By Andi Prewitt
Of the Oregon Beer Growler
You can romance the cans all you want, but they wouldn’t have kept the company going another 80 years.
The distinct labels that wrap around Oregon Fruit Products’ shiny metal containers certainly stand out on a store shelf. Brightly-colored berries pop on the black backdrop as a little bee hovers over the produce. Classic recipes for desserts like Oregon blueberry pie and flaming cherries jubilee that used to be printed on the back of the cans were the highlight of many a meal throughout the decades. But just because a product has a beloved history, doesn’t mean it’s bringing in enough money, long-term. And while the cans made by this Salem-based business are nowhere close to being abandoned, sales figures indicated it was time to diversify. And that’s, in part, how an 80-year-old fruit cannery found that it could make a product craft brewers would want while also ensuring some of the state’s bountiful harvest ends up in beer all across the country.
One afternoon in early August, a lone forklift operator darted among stacked pallets in a warehouse with ease. The scene at Oregon Fruit Products was starkly different from the factory grounds a few months ago. Multiple drivers would have been navigating an obstacle course of delivery trucks, berry crates and rows of metal drums. The delicate aroma of raspberries, blueberries and plums was likely mingling to build a powerful scent crescendo of fruit salad in a nearby building where workers draped in white lab coats and hair nets sorted through the produce. The processing, packing and labeling all happen to the rhythm and vibration of large machines that fill the patchwork of cavernous structures with the sound and sensation of urgency. After all, fruit has its own timeline — one that sets the schedule of some 200 people on the manufacturing floor during peak season.
CEO Chris Sarles had to describe what harvest would look like on the Salem campus since it was largely over in August. Hot temperatures pushed up picking time just as they did in 2015. This year, summer had hardly begun when he was eyeing the end of the season.
“So it was a good harvest in Oregon again this year, and a lot of great fruit. But it was just very early,” Sarles said. “By Fourth of July, we were already talking about, ‘I can’t believe we’re this far done.’”
While some of those crops end up in the traditional cans, a growing supply is devoted to Oregon Fruit Products’ purees, which are shipped to more than 125 breweries across the state and 500-plus nationwide. And those are the kind of numbers you’d want to see if you were part of a company that needed a new path to profits.
The purees’ success is no mystery if you think about it from a brewer’s perspective. Consumer demand for fruit beers continues to increase, but making them — and making them well — can be difficult and sticky. Those firm, red beautiful cherries also come with pesky stems, for instance. Gathering enough quality, in-season fruit for a brew can sometimes be a challenge on its own, but once you’ve amassed the goods, that supply still has to be prepped. The peeling, dicing and de-seeding can be pretty unappealing once you’re up to your elbows in peaches. The puree provides beer makers with the best part of the fruit while leaving the labor and mess to Sarles’ company. He pointed out another benefit — the 42-pound packages can be stored, unopened, without refrigeration for 18 months, freeing up valuable cooler space in breweries while giving brewers access to a variety of fruit, regardless of season.
Oregon Fruit Products aseptic packaging line makes all of that possible. The business actually acquired the equipment many years before Sarles came on board — he figures it must have been in the mid- to late-1980s. At the time, that owner also was looking for ways to branch out. But aseptic packaging of fruit for breweries wasn’t part of the agenda. Craft beer was still developing in the region, however, it didn’t take too long for a brewer to approach the cannery.
“I think a brewery phoned here and said, ‘Hey, we’re looking for some fruit. Is there anything you can do to help out?’ And … ‘Well, we’ve got a machine …’ The next thing you know, aseptic puree is born for the company,” Sarles said, estimating that call came in the mid-1990s.
From there, Oregon Fruit Products nurtured a small, but solid, base of customers. McMenamins was within the first 20 accounts, making it one of the company’s longest-standing relationships to this day. The star for its Ruby comes from Sarles’ company — raspberries are flash-heated to minimize bacteria before they’re quickly cooled and packaged. And when something works in the Northwest brewing community, news gets around since sharing is a practice most producers embrace.
“The business has continued to grow nicely. It’s really fun to watch one brewer tell another brewer tell another brewer,” Sarles explained. “And they only do it because they believe in what they’re using.”
Another local business that sources fruit from Sarles is Worthy Brewing Company in Bend. It’s offered two new beers this summer — a peach saison and an IPA with mandarin orange and grapefruit purees — with Oregon Fruit Products getting a shout-out on their labels. Cider Riot, Ecliptic Brewing and Vagabond Brewing are also customers, and Sarles even does house calls for Ecliptic’s John Harris, when urgent.
“Yeah, I often haul fruit north in my car at night and meet him early the next morning if he’s in a pinch,” Sarles said. “I’ll always help a brewer out if they need it.”
