Natural Foods

Sonoma, Naturally!

Michael Amsler

Got their goat: Cheesemakers Javier and Patty Salmon of Bodega Goat Cheese make products that don’t taste goatsy.

A generation of local entrepreneurs find their place in the sun amid Sonoma County’s thriving natural and organic packaged-foods industry

By Paula Harris

IT’S NOT JUST a flash in the pan. The days when the only organic or natural processed foods available were plain-packed, plain-tasting, or just plain weird-tasting offerings sold by tie-dye-clad clerks at the local health food store are long gone. These days natural and organic foods packaged for convenience have become so creative and full-flavored–even bordering on gourmet–they now stock supermarket-sized natural food markets and even occupy a permanent space alongside familiar, additive-laden products on mainstream grocery store shelves.

By 1995, mainstream consumers had become more health conscious, and mass market demand for natural foods soared. Even established companies, among them household names in the food industry, recognized these trends and diversified into natural foods. There are now wholesome replicas of familiar junk-grub–even Pop Tarts and tater tots have their healthful equivalents.

“In general, whole organic-food sales are jumping significantly each year nationwide because people are very concerned about the perceived quality of foods,” says Betsy Timm, executive director for Select Sonoma County, a non-profit agricultural marketing group that develops promotions, education programs, and marketing opportunities for Sonoma County’s agricultural producers.

“Even large corporate farms are getting into the organic area. Natural foods are growing in tandem also and are becoming linked to big companies,” continues Timm. “When Kraft jumps on the bandwagon, you know it’s a trend.”

Local purveyors and manufacturers of natural and organic products are riding this wave of widespread acceptance, and natural packaged fare from the county is increasingly turning up in supermarkets and kitchen cupboards around the nation and, in some cases, internationally.

Think that’s an exaggeration? Take a peek inside your own kitchen cabinets. A quick perusal of my pantry was like taking a quick jaunt around the county. I encountered a bag of Timber Crest Farms organic sun-dried tomatoes (Healdsburg); a box of Fantastic Classico Risotto (Petaluma); Barbara’s Bakery Natural Choice toaster pastries (Petaluma); a can of Muir Glen organic diced tomatoes and one of pizza sauce (Petaluma); a bottle of Kozlowski Farms honey mustard salad dressing (Forestville); and a box of Traditional Medicinals Gypsy Cold Care herbal tea (Sebastopol).

“We nurture the natural foods industry through our general campaign of ‘Sonoma Grown’ and ‘Sonoma Made’ logos that identify products grown or produced in Sonoma County,” says Timm.

“The whole location of Sonoma County is really exciting,” says Tim Schrock, natural foods buyer for Petaluma Market, a crossover grocery store selling both natural and mainstream products in west Petaluma. “The county is really trying to be a player in the nationwide natural foods industry. This relatively new industry has flourished locally in the last 10 years.”

Schrock adds that some local family businesses that started modestly are becoming huge companies. “Before, [the local natural foods companies] were small and privately handled. Now they are corporate and have evolved into big business,” he says. “The natural foods companies are becoming structured like large conventional food companies were back then.”

Michael Amsler

Tofu kings: Bill Bramblett and Jeremiah Ridenour of Wildwood Foods.

FOR EXAMPLE, he cites Fantastic Foods in Petaluma, a purveyor of natural dehydrated foods and rices, founded by Jim and Joan Rosen in 1975. Recently the firm was acquired by Small Planet Foods, a Sedro-Woolley, Wash., company formed and controlled by Trefoil Capital Investors II LP. Trefoil is an investment partnership affiliated with Roy E. Disney’s Shamrock Holding Inc.

Small Planet–which is anything but “small”–was established in 1997. The corporation has also acquired Cascadian Farms, a Washington-based natural frozen foods manufacturer, and Muir Glen, the country’s largest producer of organic tomato products. Muir Glen recently moved its headquarters into the Fantastic Foods facility in Petaluma, consolidating the company’s operations, finance, and marketing departments. Fantastic Foods products are now sold throughout the United States in both natural and mainstream retail grocery stores and in about 15 foreign countries.

