing and sales. He sold the fruit at farmer’s markets, something he’d been doing with his sisters since he was a teenager. This time, things started falling into place. “Family businesses are often complex. It took quite a while to realize I wanted to do this. I have certain strengths, and it made sense to me to capitalize on those strengths,” he says.
Then COVID hit and the market shut down. In a twist of fate, Brown lost the old farmer’s market business, but a new business found Brown. Customers started reaching out for their fruit fixes and asking Brown to ship boxes to their homes. A few of those regulars were influencers who showcased the fruit boxes on their social media. “Suddenly I was getting messages on Instagram from folks all over the country saying, “Hey can you send us a box? We’d love to try your fruit,” Brown says. What started as a few shipments to loyal customers turned into a full-fledged business model. “It came out of nowhere. It just happened. The timing was right.”
The constant stream of comments from customers lets Brown know he’s on the right track. They tell him the fruit deliveries are the highlights of their day or that they can never go back to grocery store fruit. They share recipes and send pictures of dishes using these exotic fruits they had never seen before. The interaction is what he loves best about the business. “I just think it’s so awesome,” says Brown. “It’s inspiring and energizing to see how much the fruit is being appreciated.”
Why Mercer Culinary
“I’m in charge of the content creation for my business. I realized my little thrift store cutting board and dull knives passed down through the years aren’t the best background to showcase my fruit. Upgrading my tools makes a better presentation. A bad picture doesn’t do justice to the stellar produce I’m displaying.”