ANAHEIM, CALIF. — Rachel and Andy Berliner want to make one thing clear. Amy’s Kitchen, the company they founded in 1987, is not for sale.
“When Annie’s sold (to General Mills last September), we got so many hate letters,” said Mr. Berliner, chief executive officer, while speaking about industry trends during a panel discussion at Natural Products Expo West held March 5-8 in Anaheim. “Amy’s and Annie’s names are so close, a lot of people thought we had sold. And we’re still getting it on a regular basis.”
The Petaluma, Calif.-based company manufactures vegetarian frozen entrees and snacks, desserts, candy bars, cookies, vegetarian burgers, soups, ice creams and more. Each of the more than 250 products is either certified organic or made with organic ingredients, and many options are gluten-free, vegan or low in sodium. The products also are Non-GMO Project verified and contain no hydrogenated fats, meat, fish, shellfish, poultry, eggs or peanuts. Amy’s frozen meals span a variety of cuisines, including Thai Stir-Fry, Indian Palak Paneer and Enchilada Verde.
Without pressure from shareholders, the company said it has more autonomy in its approach to product innovation.
“We can make decisions without having someone standing over us saying, ‘That’s not a good decision. You might lose money with that,’” Ms. Berliner said. “For instance, I was very concerned about autistic children and said to my husband, ‘Can we make some dairy-free, gluten-free pizza, macaroni and cheese, things that are the favorites that they don’t get to have while their siblings are having it?’
“And he said, ‘We’re not going to make any money out of that.’”
Despite his initial doubts, they launched the products, which today are popular among vegan consumers, she said.
“Being a family business, we can do the right thing, and it works out for us,” she said. “We have a very successful company, but we don’t think, ‘How much money are we going to make this month, or is this product going to make money for us?’
“What we think first is, ‘Is this a good product? Is this going to serve our customers? Are we going to help people?’
“And if the answer is yes, we try to make it where it’s profitable enough. We have a very small profit margin and we don’t really advertise. We put all of our money into the product, but this is what we can do when we’re a family business.
“You can make your own money, and we plan on staying that way. We plan on not selling.”
At Expo West, Amy’s debuted nine new products, which included a vegan and gluten-free black bean and quinoa burrito, a gluten-free and dairy-free pesto pizza on rice crust, and a gluten-free spinach pizza with mozzarella and feta on rice crust. New frozen entree bowls include a gluten-free three-cheese kale bake, gluten-free chili macaroni, and a vegan harvest casserole with organic roasted sweet potatoes, quinoa, kale, red beans and tofu sprinkled with toasted pumpkin seeds. The company also added a new vegan and gluten-free canned soup featuring organic quinoa, kale and red lentil, and bite-size versions of the brand’s gluten-free Chewy and Crispy candy bars.
“Vegan is fast growing, and gluten-free still very big,” Ms. Berliner said of consumer trends. “Any meal we come out with, I try to ask our chefs, ‘Can you make this with rice pasta?’
“Whatever we make, we try to make it so everyone likes it. We just make food.”
Food trends are difficult to predict, Mr. Berliner said. “Who would have guessed kale would be popular?” he said. “Or quinoa?”
But Ms. Berliner said she reads each letter and e-mail to learn what Amy’s consumers want to eat.
“I’m starting to see allergies to onion and garlic, and that’s the way I used to see gluten-free,” she said. “We had one product that was gluten-free just by accident, so they started asking us, ‘Will you make this gluten-free?’
“So this is something I’m saying to my chefs: ‘Think about it. See if you can make something delicious without onions or garlic.’ So, if you listen to what people are eating, you know what the trend is because you are the consumer, and you’re telling us what you want.”
The staff at Amy’s Kitchen prepares ingredients from scratch, from hand-chopping vegetables to proofing dough for pizza crusts and potpies to crafting batches of tofu daily. Each burrito is hand-rolled, and each pizza crust is hand-stretched and topped, according to the company.
Amy’s recently expanded its kitchen operations with the purchase of a former Heinz plant in Pocatello, Idaho, adding to plants in Medford, Ore., and Santa Rosa, Calif., and is designing a production kitchen in Goshen, N.Y. The company also is set to expand into food service with the opening of Amy’s Drive Thru restaurant in Rohnert Park, Calif.
The company sources ingredients from more than 60 farms near its production facilities and uses 32 million lbs of organic tomatoes and nearly 14 million lbs of organic onions each year. Amy’s employs more than 1,600 people and said it has maintained double-digit growth every year since its founding.“I think that people need to know that not all food companies are big corporate companies,” Ms. Berliner said. “Small companies can make a difference and really care and believe in what this natural food business is.”