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Northern California manufacturers continue to retool to combat coronavirus pandemic

Fermentation seems like a new process, but it’s actually an ancient technique of preserving food such as wine, cheese, sauerkraut and yogurt. Microorganisms like yeast and bacteria convert carbohydrates like starch and sugar into alcohol and acids. The natural preservatives gained in the process provide a zesty taste to the food as well as probiotics for good health. And according to Healthline.com, the probiotics can strengthen our digestive and immune systems, the latter that comes under attack from viruses such as COVID-19.

Reinventing the business model, replenishing the supply chain, retooling the conveyor belt — manufacturers have adapted with a big, Rosie-the-Riveter-style response to the last year of living and working with a global pandemic.

The following is a sampling of how food manufacturers — and the company that produces the acrylic barriers supermarkets everywhere use — adapted to COVID-19.

Wildbrine in Santa Rosa, cultured foods for a health-conscious culture:

Wildbrine owner Chris Glab has tapped into a growing trend of fermentation — splitting his cultured food manufacturing business that started in 2011 between the makings of half mad chemistry, half art form.

If there’s one thing Glab excels in, it’s the experimenting of new processes and methods.

So has the last year of the pandemic affected his business producing foods like kimchi, sauerkraut, salsa, dips and plant-based butter?

“Yes, certainly it has impacted us in many ways,” he said. “People hunkered down and ate at home.”

Glab insisted American food consumers experienced a bit of a whiplash in their eating and buying habits that ranged from splurging on alcohol to making a concerted effort to “eat healthier.”

American consumers also put their money where their mouths are. The ones decrying poor treatment of animals began to look at food products such as plant-based butter, which served a double purpose by using a traditional comfort food with an environmental twist of using plants as ingredients.

“People still want to eat healthy but care about animals,” he said.

Catering to that trend, the company saw standard 2- to 3% growth in grocery store sales grow to 20- to 30% spikes last year. The assembly lines at his 55,000- and 30,000-square-foot facilities were churning out items in sporadic flurries to meet the demand. The Sonoma County company averages the production of more than 200,000 pounds of product each week. As a private company, he declined to provide revenue results.

“Our trends shadowed the grocery store demand,” he said, listing Olivers and Whole Foods as retail examples in his distribution channel.

Architectural Plastics in Petaluma, the goodness in plastic:

Architectural Plastics CEO Blake Miremont answered the call to help, starting with face shields and leading to the barriers ordered for all types of retail establishments. The up-and-coming growth product has become biomedical equipment components, as hospitals and clinics have begun to perform more elective surgeries.

“It was kinda a wash,” Miremont said in terms of financial gain. “We got hit because museums stopped needing the displays, but we probably came out ahead with the barriers.”

The Petaluma firm pulled in $3 million in overall revenue in the last year, up 27% from the previous calendar period. Miremont’s goal is a 25% gain each year.

To keep up with the demand, Miremont has ordered new production equipment that automates and therefore speeds up the process.

The challenge remains a nagging supply chain problem. Wood is still in short supply.

“We have to make crates to ship our products,” he said.

Addictive Coffee in San Rafael, a morning fix to stay grounded:

Mike Ralls’ coffee business has gone full circle. What started out as four-year old Addictive Coffee in Marin County becoming a supplier for technology company office grounds came to a halt when government shutdown orders were prolonged over months since March 2020.

At that time, Ralls was producing up to 1,000 pounds of coffee a day and selling in grocers such as Andy’s, Scotty’s and Mill Valley local markets. Retail sales were up by more than half of what they started the business with.

But it soon became apparent COVID-19’s grip on the economy would be prolonged. Offices closed, shutting the door on contracts such as the one with Facebook’s 16 micro-kitchens when workers stayed home.

“All the companies said everybody can work from home. What that did to us was hard, but we never stopped coming up with new creative ways to do business with COVID (looming),” he said.

To find creative new ways to adapt with retooling what’s produced and developing partnerships, Addictive Coffee swapped its larger-format, 12-ounce bags and 5-gallon kegs used onsite by companies for a focus on sales of the 10-ounce cold brew cans and single-serve packets. These packets furnish 103 cottages and rooms at the Carneros Resort & Spa, which according to Ralls remains booked with a steady flow of orders. The famed Napa resort orders 4,000 single-serve packets per month.

And things are picking up from the North Bay to the South Bay — home of big tech.

The distribution channel has led to Addictive Coffee furnishing brews for Netflix, Pinterest, AstraZeneca, Robinhood, Coupa, Fitbit and Roblox. Its name has graced Bon Appetit’s Farm to Fork program, which is an exclusive list of recommended suppliers.

“What this has done for us is position us as a specialty coffee for corporations,” he said.

In San Francisco, Twitter launched a welcoming back for their employees starting July 12 at the Perch café by serving Addictive Coffee through at least the end of September.

The boutique coffee company has gone from cranking out 1,000 pounds of coffee a month to 5,000 in a one-year span.

To Addictive Coffee’s distributor — Robert Robbins of First Choice Coffee Services in Santa Rosa, the growing popularity of the small, boutique roaster is a sign of the times.

“There’s a community of companies that chooses Addictive Coffee. Millennials are totally into local companies,” Robbins said.

Amy’s, a long way from 1988

Adding on to its mass-produced frozen food line and Rohnert Park drive-thru location, the organic food pioneer came out of the starting gate in 2021 by opening a pizza-making facility in San Jose. The South Bay city is undergoing a transformation downtown to spur redevelopment along the rail line.

“We also added additional shifts across some of our kitchens to be able to make more product (overall),” Amy’s spokeswoman Jessica Adkins said. “As we look to the future, we are optimistic. We’ve been through one of the most challenging time in our company’s history. But as a business, our products are in higher demand than ever before as people prioritize health and wellness, organic and plant-based. And we’re excited to meet this growing need for the long term.”

Fermentation seems like a new process, but it’s actually an ancient technique of preserving food such as wine, cheese, sauerkraut and yogurt. Microorganisms like yeast and bacteria convert carbohydrates like starch and sugar into alcohol and acids. The natural preservatives gained in the process provide a zesty taste to the food as well as probiotics for good health. And according to Healthline.com, the probiotics can strengthen our digestive and immune systems, the latter that comes under attack from viruses such as COVID-19.

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