And a number of those brewers are no stranger to Sarles, Harris included. The man who now oversees the processing and packaging of fruit actually worked in the beer industry for much of his career, which has helped him steer Oregon Fruit Products toward ramped up production of the brewing purees. Sarles left Columbia Distributing after 25 years when former owner Ed Maletis recruited him in 2014. Maletis bought Oregon Fruit Products three years earlier from the founders, the Gehler family. Sarles said the move was natural because the Maletises always treated him like family. But he also saw the challenge that moving industries would bring and it reignited his excitement for managing. Sarles could’ve easily settled into a comfortable retirement from Columbia in a few years rather than spending that time not only learning a new business, but also working to establish credibility with a group of people who didn’t know what to expect from him as a boss. Those are responsibilities not everyone would want to assume that far into a settled career. But maybe the decision was prompted by a flashback to Sarles’ feeling of accomplishment he got when he started his own beer and wine distributorship right out of college — the days of simultaneously carrying out the duties of chief toilet scrubber, head of sales and president/CEO. He definitely noticed that it was harder to feel like he was making a difference at Columbia with its growth. The effect of a single conductor diminishes when forced to share the stage with another symphony … and a choir … and a marching band meandering through the aisles.
“Understanding the importance of people in the overall business, I wanted the chance to go do that again,” Sarles explained. “And knowing that I had gotten to a place in a big business where I was one of 2,500 people in Columbia, you begin to see less of your own impact because it’s so big. And I really wanted the chance to go back and say, ‘I think I know what it takes to help create an opportunity for a company to succeed.’”
Sarles’ decision to make brewing purees more of a focus during the last two years has helped put the company on a path toward a more stable future. Oregon Fruit Products is planning on hiring a salesperson devoted to brewery accounts, a job that Sarles has effectively held. So the additional staff member will give him more time to do all of that important, CEO-type stuff. Additionally, this year’s new, limited-edition puree flavors have been snapped up quickly. Mango, which came out in May, saw incredible popularity, prompting Oregon Fruit Products to make a second batch.
“And pineapple sold so fast, we went through more than half — almost three-quarters of it — in two weeks,” Sarles said.
But beyond the numbers are the relationships, and Sarles seems to have that part of the business down as well. He underscored the importance of procuring fruit as close to home as possible. Many of the farms working with Oregon Fruit Products are a mere 20 minutes away, and some — like the plum growers in Forest Grove and Eugene — have been doing business with the company for generations.
That sense of commitment extends to employees as well. In a shifting economy where spending your entire career at a single company is increasingly rare, you’ll easily find people at Oregon Fruit Products who’ve been there for 20, 30 and 40 years. Sarles said one woman is marking 54 years at the business after starting there at the age of 16. It’s not uncommon for children who grew up with a parent processing or packing fruit there to join the team when they’re adults. At one point, three generations of men in the same family had positions at the Salem facility. Sarles knows it was critical to recognize these dynamics when he took over while proposing adaptations, which can be uncomfortable, at the same time.
“So how do you come in and gently support people for what they’ve done so well, yet nudge/push that we need to develop a change in order to not only survive, but thrive for years? And I think there’s a fine line there between somebody coming in and being a bully,” Sarles described, “and sort of being obnoxious when they come in as a new leader and somebody who takes their time — yet they’re firm enough to say, ‘We need change. Let’s do this together.’”
Collaboration with brewers is also key. You may wonder how Sarles comes up with new puree flavors like passion fruit and rhubarb. It all comes down to brewer requests. Research for the 2017 lineup of purees is still underway, but BackPedal Brewing Co. in Portland has already told Sarles they want to experiment with one of the new creations. Oregon Fruit Products has even developed puree for individual breweries by asking what flavor, texture and color they’re aiming for before sending samples and letting producers experiment from there. That process has led to several new beers, including a blood orange concoction from The Rare Barrel in Berkeley, Calif. Those projects gave Sarles the confidence that Oregon Fruit Products could set out on its own and develop purees without first partnering with a brewery.
“I started feeling like we could begin making them [the purees] without them necessarily having to be collaborative projects. We seemed to have begun to understand a little bit about what we needed to do. In the beginning, I wasn’t certain that we were on the right track,” Sarles said. “And now I think we understand it. But if there’s ever — as I’ve said, anytime somebody’s got an idea, if they want to come to us and experiment with us, we’re always game to make sure it goes top of the list and then try and work with them.”
Even if that includes more unusual produce like kiwi (there’s a guy who grows them in Eugene, according to Sarles) or prickly pear.
By spring of 2018, Oregon Fruit Products will have moved out of its aging warehouses and started operating in a brand-new plant, not far from its original footprint in Salem. If anyone is concerned that all of this progress will cause what’s still been a very quaint company to lose its personal, family-run touch — you only need to look to the pallets of brewing puree for assurance. Sarles will continue to uphold that ethos by including a hand-written thank-you note with every new shipment of puree to a brewery, just as he’s done since he started.
“I feel honored to be just sort of this caretaker of inheriting this rich tradition and legacy business and being able to make sure that I do everything — gives me little goosebumps — do everything I can to make sure there’s another 80 years for other people to not only work here, but also enjoy the fruits of our labor in the process,” Sarles said.
Literally, the fruits of their labor — the phrase just naturally slipped out, illustrating how connected the man has become with what’s inside of the can while moving the company forward.
Stories from the print edition of the Oregon Beer Growler.