How One Farmer Is Delivering Tropical Fruit Right to Our Door

Rincon Tropics founder Nick Brown wants you to know what a passion fruit really tastes like.

Farmer Nick Brown | Photo courtesy of Rincon Tropics
Farmer Nick Brown | Photo courtesy of Rincon Tropics

Sixth-generation farmer Nick Brown spent his childhood running through orchards. His first job was at the family packing house, placing tiny stickers on pieces of fruit as they flowed down an assembly line. In between shifts, he’d build forts with pallets of cardboard boxes.

Eventually, Brown graduated to selling the fruit alongside his older sisters at local farmers’ markets. But when COVID-19 made such gatherings obsolete, he founded his own, direct-to-consumer produce box, Rincon Tropics. The company, based in Carpinteria, California, ships to the lower 48 states. 

A box from Rincon Tropics holds the promise of fruit that you can’t find anywhere else. And once your order is placed, you can expect to receive it in two to four days.

Brown’s subtropical offering might include: the finger lime, a pellet-shaped citrus that, when squeezed, releases iridescent beads of sour caviar; the cherimoya, a scalloped, South American fruit that is said to taste like tropical custard; or Brown’s personal favorite, the familiar-yet-foreign passion fruit, praised for pulp that can be spread on dishes both savory and sweet.

“I’ve really enjoyed being able to connect with people across the country that don’t have the same access as people living in this particular part of California,” Brown says. “It’s been so rewarding to hear their memories of the fruit—from when they had it on a trip years ago, or in their home country—as well as the new memories they’re creating, like sharing a cherimoya with their child for the first time and discovering that they both love it.”

And in order to help people build these sensory memories, Brown showcases a number of recipe ideas and how-tos on social media. Because if you didn’t grow up eating dragon fruit like Brown, you likely wouldn’t know where to begin.

passion fruits in hand
Photo courtesy of Rincon Tropics

When Brown’s ancestors arrived in Carpinteria in 1871, they began a legacy of inventive farming. His great-great grandfather, Henry Fish, garnered fame for perfecting a lima bean variety—back when lima beans were all the rage—that would become the world standard. Later down the line, Brown’s father introduced cherimoyas commercially to the states. Today, Carpinteria stands as the largest cherimoya-growing region in the country, and the Brown family has even patented their own varieties, including the “Rincon.”

We don’t see these fruits at major supermarkets, Brown explains, because they grow in highly specific regions and require intense labor. Passion fruit, for example, needs to be harvested daily. Finger limes grow on bushes that are covered in thorns. In order to pick them, the harvester has to master a special technique, and once picked, the limes have a tight window before dehydrating—a high price to pay for a crop that doesn’t grow particularly large or fast.

It takes years for these plants to develop enough to create considerable volume. So while Rincon Tropics has one of the largest passion fruit plantings in the country, it’s unlikely that they will ever be able to meet the current demand.

Grocery stores work around this issue by spraying wax coatings on fruits and vegetables to extend their shelf life. Then there’s the refrigeration. “In order to prevent food spoilage, they crank the temperature down. That'll stop fruit from ripening, but it causes damage to the fruit on a cellular level,” Brown explains. “So that’s why, oftentimes, when you open up a grocery store avocado, it’s got a kind of browning inside, or oxidation. That’s largely because of the cold refrigeration temperature.”

Brown’s fruit, by contrast, touches very few hands before it gets to the customer—no wax coatings, no pesticides, no unnecessary packaging—aka low intervention farming at its best. While he’s feeding people on a much smaller scale, the quality that comes from this lack of processing is much higher. “People are tasting what a tangerine is supposed to taste like—not something that was picked four weeks ago and just sat in the cooler the entire time,” he says.

nick brown with dogs
Photo courtesy of Rincon Tropics

While Brown sources his produce from a network of local family farms, in addition to his own, Rincon Tropics is a one-man show, which has been overwhelming at times. He started selling boxes in early 2020, at a time when people had limited access to farmers’ markets and fresh produce. But it turns out there continues to be a high demand, especially during the winter months, when people on the East Coast rely on citrus season for much-needed color.

When the U.S. imposed its ban on avocados from Mexico last month, the wholesale price for California avocados skyrocketed. “But the reality is, California produces a fraction of the total amount of avocados needed for the global consumption rate,” Brown says. Plus, Mexico’s avocado harvest is not the same as California’s, meeting consumer expectations of year-round availability—a concept Brown believes is both good and bad.

“I don’t think anyone should be deprived of the fruit that they want to eat when they want to eat it,” he explains. “But I do think it’s important for people to realize that when a fruit is in season, that’s what it’s supposed to taste like..”

When we think about American “hustle culture,” rarely do we picture a farm. But for Brown, there’s never really an off-season. He believes the biggest misconception surrounding farm work is that it’s one singular thing. “It’s such a multifaceted profession that requires science, logic, sales, branding, strategy, chemistry, and luck,” he says. “And then we have that fun variable of weather that can, in a matter of hours, completely upend something that has taken years to perfect. Avocado and cherimoya trees live for decades, but if we get a wildfire like we did three years ago, it could kill entire orchards. And then you have to start from scratch.”

For Brown, the joy of introducing people to the real essence of a tropical fruit—whether it’s one they’ve had yet to try, or have only had a lesser-version of—makes the job worthwhile. Taking the family business and leading it to its modern iteration, Brown is changing the way we think about farming, one passion fruit at a time.

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Jessica Sulima is a staff writer on the Food & Drink team at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram