Special Issues: Eugene Food Manufacturers
June 10, 2010
By Angela Kellner
Visit SPECIAL ISSUES: FOOD & AGRICULTURE
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Eugene has a well-deserved reputation as a natural foods Mecca. Over the years, grocers and customers have supported a thriving food manufacturing sector. Although numerous food makers have gone under or been sold off, a few quintessential companies continue to grow. There's even room amongst the organic ones for newer businesses making conventional snacks. As part of our Special Issues series on food and agriculture, KLCC's Angela Kellner donned a hair net and went behind the scenes to meet the people who make our food.
A few years ago, Lisa Roberts and her husband Jim needed money. She was running a gift basket company from home. Her sister in Ohio sent her some caramel corn...Roberts began making it in a ten by ten kitchen behind her house. It became the centerpiece of her baskets.
Roberts: "After the first Christmas that I used it, I said to my husband, 'You know this taste pretty good. Do you think anyone would buy it?' And within two months we moved into a 5,000 square foot building. Tillamook Cheese Factory was our first account."
Planetary Food Group now has a million dollars in annual sales. About 600 stores carry Cosmos Caramel Corn. The crunchy snack is made from cornmeal. It's similar to a cheese puff, but with sweet flavors added, including chocolate, peppermint and caramel.
Roberts: "They're making Grandma's Secret Cosmos right now. And Grandma's secret was if you spread the caramel a little thinner, you can feed a lot more people."
In her west Eugene facility, Roberts points to a small stack of boxes.
Roberts: "This is all the stock I have. So, we make it, it goes out the door."
In 2008, Roberts was invited to be on the television shopping channel QVC.
Roberts: "I'm not nervous anymore. You know, six minutes and selling 24,000 bags is pretty cool. (laughs)"
Roberts has been on QVC ten times and now has about 500 customers on auto delivery.
Roberts: "The recession hasn't hurt me."
Surata Soy Foods was founded in 1977. They make two products - tofu and tempeh.
Shevach Lambert: "I don't think a shop like ours could have survived in any other town other than Eugene back then, back in the late '70s, early '80s."
Shevach Lambert has worked at Surata for 32 years.
Lambert: "We had this kind of ready-made customer base, which I don't think you would have found anywhere else. And that sustained us for many years until it finally caught on in the supermarkets."
Each week, Surata makes about 9,000 pounds of tofu.
A worker sorts tan Midwest soybeans before they're cooked in a steamy industrial kitchen. The magic ingredient for tofu is magnesium chloride.
Lambert: "Ions in the magnesium will act as little magnets, attracting the protein in the soy milk, and binds them into little clumps. That creates the curds and the oil is separated out, creating the whey."
Lambert: "Process is still pretty labor intensive. Many shops have kind of an automated process. They put the flakes in at one end and tofu comes out the other. But we prefer a process where there's more human involvement."
In 2009, Surata had more than a million dollars in sales and continues to grow about 5% a year. Part of what's driving that growth is tempeh, made from fermented soybeans.
Lambert: "Tempeh is more like tofu was maybe in the late 80's, early 90's. I think the biggest hinderance has been people's first experience of tempeh where the restaurant or whatever didn't know how to make it properly."
Lambert likes to grate tempeh and add it to sauce. The tofu and tempeh is distributed only in the Pacific Northwest to keep Surata's carbon footprint smaller. Last week, they experimented with soybeans grown in the northwest, to develop a locally-grown source of organic, non-GMO beans. Surata has outlasted several other successful Eugene food makers. Emerald Valley Kitchen was sold in 2002. A natural foods distributor bought Rising Moon Organics in 2006. In May, Golden Temple sold its cereal division. That's not the plan at Springfield Creamery. Its family owned and operated.
Sue Kesey co-founded it in Springfield with her husband Chuck in 1960. They moved to their current ten-acre site near the Eugene airport in the early '80s.
Kesey: "Today is cottage cheese packaging day. That happens on Wednesdays and Fridays normally. But everyday we make yogurt!"
Most of their products start with milk, delivered daily from farms within a 100 mile radius. They also make cream cheese, sour cream, keifer and soy yogurt. They rely on some 55 employees to keep it going. Nicole Smith Weiland works in a delicious-smelling room.
Smith Weiland: "We take fruit from a variety of sources, as regional as possible. And we put it in these large cook vats. And we cook them to about 166 degrees. Just like grandma's jam, only big time."
Kesey: "This yogurt is going into incubators, warm rooms, where it will sit for total time about seven hours from inoculation."
Springfield Creamery products are sold in all fifty states and Canada. The company has about $20-million in annual sales.
Sheryl Kesey Thompson: "We believe that we were the first yogurt manufacturer in the U.S. to put probiotics in yogurt."
Sheryl Kesey Thompson is Chuck and Sue's daughter, a co-owner and VP of marketing.
Kesey Thompson: "My dad is the one that comes and checks the yogurt each night. He sacrifices a couple quarts and tastes them. He looks at the body and then he determines whether it has that tartness that is traditional in our product. And that tartness is the growth of your cultures."
Nancy Van Brasch Hamren had been making yogurt at home when she was hired to be the creamery's bookkeeper in 1969. She's the namesake of Nancy's Yogurt.
Van Brasch Hamren: "Chuck said let's try making your yogurt here at the creamery. We experimented with it. We added acidophilus, we added honey. We originally added vanilla. Played with the butter fat...just kind of came to the original Nancy's Honey Yogurt."
When they first started making yogurt 40 years ago, they were broke.
Kesey: "Chuck said and maybe Ken too said 'Grateful Dead will probably do a benefit concert. Let's go ask 'em.' So we asked them and they said sure!"
The legendary 1972 concert took place in Veneta. 20,000 dead heads showed up. The profits saved the creamery. In the early '90s, Chuck and Sue's son Kit started a concert company and co-produced dead shows. About a month before the '94 dead concert at Autzen stadium, the creamery caught fire.
Kesey Thompson: "Standing there watching the creamery burn that night and Kit's saying, I'm gonna have to cancel the shows. I can't do all this. And my mom said, no you can't cancel. We need the money."
They were back making yogurt in about three weeks.
Sue Kesey: "It was...an endeavor."
This summer Springfield Creamery is sponsoring a free concert of the Eugene Symphony.
Kesey & Kesey Thompson: "And it's kind of our opportunity to give back to the arts who have been so kind to us all this time too. So a little culture back to the community. Yeah, it's a full circle piece there for us. So we're pleased to be able to do that."
For KLCC News, I'm Angela Kellner.
2010 Copyright KLCC.
Visit SPECIAL ISSUES: FOOD & AGRICULTURE
for photos and more information.