Bob & Nathan Bender
Member since 2010
In the 1990s, Bob Bender was a chip potato grower in Nebraska for a major manufacturer. He and his teenage son, Nathan, would often bring home the baby size potatoes that didn’t make grade because of their size.
“It was only the large ones that you could make into potato chips,” said Nathan. “We would bring them home and cook them on the grill or prepare them in some other way. Friends and family loved them.”
The Benders remember thinking that there was “something there” that could be exploited but how to turn that item into a business proposition wasn’t even idle chatter. Life went on. Nathan finished high school and went on to the University of Nebraska majoring in agricultural business. Bob continued growing chip potatoes for CSS Farms, opened up a California operation for the chip-growing company and eventually moved to the Golden State in 2004 to run that growing operation.
Nathan spent summers in California helping out and they still enjoyed eating those small baby potatoes that fell through the chain during the harvesting operation. Their company website reveals that they would bring them home by the bucketful. They still hadn’t monetized the idea of growing baby potatoes but Nathan said trips to Europe revealed that there was at least a limited market for smaller potatoes as European retailers carried them. And in fact, there were limited supplies of odd-sized small potatoes being sold in Canada and U.S. markets as well.
In 2007, Nathan had graduated from college and was living in San Diego working for Sprint, the communications firm. Bob still farmed in Bakersfield, but he and CSS Farms had exited the chip potato business for that operation. “We were growing other crops always looking for a niche,” said Bob. “We were growing peppers, carrots, black-eyed peas, garlic.”
A Canadian company contracted CSS Farms to grow baby potatoes in the spring and ship them to our northern neighbor so the company could have year-round production. The light went back on for the Benders. “We grew them for that company for two years and saw real potential for the baby potato category,” said Bob.
By this time he had enticed Nathan to come back to the farming operation. The farm was owned by CSS Farms, and still is, with Bob as a partner, but the California operation was run as a family farm. “I don’t think Nathan would have come back if we were still doing chip potatoes,” Bob recalls. “But the opportunity to do something new and different was enticing. We both saw the potential.”
Nathan added: “This struck home for us,” as it conjured up those days a decade earlier when they were serving these baby potatoes during their Nebraska barbecue outings.
After growing for the Canadian firm for two years, the CSS partners decided to cut out the middleman and grow and market their own baby potatoes. In January of 2010, Tasteful Selections was launched and soon thereafter the first fields were planted. “In July and August we had our first crop. We operated out of a rented cold storage facility and packed our first bags of baby potatoes” under their own brand.
Since then the company has had meteoric growth. Tasteful Selections differentiated itself by adding special care for these creamer-style potatoes. It began with uniform sizing and they now have six sizes, ranging from truly baby potatoes to the largest size, which is a bit smaller than two inches in diameter. The company packages four colors—red, white, purple and yellow as both regular and fingerling potatoes and both in conventional and organic packs. Tasteful Selections harvests baby potatoes 320 days a year in eight different districts covering 14,000 acres of land.
From the small, rented packing shed it occupied in 2010, it has grown exponentially, with double-digit growth each year, including a 30 percent increase in 2018. “We built a new facility in 2015 and we have expanded every year since,” Bob said. “We are going to double the size of the facility in 2019 and we expect to double our volume in the next three years.”
In 2010, Nathan said the creamer potato category—which is the official name—represented only 1-2 percent of sales. He said sales are now above 15 percent of the total U.S. potato category and are expected to grow to at least 25 percent by 2025.
Bob said the firm continues to experiment with new potato varieties and new packaging options for the consumer. This past year, the firm introduced a couple of microwavable retail options.
Of course, success breeds imitators and while Tasteful Selections innovated the category, there are many copycats out there. “We have a 10-year head start,” Nathan said. “Growing baby potatoes is a challenge. It’s a lot more expensive and there is far less yield per acre.”
But he said the biggest challenge is delivering the quality the consumer wants. “A lot of people are growing these potatoes but they don’t realize what the consumer wants in terms of quality and taste.”
And Bob said it is also challenging to make it a year-round operation with sufficient supplies for every week of the year, which is what retail customers want. The company aims for consistent, year-round supply but Bob said there are periods when sales spike, such as during the end-of-the-year holiday season.
Bob Bender serves as president and CEO while Nathan Bender is chief operating officer. It is a privately-held company with several partners including the Benders, CSS Farms and RPE, Inc., (Bancroft, WI), which markets the baby potatoes grown and packaged by Tasteful Selections.
The company joined Western Growers when it opened its doors but Bob Bender said that being from the Midwest he was not fully aware of the association’s scope of services until the last several years. “We are getting more and more involved and that’s our plan. Nathan has gotten involved in the last couple of years and we have utilized more Western Growers services in the last couple of years. It’s a very good organization,” he said.