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Fresh Frozen

Amy's Kitchen
Murray Rockowitz

Mr. and Mrs. Freeze: Rachel and Andy Berliner on the production floor of Amy's Kitchen, the thriving, Santa Rosa­based vegetarian frozen food company .

Amy's Kitchen strikes it big with vegetarian convenience food

By Zack Stentz

A TRIP DOWN the frozen food aisle is typically an exercise in frustration for the vegetarian, health-conscious consumer. The vast majority of the frozen, heat-and-serve fare seem to be meat-, cheese-, and sodium-laden cholesterol bombs. Vegetarian? Try these fried breaded mozzarella sticks. Organic? Don't even think about it.

Enter Amy's Kitchen. The 8 1/2-year-old company was started by Petaluma husband and wife team Rachel and Andy Berliner after the birth of their daughter, Amy, when the time-pressed couple searched in vain for organic, vegetarian items in the frozen food aisle. "We'd always shopped in health food stores," recalls Andy, "and there just wasn't anything there in terms of frozen convenience foods."

Recognizing that not all vegetarians lead lifestyles that allow them to spend every afternoon perusing produce at the local farmers market, the pair stepped into the vacuum with their own company (named for their new daughter), which aimed to wed health, taste, and convenience into each frozen package. "We started with the vegetarian pot pie," says Rachel, "which really surprised a lot of people when it came out. They had remembered frozen pot pies from their childhoods, and now here it was in a vegetarian, organic version. It sold very well from the beginning, and still does well."

The pot pies aren't the only items that do well, as evidenced by the gleaming, cavernous plant-office on Santa Rosa's west side that Amy's Kitchen now occupies. With a line of nearly 30 products ranging from non-dairy enchiladas to chocolate cake, 110 employees, and national distribution in health food stores and supermarkets, Amy's Kitchen has in the past eight years established itself as a major player in the health food business. "We represent about 50 percent of the organic vegetarian frozen entrée market and about 35 percent of the frozen food section overall in the health food market," says Andy.

With Andy running the business side of Amy's Kitchen and Rachel spearheading new product development, the company has reached this market share by systematically expanding its product line from all-American basics like the pot pie into the more exotic ethnic realm of feta pockets, lasagna, and enchiladas. Finding a steady supply of organic ingredients that meet the company's specifications has proved a daunting challenge, but according to Rachel, Amy's Kitchen tries wherever possible to keep purchases close to home. "We use as many local food products as we can get," she says. "For example, all our dairy products are from Clover, and we use a lot of locally grown apples and mushrooms."

"Most Sonoma County organic farms are small," adds Andy, "so we're not always able to buy in the amounts we need, but we're in our first year of contracting with a local organic spinach farmer."

One culinary area the company has moved into in a big way is vegan items, the domain of those finicky eaters who eschew not only meat but all animal products. "They're vocal, but there aren't that many of them," says Andy of vegans who shun animal products for ethical reasons. "We do about a dozen products for vegans and people who can't digest dairy, which is a much larger group."

"With a lot of our recipes, we develop them with dairy, then see if they can be translated into non-dairy without hurting the taste," adds Rachel.

The taste is doing just fine, thank you very much, if the spicy aromas wafting into the office where Rachel and Andy sit from the adjoining plant floor are any indication.

A previous job as a reporter for a meat-industry magazine left me dreading the prospect of a behind-the-scene look at food production, but the Amy's Kitchen plant proves to be an anticlimactically clean and pleasant facility. "Our production techniques are really different from most frozen food plants," says Andy, threading his way through the maze of stainless steel machinery that turns raw ingredients into pot pies and enchiladas. "Our procedures are very similar to what someone would do at home, only on a much larger scale."

Almost on cue, we walk past a row of cooking pots large enough for a cannibal's kitchen, but used here for nothing more sinister than vegetarian sauces. Other rooms contain the batch ovens, mechanical freezers, and packaging machines standard to any frozen food plant.

In one room, a stack of boxes labeled in Japanese gives a hint of Amy's Kitchen's future. "We're currently filling an order of organic lemon cakes for Japan," Andy says. "We're getting more and more into the export market."

With a U.S. operation thriving and the potentially huge international market beckoning, it would seem natural for Amy's Kitchen to look for an alliance with one of the mega-food conglomerates. So is a deal with Kraft, Cargill, or ConAgra in the works?

Not gonna happen. "It's very difficult to get into organics," Andy says, "and it's not really worth the effort for the big companies. It's just too small a segment of the overall frozen food market.

"We plan to stay independent and keep growing, but at a reasonable rate," he adds. "We're a family business, and we plan on staying a family business."

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From the August 22-28, 1996 issue of the Sonoma Independent

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