Another national leader is Santa Rosa-based Amy’s Kitchen, a frozen-foods manufacturer that was started in 1987 by a local couple as a healthful, preservative-free alternative to the high-fat, high-sodium TV dinners and convenience meals offered by the big guys like Stouffers. Now, Amy’s has grown into one of the county’s largest employers, with some 500 workers on the payroll.

But is the commercialization of organic products a sellout? Is what started as an alternative agriculture losing its underlying values? Although some natural foods purveyors are becoming huge corporate enterprises, Schrock believes the products, for the most part, are not suffering. “Quality standards are still there,” he says. “It’s just the structure of the company that’s different.”

Indeed, these products are now extremely well marketed, with slick literature, attractive packaging, and websites. Company representatives offer support at the retail level, and manufacturers are increasingly targeting their items toward mainstream groceries. Yet it’s still possible to discover companies so small they can fully participate in the community: the jam maker who still picks his own berries to make organic fruit preserves to sell at the local farmers’ market; the young woman who’s handing out samples of her sister’s secret all-natural barbecue sauce recipe slathered on crusts of bread at a natural food market on a Saturday morning.

Here is a sampling of the smorgasbord of natural and organic packaged foods and beverages produced in Sonoma County, from wholesome organic goat cheese, five-alarm all-natural tequila-based BBQ sauce, and medicinal teas to gourmet tofu. We’ve included companies both large and small, old and new.

Expanded list and contact numbers for providers of natural and organic packaged foods.

Amy’s Kitchen
It’s hard to believe that little Amy, the baby whose birth in 1988 inspired the famed local all-natural frozen foods company, will be 12 in November. Proud parents Andy and Rachel Berliner started the namesake Amy’s Kitchen in Petaluma after their daughter was born, and out of necessity. They wanted healthy, tasty, and easy-to-fix alternatives to the frozen convenience foods and TV dinners packing the grocery freezers. Thus their line of vegetarian organic frozen foods was born. Now Amy’s Kitchen is the biggest-selling natural frozen-food line in the nation. The company has moved its operations to Santa Rosa and has about 500 employees, although the Berliners are still very much at the helm. “A chef develops the dishes, but Andy, Rachel, and Amy are still the taste buds of Amy’s Kitchen,” explains a company spokeswoman. Everything is made on the premises. Favorites include vegetable pot pie, vegetable lasagna, and black bean enchiladas. In addition, the company has introduced a line of organic canned soups, and a new selection of pasta sauces will be available this summer. 578-7188.

Bodega Goat Cheese
One hundred and twenty goats roam and forage in the pastures at the rolling farmland located in the town of Bodega near the coast. Count ’em. Their “parents,” cheese makers Javier and Patty Salmon, hope soon to begin operating one of the first organic goat dairies in the country. “We’re in the process of applying for organic status,” says Patty Salmon. The Salmons have carved canals and terraces over the entire eight-acre hillside to catch rainwater and extend the pasture’s growing season, installed irrigation ponds, and planted trees with a high-protein content to return the goats to a natural diet. Their happy herd also benefits from organic alfalfa and grain. The end results of all this care, says Patty, are delightfully fresh cheeses that “pick up the flavor of the pasture.” Husband Javier, whose family owned a cow dairy in Peru, brought family recipes to the states, and the couple used them, substituting goat milk. The South American process is unlike the French method of making chèvre, says Patty. “We make the milk into cheese within one or two days, so the flavor isn’t very goaty,” she adds. “People who don’t normally like goat cheese often love ours.” Their six products include a Spanish-style manchego and queso fresco, a cheese from the Andes that Patty describes as similar to Greek feta but less salty. 876-3483.

