Grandma’s refrigerator held the key to Sunrise Fresh's success
Who knows what you’re going to find in the back of grandma’s refrigerator.
For the people who run Sunrise Fresh Dried Foods, it turned out to be the key to the success of the Stockton, CA-based family-owned farm and vertically integrated dried fruit manufacturer.
The story goes that in 1996 Jim Samuel and Ernie Podesta were operating their family’s farm and fresh cherry packer and maraschino cherries facility. Ernie wanted to find new uses for cherries deemed not high-enough grade for the fresh market.
And with declining sales in the maraschino cherries market, the two men thought of drying cherries by using two old screen doors and sun-drying them over a period of time. Then they packed the dried cherries and put them in the back of grandma’s refrigerator.
Seven years later, in 2003, Jim Samuel found the dried cherries in the refrigerator, saw they were still good, and along with his wife Jane, they realized they were on to something big in the fast-growing dried fruit market and created Sunrise Fresh.
Today, the company is the nation’s largest producer of unsweetened dried cherries as well as a major supplier of dried apples, peaches, pears and blueberries. All told, the company offers more than 200 variations of these five fruits. About 50 percent of the company’s business is in bulk food to food manufacturers making bars and trail mix, another 30 percent is in private label and 20 percent comes from its own brand sold exclusively at Amazon.com.
“In 2003, we started by producing about 40,000 pounds of fresh cherries a year and today we produce more than 25 million pounds annually,” said Case Samuel, the company’s chief sales officer and a fourth-generation owner along with his brothers Jake, the CEO of the company and Zach, the farm manager. “From there, Sunrise Fresh was created on the premise of providing a quality dried fruit that’s good for our family, good for the consumer and good for the grower.”
Case Samuel adds that the company’s big break came in 2012, when then-First Lady Michelle Obama began promoting a child nutrition program for schools and, for the first time, products that featured added sugars were identified as potentially harmful for children.
“People started to read labels and that really helped us get exposure with those consumers looking to cut down on added-sugar and preservatives,” he said. “Everything we manufacture is a better-for-you product, meaning all dried fruits we make are single ingredient. With today’s trends of better-for-you snacking options, and the American and global consumer putting health at the forefront of their purchasing power, we have seen our sales increase by 400 percent year over year for the past four years running.”
Case Samuel notes that being vertically integrated means big chain stores and buyers can completely trust supply chain. “With a 72 forced-air tunnel dry yard and 60,000 square-foot processing facility, we have the ability to process 5 million pounds of dried unsweetened cherries on a single shift year around. And that does not include our apples, blueberries, peaches and pears. With control of the fruit from the fields, to drying to processing to bagging to shipping, we can ensure a steady supply of better-for-you snacking and ingredient options year-round.
“With our fruit being dried from fresh and never being frozen, in less than 24 hours from harvest, we ensure the highest quality fruit at affordable prices to food manufacturers and direct-to-consumer on Amazon.”
Case Samuel thinks the upcycled fruit movement, where food is made with ingredients that otherwise would not have gone to human consumption, according to the Upcycled Food Association, is driving sales too. “Our cherries and blueberries are certified upcycle,” he said. “We were able to save about 15 million pounds of fresh cherries and, overall, 30 million pounds of fruit from being thrown away this year. Today, more consumers care about how they can save the environment and our fruit check all of those boxes.”
Also, he says that the COVID pandemic put better-for-you snacking top-of-mind. “We have complete clarity of our supply chain and when you buy our fruit buying just fruits, no sugars or preservatives or red dye No. 4,” he said.
Company officials expect to be aggressive in the future, with plans in the works to build a state-of-the-art plant within five years that will increase capabilities by at least 200 percent.
“With Jim and Jane stepping back to let Jake, Zach and me run the company, we plan to break ground on a 200,000 square-foot processing facility to meet market demand and growth,” he said.
“The agriculture industry is only growing more competitive and climate change and unstable markets are effecting harvest year in and year out. Sunrise Fresh wants to be the solution to many grower needs. Produce farmers do not want to see their fruits thrown away and Sunrise Fresh is here to change that.”