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What's next for Amy's Kitchen as it turns 30?

In December 1987, exactly 30 years ago next month, Rachel and Andy Berliner cooked up a vegetarian pot pie, the first product for their new food business. The couple eventually named their new company after their new daughter Amy, born one month before their first pot pie, in November 1987.

The Petaluma-based company, still owned by the Berliners, has since grown into a major Sonoma County employer and a powerhouse in the world of natural frozen foods.

Amy's today features more than 250 vegetarian items, including frozen entrées, pizzas and burritos, plus canned food, pasta sauces and confectionery. Those items, many made with organic ingredients, are produced in plants in Santa Rosa; White City, Oregon; Pocatello, Idaho; and soon in new facilities in Goshen, New York; and Porto, Portugal, the latter to serve European markets.

Meanwhile, the company is preparing to build on the success of its first organic fast-food restaurant, Amy's Drive Thru. That eatery opened in 2015 in Rohnert Park and features organic veggie burgers, shakes, salads, burritos and pizzas. Now the company is planning to build a second restaurant in Corte Madera.

Today Amy's Kitchen employs more than 2,600 workers, including over 1,000 in Sonoma County.

Officials declined to update annual revenues for the privately held company. They last did so for 2015, when total sales approached $480 million.

The latest outside data on the company, from Chicago-based market research firm IRI, reports that sales of Amy's frozen food products at “multi-outlet” U.S. establishments totaled $457 million for the 52-week period ending Nov. 5. Those sales, from supermarkets, convenience stores, drug stores and other outlets, represented an increase of 3.3 percent from a similar period a year earlier.

Among makers of single-serve frozen entrées and dinners, Amy's ranked fourth - behind Nestle USA, Conagra Brands and Bellisio Foods - with $295 million in U.S. sales and growth of 6.5 percent for the same 12-month period.

This month the company announced its new position of global president will be filled by Xavier Unkovic, a former executive for Mars Inc. Unkovic joined Amy's in May after seven years with Mars Drinks, including nearly four as the division's global president.

Here the Berliners and Unkovic shared answers via email on what's next for Amy's.

What have been key company highlights for 2017?

Berliners: We've had an exciting year at Amy's. We introduced 19 new products to our offerings, including several gluten- free and vegan, expanded our global presence in some key international markets and have seen continued success with the Amy's Drive Thru, including starting to serve breakfast.

What new directions are planned in the coming year?

Berliners: We're looking forward to growing our global customer base in 2018, as well as continued progress in the building of our first East Coast Amy's Kitchen plant in Goshen, New York, and second Amy's Drive Thru location in Corte Madera.

Amy's is a pioneer in natural and organic foods. What portion of sales do organic items currently comprise? What kind of growth do you foresee in your organic categories in the next few years? Do you see growth in organics keeping pace with or exceeding the broader natural foods categories?

Berliners: Categories in the organic food space continue to grow, even while conventional categories are declining. However, with the increased consumer demand, it's an important time to grow the organic supply chain and also to protect the integrity of the organic standards.

There is still a lot of education to be done about organic. Research shows that consumers still do not understand that organic food is non-GMO, plus a lot more. As grandparents, it feels more important than ever to us to educate consumers about the importance of choosing food that does the least harm.

Amy's now operates in 23 international markets. What can you tell us about your international growth plans?

Berliners: We have been so thrilled by the response from customers across our international markets over the last few years, and we're excited to continue to look into new regions of the world where we feel we have something to add.

We have a successful test market underway in India and are now studying the best location to manufacture there.

Last year Amy's announced it was considering building a plant 180 miles north of Lisbon, Portugal, but added that those plans could be affected by such factors as Great Britain's plans to exit the European Union. What update can you provide on those plans for the Portugal plant?

Berliners: We've purchased 20 acres and have graded the land to prepare for a plant in Porto, Portugal.

When do you plan to open the new food plant near Goshen? Can you tell us approximately how much it will cost and how it will help Amy's better reach East Coast customers? Also, can you outline the challenges of obtaining the needed food ingredients from that region's farmers?

Berliners: While we cannot share an official opening date for our new Goshen facility just yet, we are on track with regards to permits and approvals. Significant work has already been done and we are thrilled with the progress that's being made toward opening our first East Coast plant.

Geographically the new plant is in the perfect spot to supply our largest customer bases - both in the eastern part of the United States and to our retailers in the United Kingdom. We're also excited to work with local farms in the area, like Fresh Meadow Farms in Middletown (New York) to acquire organic produce once the Amy's plant is up and running.

Amy's Drive Thru in Rohnert Park remains a popular organic eatery for North Bay residents, and the company this summer announced plans for a second restaurant in Corte Madera. Can you tell us a little about the plans and timing for that restaurant? Also, can you explain why Amy's to date hasn't taken a fast-track approach in rolling out a string of such drive thrus?

Berliners: While we are still early in the process, we've been blown away by the support from the community and the Corte Madera Planning Commission and look forward to continued progress in 2018.

Whether within the core Amy's Kitchen business or the expansion of Amy's Drive Thru, we think it's important to grow thoughtfully and intentionally in order to deliver the highest standards of food and service to our customers. We're submitting our final application next week and hope to have approval within three to four months, and open by the end of 2018.

How does the hiring of Mr. Unkovic help in achieving your vision for Amy's?

Berliners: As a company, Amy's believes in taking the time to do things the right way, and invest in a long-term vision. We put these values in place at the beginning, and are looking forward to working with Xavier to build upon this foundation for the next generation. He brings a wealth of management experience that is already proving so helpful. His leadership will allow us to continue to bring high-quality, delicious organic meals to our consumers as well as supporting those with special dietary needs.

What must Amy's do well in the coming years to continue to thrive?

Berliners: As a pioneer in both organic food and sustainability for the past 30 years, we believe our business has a wonderful base to build from. Our values are well aligned with the large shifts in food consciousness that are happening. By continuing to stay true to our values and listening to what our customers want, we anticipate many years of continued growth.

What key things did you learn from your seven-plus years at Mars Inc. about what makes for successful food companies?

Unkovic: Working for a family- owned business, I learned to honor both the values of the company, as well as the essential business needs. It is so important to stay focused on who you are as a company and why you do what you do. Especially during challenging times, your purpose and values are the foundation of the business.

There are so many food companies making great food, but the purpose, vision and values of a company really differentiate a brand and give it the integrity needed for long-term success. You can see how Amy's values have supported the company through 30 years of growth and challenges, and I am looking forward to expanding upon all the substantial work that's been done to grow the company.

It's important to work closely with our customers and suppliers and listen closely to consumers, especially with innovation. Partnering with them, we are best equipped to provide what consumers need.

What key business strengths can Amy's build on in the coming years?

Unkovic: At Amy's, our driving purpose is to make it easy for everyone to eat well. That passion is supported by the purpose, vision and values that have made Amy's a pioneer and leader in the organic food industry for the past 30 years. Quality and integrity are at the core of everything we do, and those values are essential to how we serve consumers - as well as how we build long-term partnerships with our suppliers and better serve our customers.

Amy's has been a pioneer in the organic food movement and was among the handful of brands that helped create this very important industry. We are committed to protecting the integrity of organic foods and continuing to grow the organic supply chain.

One of our core values is to “be your real self” - we encourage this in our employees, but we also encourage this for our brand. At its heart, Amy's is a family-owned, values-driven brand, and we always want that essential aspect of our identity to be recognized.

The purpose, vision and values of Amy's are its greatest strength, and I look forward to using these to guide all aspects of the business. One of our core values is to invest in getting it right, and that speaks to our commitment to invest in the resources needed to serve our customers and consumers.

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