Da Vero Olive Oil
“As with wine, it goes back to what you start with,” says Da Vero co-owner Colleen McGlynn. “We start with cuttings from Tuscany planted in 1990.” The Dry Creek Valley appellation oil produced by this Healdsburg company was the first American oil to earn the prestigious extra-virgin designation in Europe. Two years ago, the Sonoma County oil won over Italian and French equivalents during a blind tasting in Imperia, Italy. McGlynn, who works the oil biz with her husband, Ridgely Evers, describes the four Italian varietals produced as condiment oils for finishing and dressing food rather than for heat cooking. “Sautéeing would burn off all the fruit flavors,” she explains. According to McGlynn, who is an accomplished chef, the pure oil contains a harmony of flavors that needs no extra additives. “There’s a green freshness, a pepper taste, and a little bitter tone,” she says. “It all comes from the fruit–the olive–and it all adds complexity and structure to a dish.” During harvest time, two tons of olives per day are picked from trees on 22 acres, transported to Marin County, and pressed with a stone and hydraulic press in Frantoio Restaurant in Mill Valley. “The oil is ready the next day,” McGlynn says. 431-8000.

Michael Amsler

La Casa Food Co.
It all started when customers began requesting recipes for the housemade tamales, the salsa, and the tangy salad dressing all served at the venerable La Casa restaurant in Sonoma. Although the restaurant was established in 1967, it took 20 years of customer requests before the food company was launched, explains Angela Cuda, general manager of the La Casa Food Co., which is owned by her father, Ron Cuda. The Cudas purchased the company five years ago. Their line of meatless packaged products includes tamales, burritos, chips, salsa, and salad dressing. Among the favorites are Calabaza tamales stuffed with zucchini, garlic, and spices; and tamales filled with black beans and cheese. “We make everything at the food company,” explains Cuda. “It’s all handmade fresh daily.” The food really is prepared by hand and not by machine, and the small business is continuing to grow–in fact, Safeway supermarkets recently picked up the La Casa line. 996-7524.

Mayacamas Fine Foods Inc.
“There are 12 of us,” says Walter Ranzau, president of Mayacamas Fine Foods Inc., a business owned by a family and its friends. The 30-year-old Sonoma company produces all-natural low-fat dry mixes for pasta sauces and soups. “One of the owners is a certified chef. We collaborate to come up with new flavors that he’ll make fresh, and then we’ll duplicate that with dry-mix-ingredients know-how,” explains Ranzau. The company’s latest line is called Skillet Toss Pasta Products. “You add the vegetables and you stir it up–hence the name,” he says. “You add the fresh ingredients, and we supply the spices and seasonings to make a dish taste the way it’s supposed to.” 996-0955.

Mendocino Pasta Company
Don’t let the name fool you: this pasta purveyor is actually located in Rohnert Park. “There’s a Mendocino Avenue in Santa Rosa, so don’t let our name confuse your readers,” says owner Dan Luber when asked about his biz. “The company started in Mendocino–my home–but we kept growing and needed to be closer to our resources.” The company moved to Sonoma County in 1988, and continues to make batches of natural and organic specialty pastas in a variety of flavors on-site. “The tastes in the marketplace are constantly changing,” says Luber. “Our goal is to follow trends, stay abreast, and bring top culinary trends and styles into our product.” What are the current pasta trends? “Definitely Southwest-y,” says Luber. “We’re working on flavors we call Southwest-California, using chipolte chilies and fire-roasted peppers. But the classic Italian flavor blend of garlic and basil will always be popular.” As an added bonus, the pasta packaging features recipes by Toni Robertson, executive chef of the Sonoma Mission Inn and Spa. The company also produces a line of pasta sauces. 584-0800.

Pool Ridge Herbals
Feelin’ frail? Brew up a nice pot of tea. That’s the advice from Donna Burch, owner of Pool Ridge Herbals, an up-and-coming tea company located in Forestville. Pool Ridge Herbals produces a line of 16 medicinal blends. “These are loose, whole herb teas that you brew yourself,” Burch says. All the ingredients are organic or wild-crafted, meaning they were gathered from the wild when available. Burch, a nutritional consultant and a clinical herbalist, began the company five years ago by growing a lot of the herbs herself. “I’ve always been interested in alternative health approaches, playing with herbs, understanding the body systems, and talking to clients,” she says. “My teas are geared for specific health areas such as the thyroid, memory function, and joint function.” A couple of her popular specific blends are Live-Clean, which Burch says helps liver function better by cleansing, detoxing, and aiding food digestion, and Kidni-Clear, which she says helps keep kidneys functioning properly and prevents bladder infections. “The herbs are full of trace minerals, vitamins, and nutrients,” says Burch. 632-6509.

