People, Quality and Environment at the Core of Manzana Products Co.
Last surviving apple processor is vital market for county’s remaining apple growers
By Taylor Pires
“We’ve got the old with the new here,” said Manzana Products Company Inc.’s (Manzana) General Manager Mark Fitzgerald. He’s referring to an over 90 year old apple processing legacy with traditions in quality, that’s moving forward with progressive technology.
Manzana, a landmark facility on Green Valley Road in Sebastopol, is the last surviving apple processor in Sonoma County, which in the 1940s and 50s was home to dozens of apple processors and packers. Manzana has stayed in business by following consumer trends, including the growing demand for organic apple products, and by maintaining quality, a core value since the company was founded nearly a century ago.
Before it was Manzana, the processor was Oehlmann Evaporator, a small operation that dried local fruit. In 1945, Oehlmann became incorporated and adopted the name Manzana Products. The new namesake is the Spanish word for apple, in honor of their Latin American work force. Manzana has undergone other significant changes since then. Two years ago the company was purchased by the French cooperative Agrial, which gave Manzana the capital needed to expand and continue as a home for Sonoma County apples.
Agrial has helped Manzana grow and evolve since the merger, but the integrity of the processor has not changed. “They don’t want to change anything with our customers or the way we approach things. We’re Manzana and we’re gonna stay Manzana Products,” Fitzgerald said. A key feature of the Manzana identity and a large influence on their existence in Sonoma County is their use of organic apples.
“The main reason Manzana became the last processor is that they were first with organics,” Fitzgerald said. He shared how the company was ahead of the curve in the 90s and that today 95 percent of their business is organic apples, which are processed into juice, sauce, apple cider vinegar and other specialty products. Local grower Steve Dutton and his family followed Manzana’s lead. “As their demand increased for organic product, we recognized that and completely switched to organic,” Dutton said.
Demand continues to grow, according to Fitzgerald. “Every apple we can buy out of Sonoma County, we buy. You can’t beat the flavor and the quality of the apples here,” he said. About 15 percent of the apples processed by Manzana are from Sonoma County because that’s all that is available to them, Fitzgerald said. There are only 2,200 acres of apples left in the county, a number that was once 22,000 acres, according to Fitzgerald. For those growers that remain, Manzana is a vital part of their business.
“Having a local outlet for our apples, essentially down the street from our orchard, is a huge benefit and very important to us. We’ve worked with Manzana for 50 years and without their business I don’t know if we would still be farming apples, truthfully,” Dutton said. Manzana provides a service to local growers by ensuring there is a home for their apples. They are actively investing in growers and growers are investing in them in turn.
“We try to pay more every year so some of them are actually making some money. We actually have growers taking out old trees and putting in new trees. We even have some farmers planting more trees. That stopped for years but now it’s starting again. Every acre helps. Every time they take out old trees and put in new ones it means we have a future,” Fitzgerald said. He sees new trees as a sign that local growers are in it for the long haul.
The Duttons foresee a future in Sonoma County apples just as Manzana does, and are taking steps to expand their business. Dutton acknowledged that their Gravenstein apple crop this year is smaller than they expected, but they are still hopeful despite the drought and last season’s warm winter. “Joe and I planted a new young orchard, all Gravensteins so the fruit will go to Manzana, but it’s only a couple of acres. We did that last spring. That was the first new orchard to be planted in Sonoma County in probably a decade,” Dutton said.
The Dutton’s recent growth in their business also means growth for Manzana, and speaks to Fitzgerald’s belief that the company provides a family atmosphere where everyone works together. “They see just how important they are to us and without them we wouldn’t have anything either. It really becomes a team,” he said. Fitzgerald added that he is motivated by the people he works with, both growers and employees. “I’ve known these people for a long time and I just love what I do. Every day is different. I just see how much of a challenge it is to be a farmer. These guys work hard. It’s really fun talking to them and knowing them. And working with the people here. There’s a good bunch of people here,” he said.
Manzana currently employees over 100 people and about 55 people year-round. “We’ve got talent here,” Fitzgerald said of his employees. As General Manager, Fitzgerald brings 40 years of experience in the apple industry to Manzana. He has been with Manzana for the last 10 years and previously worked for the Barlow Company for 30 years. Fitzgerald focuses on respecting his employees and encouraging their talents to ensure the highest quality product. Quality control is a high priority for Manzana. If a product isn’t perfect it will be pulled off the line. And the goal of perfection doesn’t stop at the plant. Fitzgerald makes it his goal to have no customer complaints all year. For the few that occur, Manzana follows up with a personal phone-call.
A similar hands-on approach is taken in reducing the company’s carbon footprint. “We want to be good to the environment. When you’re pushing organic you should do things that you can to save water; we’re working on that,” Fitzgerald said. In the plant, Manzana cleans glass bottles with air and heat to save water. They also use air instead of water to heat and cool their apple sauce pouches, which are cranked out at a rate of 200 pouches per minute. In addition to these and other environmental efforts, Manzana uses solar power. They currently have 1,755 solar panels that cover 54 percent of their power, and have plans to add 28,000 square feet of solar. “It’s a win-win; a win for the environment and a win for the company. How great can you feel about that?” Fitzgerald said.
Fitzgerald has plenty to be proud of at Manzana. He credits the company’s success to its values. “I think it’s the whole philosophy. The people and how much they care, and how much we want to put a great product out for people to enjoy. It’s always been that image here. Even when I worked somewhere else, Manzana always had that mystique,” Fitzgerald said.