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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.

Organic food sales are growing twice as fast as overall grocery sales, said Tom Scott, general manager of Oliver's Market.

"We're creating more space for organic food all the time," he said. Amy's Kitchen is "getting competition from traditional natural food companies. But they're also getting it now from traditional mainline manufacturers that were not involved in the organic food industry five years ago."

Amy's Kitchen is finding new customers and sales opportunities.

"As the demand for organics has exploded, supermarkets are adding more space for them. New channels such as supercenters and club stores are jumping in, as well as colleges and universities. International markets are showing a lot of interest in organic foods from America," said Scott Reed, chief operating officer for Amy's Kitchen.

Some of the keenest competition is for entrees and dinners, a niche for Amy's Kitchen from the beginning.

"That's becoming more and more popular as the industry tries to offer consumers a convenient way to get meals," Greer said.

Amy's began with frozen meals, pizzas, pot pies and entrees and later added a grocery line including canned soups, beans and chili, pasta sauces and salsas.

"There are always new products in development, a half-dozen or so," Reed said.

Keeping up with consumer tastes has been easier for Amy's Kitchen than filling growing orders from supermarkets and other customers.

The company had difficulty meeting demand for the 18 months before the Medford plant opened a year ago, Reed said.

One solution was opening a second Santa Rosa plant and hiring more workers. Amy's Kitchen now operates in five buildings and 198,000 square feet here.

Many of the 160 frozen and canned goods Amy's Kitchen makes come out of the company's main Santa Rosa plant. Two other smaller buildings are dedicated to preparing vegetables and making tortillas and enchiladas.

On a recent shift, some 500 workers cooked, prepared and packed Mexican casserole bowls, refried black beans, garden vegetable lasagne, enchilada dinners, veggie burgers, burritos and tofu.

Workers can increase their skills and move up the ranks. Some on the burrito line, for instance, can wrap 10 in a minute.

It is a labor-intensive operation. Some parts of the manufacturing line have been automated to increase output. But Amy's Kitchen officials contend that maintaining hands-on functions such as cooking sauces, mixing vegetables, sprinkling ingredients on dishes, even making tofu produce better tasting food.

With two production shifts, vegetable prep and cleaning overnight, there is work going on inside the Santa Rosa plant 24 hours a day.

The big challenge is to maintain quality while increasing output.

"Amy's was one of the leaders in the industry and they've stayed ahead of the pack," Scott said.

You can reach Staff Writer Michael Coit at 521-5470 or mike.coit@pressdemocrat.com.