Sartain’s Menu
“Some people run screaming and some say, ‘Oh, that’s nothing,’ when they taste my barbecue sauce,” says James Sartain, owner of Sartain’s Menu in Petaluma, a small but growing company. Sartain works for the phone company by day, but has parlayed his love of cooking into a second career. His sole product, called simply The Sauce, consists of a palate-rousing blend of chipolte chili peppers, soy sauce, lime juice, honey, garlic, tequila, and sesame oil. “It’s an Aztec-Szechuan combo,” says Sartain with a laugh. His recipe took six months to perfect. His focus groups were friends who participated in dinner parties to sample sauce variations and rate the competition. “I thought about it a long time, hemmed and hawed, and people kept asking, ‘When’s the sauce gonna be ready?’ So I just decided to call it The Sauce,” he explains. Later this year, Sartain will be branching out into marinades with an alcohol theme: tequila-based for poultry, ale-based for beef, and white wine-based for seafood. “It’s a small company, but we’re sold in Seattle, Alaska, Florida, and New York,” says Sartain. “Word of mouth has been good to us.” 763-6335.

Solana Gold Organics
John Kolling, president of Solana Gold in Sebastopol, left his engineering career at Hewlett-Packard and became an organic-apple farmer and manufacturer. The 20-year-old company produces five flavors of organic apple juice and 11 flavors of applesauce (including blackberry-apple and Island Passion), and has just introduced natural cider vinegar. All the products are organic and made from the area’s famed local apples. “The organic industry is just growing leaps and bounds,” says Solana Gold national sales manager Janielle Marie, who adds that the company’s products are even exported to Canada and Japan. “You used to just find the products in health food stores. Now they’re in crossover markets and mass markets, which are all responding to consumers asking for organic products. It’s more than just a trend.” 829-1121.

Tierra Vegetables
“The first thing I tell people is that we’re not a company, we’re a small family farm,” explains Evie Truxaw, of the Healdsburg-headquartered operation. The multifaceted farm, owned by the sister and brother team of Lee and Wayne James (Evie is Wayne’s wife) began in 1980 and grows a wide variety of veggies. But Tierra is also known for its packaged smoked and dried chipolte chilies, which are grown locally sans pesticides or herbicides. The packaged chilies are a spicy staple of chefs at several local restaurants, including Equus in Santa Rosa. The plain dried chilies are great in enchilada sauce, chili rellenos, and mole sauce, says Truxaw, while the smoked ones liven up black beans and chicken dishes. “The smoked version has been smoked for five days and has a beautiful aroma,” she adds. “And don’t just use it in Mexican and Southwest dishes–try a few snippets on a pizza!” 837-8366.

Wildwood Natural Foods
OK, so we cheated a tad here. Wildwood is actually located in Fairfax, Marin County, but Wildwood’s general manager, Billy Bramblett, is such an effusive character, and he does live in Petaluma … The 19-year-old company produces gourmet tofu products, which are made from organic soybeans and are available in many local stores. Gourmet tofu? “A lot of people had a bad tofu experience as a child,” admits Bramblett, who used to guide a cooperative natural foods restaurant in Fairfax. “It’s my job to make tofu taste great and reverse that experience.” He and his partner, Jeremiah Ridenour, call themselves the “Jer and Billy” (as opposed to Ben and Jerry) of soy. There’s a line of baked tofu in four flavors, including Royal Thai (lemongrass, ginger, cilantro, and red curry) and Aloha (ginger and pineapple). There’s also a line of tofu salads, tofu veggie burgers, soy milk, and such Middle Eastern products as hummus and tabbouleh. The company is working on several new lines, including a vegan aioli spread and drinkable soy yogurt in various fruit flavors. Bottoms up! 415/459-3919.

From the June 17-23, 1999 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

© Metro Publishing Inc.

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