Amy's Kitchen stays ahead of the pack

  • LEDE / 1 of 1--Employees at Amy's Kitchen assemble he firm's frozen foods by hand at their Santa Rosa plant. September 25, 2007 Press Democrat / Jeff Kan Lee

Three years ago, Amy's Kitchen decided to expand outside of California, becoming a widely publicized symbol of the loss of jobs to cheaper states.

But something unexpected happened. The Santa Rosa food processor has continued to grow right in its own back yard, expanding its Sonoma County workforce by 50 percent since announcing plans to build a massive new plant in Medford, Ore.

Amy's Kitchen now employs 1,050 workers in Santa Rosa, up from 700 three years ago when the company said high costs would force it to expand outside Sonoma County.

The company had to revamp its expansion plans when sales soared even faster than it had expected. This year, revenues are expected to rise 23 percent, reaching $240 million.

"We expanded in Santa Rosa during the construction of our Medford plant because our sales were growing faster than projected," said Andy Berliner, who founded and runs the company with his wife, Rachel. "We continue to grow at a rate of 20 percent to 30 percent per year. We have enough capacity for a couple more years."

The fast-growing company was wooed by both California and Oregon in 2004 when it was mulling its expansion options. Ultimately, it decided to keep its headquarters in Santa Rosa but build a new plant in Oregon, drawn by more than $1 million in annual savings on its energy bills, workers' compensation costs and other operational expenses.

The 580-employee Medford plant has grown steadily since opening a year ago. Once an additional canning line is running in coming weeks -- creating another 45 jobs -- Berliner can turn his attention to planning another expansion.

"We haven't yet determined the best location for future expansion," Berliner said.

Founded 19 years ago, Amy's Kitchen was well positioned for the surging popularity of organic food. Sales of organic food and beverage hit $16.9 billion in the United States last year, a more than fourfold increase over a decade, according to the Organic Trade Association.

"Consumers see organic and natural foods as more nutritious and more healthful and in many cases better tasting. And obviously the demand is very strong and companies are responding in a wide variety of ways," said Bill Greer, spokesman for the Food Marketing Institute, a trade group for supermarkets and food wholesalers.

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