Rachel, Amy and Andy Berliner of Amy's Kitchen at their home in Petaluma, Calif., on March 4, 2013. (Alvin Jornada / The Press Democrat)

Amy takes bigger role at Amy's Kitchen

With plans for a second manufacturing plant in Santa Rosa and a fast-food restaurant in Rohnert Park, natural food maker Amy's Kitchen shows no signs of slowing down a quarter century after its founding.

The Petaluma-based company remains distinctive: family owned with a vegetarian product line and growing sales that have propelled it into the standings of the nation's largest food processors.

The company's 25th year will be marked by new initiatives in Sonoma County and by the youngest family member taking on a new role as she prepares to one day lead the company.

Twenty-five-year-old Amy Berliner, the company's namesake, spent a year after college in England and helped Amy's launch a small food processing plant there. After learning the challenges of breaking into new markets, she returned last summer and is ready for the next step in her education.

"For the next year, I'm going to be apprenticing with my dad," she said, seated last week with her parents, the company's co-founders, Rachel and Andy Berliner.

Her work will include sitting in on her father's meetings and helping him with his projects.

An only child, Amy Berliner said she isn't sure whether she wants to become a hands-on CEO like her father or hire an executive to advance the company's operations. But the Stanford graduate said she is sure about whether she might ever sell the business, as scores of other natural food company owners have done.

"I've made a commitment to the company that I will keep it family-owned," she said. "I'm super passionate about Amy's and about what we do."

Amy's Kitchen ranks among the nation's top brands of natural and organic convenience foods. Its products include frozen entrees, canned soups, breakfast foods, snacks and desserts.

The company projects sales this year at $380 million and employs nearly 1,900 people, including 1,000 in Sonoma County. It operates plants in Santa Rosa, near Medford, Ore., and in Corby, England.

During an interview last week at their 1870s farmhouse outside Petaluma, the Berliners announced plans to build a second processing plant in Santa Rosa that one day could employ another 800 employees. City officials have applauded that news, saying it would be the biggest company expansion here in at least a decade.

The plant's building and equipment would cost between $40 million and $50 million, Andy Berliner said.

In another initiative, Amy's last month confirmed plans for its first fast-food restaurant off Highway 101 in Rohnert Park. The restaurant, with a living "green" roof and a special system to collect and reuse rainwater, would feature veggie burgers and organic fries, shakes and salads.

This weekend the Berliners and staff are celebrating the company's 25th anniversary at the Natural Products Expo West. The trade show ends today at the Anaheim Convention Center.

There, Amy's is slated to unveil 25 new products, bringing its total line to more than 250 items. New on the roster are meatless "veggie meatballs," Thai red curry and a gluten free pot pie - the last a nod to the company's first product, a vegetable pot pie introduced in 1988.

Andy Berliner, 66, and Rachel Berliner, 59, have built a reputation for painstakingly creating their products. They said they took five years to develop recipes for Indian cuisine, tamales and enchilada verde.

"We're perfectionists," said Amy Berliner.

The company also has added a wide range of alternative foods: gluten free, dairy free, vegan, low sodium and reduced calories. The family said the ideas came from customers with dietary needs that weren't being served by other convenience food makers.

The company has shown itself to be ahead of the game, said Ben Stone, executive director of the Sonoma County Economic Development Board.

By taking risks, Amy's has made products "the market wants before the market realizes it," he said.

The company also has been in the vanguard of businesses providing preventative health care for their employees, Stone said.

Its Santa Rosa and Medford operations have health centers, each staffed with a doctor and nurse. Andy Berliner said the year-old Santa Rosa center, perhaps the first of its kind in the county, has reduced insurance claims and employee sick days even as it helped workers and their families better manage diabetes and other health issues.

Every year since its founding, Amy's has experienced double-digit growth in sales. The company ranks 19th among the nation's food processors for frozen meals and entrees, according to this month's issue of the trade publication Refrigerated and Frozen Foods.

For single-serve frozen dinner entrees, Amy's ranked sixth for sales in the 52 weeks ending Jan. 27, according to SymphonyIRI Group, a Chicago-based market research firm. Four of those top five brands saw sales decline year over year, while Amy's sales for the category grew 11.5 percent to nearly $155 million.

During their interview, the Berliners confirmed they have dropped plans to build a $63 million processing plant in Greenville, S.C. Amy's lacked a supply chain in South Carolina of local farmers producing the needed crops, Andy Berliner said. One such crop is organic tomatoes. Amy's buys 32 million pounds of organic tomatoes a year, mostly in California.

The company still may build an East Coast plant some day, he said. But before it does, Amy's likely would start purchasing crops out East and then ship them as needed to be processed in Santa Rosa or Medford.

Amy Berliner this year hopes to learn such lessons that come with running a large company. From her time in England, she already got a sense of what her parents went through in starting a new business.

That includes trying to persuade store buyers there to take a chance on Amy's products.

"Every single account was difficult at the beginning, being a little guy with no sales record there," she said.

Starting in the summer of 2011, she experienced living in the historic university town of Cambridge. She glued labels on soup cans when the Corby plant's packing equipment broke down and she traveled to small health food stores on country roads lined with grass in between the tire tracks.

She learned the British typically hold a low opinion of vegetarian convenience foods, much as Americans did a quarter century ago. Many consumers didn't know what a burrito was and didn't want to try items long popular in the U.S. And some thought the company's name was a gimmick.

"Well, who's Amy?" she recalled hearing. "I bet she doesn't even exist."

A highlight was getting buyers for giant retailer Tesco to agree to purchase her company's products. Amy's now is increasing sales in the United Kingdom and making inroads into France, the Berliners said.

During her year abroad, the company began making new products specifically for England. That includes a frozen mushroom risotto that the Berliners have decided to also release in the United States.

Last year the Berliners helped support the unsuccessful Proposition 37, a state ballot initiative that would have required labeling of most food products containing genetically modified organisms, or GMOs. Since her return, Amy Berliner has traveled to Washington to offer support to activists there who recently qualified a labeling initiative for that state's November ballot.

"We're very committed to getting labeling for GMOs," said Rachel Berliner.

Her daughter noted that some of the nation's biggest food companies donated money to defeat Prop. 37 - including those with big natural food brands. Amy's wants to provide "a little bit of power going in the opposite direction," Amy Berliner said.

After this year's apprenticeship, Amy Berliner may pursue a master's degree in psychology.

How soon she might lead the company remains unknown. Her father said he eventually may slow his efforts, but he loves the business too much to ever retire. His wife and daughter said they can't imagine him without a new idea to pursue.

"His mind doesn't stand still," said Amy Berliner.

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