Amy's Kitchen had, as the company likes to say, "a beautiful beginning."
It was 1988 when Amy's CEO Andy Berliner and his wife and company co-founder, Rachel, were expecting the birth of their daughter, Amy. It was a night when no one wanted to cook, so Mr. Berliner went to the store and purchased a prepared frozen dinner. It was terrible. They knew they could do better. And so, Amy's Kitchen was launched.
But, as with most enterprises, it didn't become what it is today alone.
Speaking Feb. 23 at the Sonoma State University Economic Outlook Conference, Mr. Berliner noted that early on he went out to secure financing for his fledgling company. A lot of doors were shut on him. But one bank, the former Bank of Petaluma, loaned him $20,000. That is a good reminder of the importance that small community banks play in the economic ecosystem of a town and region. Of course, Amy's has far outgrown the capital needs that a small bank could provide and is currently with Bank of America/Merrill Lynch. Yes, the economic ecosystem needs large banks, too.
Today, Amy's Kitchen is a global company approaching $350 million in sales. It has had an annual growth rate of 32 percent and is on track in 2012 to post a record year. It has a simple mission: to make healthy, good-tasting and easy-to-prepare meals. To that end, Amy's buys ingredients from organic farmers working thousands of acres in the North Bay. As a member of the community, the company donates $1 million in products annually to the Redwood Empire Food Bank and supplies lunch every Wednesday for elementary students at Kid Street Learning Center in Santa Rosa.
Amy's is Sonoma County's sixth-largest employer with 900 employees. It is a model employer with an average length of service of eight-plus years.
And yet, we have to remind ourselves, it could have even better for the North Bay.
In 2006, a major expansion of Amy's slipped from Santa Rosa's grasp and went to Medford, Ore. Yes, the Oregon governor and his staff flew in to Sonoma County to court Amy's. But as, Mr. Berliner noted at his SSU presentation, "it would not have taken that much" to have kept that expansion here.
Hindsight is 20-20, of course. But knowing what we know today about Amy's success and a recession that has destroyed 18,000 jobs in Sonoma County, it seems anything should have been possible back in 2006 to keep the expansion in Sonoma County.
Now the big question is will this mistake be repeated?
There is a lot of talk today in political and community circles about supporting jobs, business and entrepreneurs. That's good. But is it real and will it last?
Again, unfortunately, Amy's Kitchen is a case in point. Mr. Berliner, seeing his company's health care coverage costs rising annually by double digits at the same time that some employees were still getting sick with preventable diseases, has established clinics for workers and their families in both Medford and Santa Rosa. Although Mr. Berliner is too polite to point fingers, people familiar with the project say the Amy's health center in Santa Rosa had to endure delays and red tape before its recent opening.
It takes time to shed old habits. The antigrowth attitudes are deeply rooted in public policy and regulation.