How we food sources– start an industry
In 1987, Rachel and Andy Berliner launched their organic vegetarian frozen-food empire with a single pot pie out of their Petaluma, California, kitchen. Rachel, then pregnant with their daughter, Amy, was told to stay off her feet–and out of the kitchen. After being disappointed by the frozen dinners Andy brought home, the couple realized they could do much better. Amy’s Kitchen pioneered the market for organic vegetarian frozen meals. Today, it generates $500 million in revenue in the U.S., the U.K., and France, and is expanding into Asia and Australia. Now grandparents, the Berliners are determined to keep Amy’s a family business, and to protect its core values while developing a chain of drive-thru outlets. –As told to Stacy Perman
our goal was $2.5 million in sales. We thought we’d have enough income to live on and maybe help pay for Amy’s college education. We didn’t plan this whole thing out. It wasn’t until our fourth year, 1991, that we began turning a profit. We didn’t envision building a half-billion- dollar business. We just thought there was a niche to be filled. At first, Rachel’s mother helped us, and friends helped with the recipes. We went to natural-food shows; people thought our pot pies were delicious, and there was nothing like them in their stores. That’s how we got distribution. In the beginning, the biggest problem was sourcing quality ingredients. Nobody was doing organics. When we started, we worked with small farmers, and they grew with us. Today we have contracts with farmers who cover 20,000 acres.
We still make our food like we’re in our personal kitchen—it’s just on a bigger scale. Our chef still comes to our house to try out new recipes.
All the big food companies at one time or another have made an offer or shown interest. But we always knew we wanted to stay private and family owned. Andy had previously owned an herbal
tea company and sold it early. We saw that everything we had worked for was pretty quickly destroyed, and that motivated our desire to keep this under our control. We don’t have pressure from investors, and this allows us to stay true to our core mission.
Our other main challenge has been the supermarkets. We don’t have a marketing budget. The grocery chains want us to do promotions and discounts. But our products sell very well without them. It’s a bit of a fight. We say we’re growing by double digits and the companies that spend money on marketing and promotions are declining; we’re doing something right.
We’re a small family. We’ve heard stories of large families, and it gets very complex regarding the next generation.
IN 2015, WE OPENED AMY’S DRIVE THRU,
in Rohnert Park, California. For years, people had asked us to start one. An employee first suggested it 20 years ago. And the letters just kept coming in from customers. They would tell us there’s nowhere to bring their kids after school. They didn’t want to feed them junk. Our menu is veggie burgers, burritos, pizza, mac ‘n’ cheese, milkshakes, lemonade, salads, and breakfast—it’s all organic, there are no GMOs, and there are gluten-free and vegan options. We were able to do this because we’d already developed a network of suppliers.
WHEN WE OPENED,
we really didn’t know if the concept would work, but there was a line around the block. We just signed a lease for our second location, in Marin County, and expect it will open in 2018. We’ve had requests in every state in America for an Amy’s Drive Thru. We’ve been expanding Amy’s Kitchen internationally and it’s been successful, but when you consider what the potential for the drive-thru is, it’s probably larger than our retail business. We just hit a sweet spot.
THE QUESTION IS HOW TO DO THIS.
We are figuring out the business model. We don’t think we’ll go the traditional franchise route. There’s a lot of different ways to do this, and it may be beneficial to have that ownership as long as we do it a little differently from the traditional format. And we’re putting together a great team. But the thing is, opening a second restaurant is like opening 20. It’s so much work, and we’re not young anymore. Amy is very involved in the sustainability of the company and its culture. She and her husband, both board members, are dedicated to seeing Amy’s carry on. However, neither of them aspires to be a CEO or to run the business right now. They are interested in ensuring the culture, the values, and the mission. We can’t bear the thought of doing things differently.
NICHE PEOPLE Rachel and Andy Berliner didn’t set out to establish the market for organic frozen foods. But when they couldn’t find anything good to eat, they realized they could create it.