Seated in the living room of their 1870s farmhouse, Andy and Rachel Berliner laugh easily when looking back on 23 years of business successes and a few mistakes at Amy's Kitchen, their Petaluma-based maker of natural, convenience foods.
Dressed in jeans and unhurried in their recollections, the couple strike a more earnest tone when discussing the link between the company and its namesake, their only child, Amy.
"One of my motivations during the hard times, and there were hard times, was to leave the opportunity for Amy if she wants to carry on the business," said Andy Berliner. "So my goal was always to hang in there long enough at least to where she was able to make a firm decision about what she wants to do in life."
Those who know them say that, for the Berliners, it isn't about the money.
Andy Berliner, 64, a Chicago native, came to Sonoma County in the early 1970s, saying he'd always wanted to live on a farm. Later on a meditation retreat in India he met Rachel, 57, who grew up in Southern California. The couple married in 1985.
Together they have built one of Sonoma County's largest locally owned companies — with sales of vegetarian frozen entrees, canned soups and other products this year expected to top $300 million.
Plenty of large companies have tried to buy Amy's Kitchen and its processing plants in Santa Rosa and near Medford, Ore. But the Berliners refuse to sell. They see themselves as caretakers of a business for people seeking a different kind of prepared foods. Their values and their fingerprints are everywhere at Amy's Kitchen.
Both the company and their daughter, who graduates today from Stanford University, are poised to begin a new era, one where the connection between the two will grow even stronger.
The business this year is expanding with a small plant in England and eventually a $63 million processing facility in South Carolina.
And Amy Berliner, now 23, will start work for the company this summer as part of a small team based in England. In the coming years, she said, she hopes to learn much about her own career skills and interests, but "I do know that I'm committed to Amy's and the cause."
She emphasized that the company will stay in the family.
With strong, steady growth, Amy's Kitchen has broken into the ranks of the nation's largest food processors. Last month the company ranked 19th among makers of refrigerated and frozen entrees. The list in the trade publication Refrigerated and Frozen Foods includes such giants as Nestle, Oscar Mayer, Kellogg's and Sara Lee.
The company has 1,800 employees, and about 1,000 of them work in Sonoma County, most at its main processing plant in Santa Rosa.
Andy Berliner, 64, and wife Rachel, 57, continue to pour themselves into the company they began in 1988. They run it their way, which at times seems counter to common practices in big business.
The Berliners do little advertising. They have built a reputation for refusing to skimp on quality and nutrition in their foods. And they seek managers who have what Andy Berliner called "the right spirit," including a willingness to lead with "gentle guidance."
"There's no yelling at Amy's anywhere in the organization," he said. "It's kind of like a not-allowed thing. If somebody loses it, they go for a walk."
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