“I try to tell people how much effort goes into putting food on their table every day. Getting food to the grocery store is an incredible undertaking. One thing that makes this country so great is its safe, affordable and plentiful food supply. We take it for granted…people need to understand…
Me? I just see the day-to-day effort in it…and the results.”
– Barney Dardis
About Truitt Family Foods:
Willamette Valley has long been an agricultural powerhouse. Not surprisingly, for more than a century, there was a large canning industry that processed the region’s bounty. The UC Food Observer recently set out to learn more about food processing in the area: what’s changing, what’s challenging…what the future might hold.
On a drizzly January day, I visited Truitt Family Foods in Salem, Oregon’s capitol city. Truitt is owned by Peter Truitt and employs about 75 people. It’s considered a small to mid-sized food processor for the region. (The company’s personality and aspirations for the future are super-sized, though, as I discovered). Truitt’s facilities are located along the railroad tracks, not too far from the Willamette River, housed partly in buildings that date back nearly a century, when King’s Food Products operated at the site. After King’s, the site was occupied by Reid Murdock, a company that was a major supplier of canned fruit to the U.S. military in WWII.
The Truitt brothers acquired the plant in the mid-1970s and began a modernization program. They also diversified the company’s product line. They pack a line of their own shelf-stable products and also co-pack [manufacture and package] a variety of food products for other food processors. The Truitts are known in the industry for innovative processing and packaging techniques. In 2013, Peter Truitt spun off Truitt Family Foods to focus on building a branded line of products.
I visited with plant manager Barney Dardis. Barney had me remove my jewelry, leave my purse in a sample room and don a red hard hat. Then he showed me around the plant and graciously spent a good amount of time answering a long list of questions.
About Barney Dardis:
Born and raised in the area, Barney began working in the food processing business in 1976, when he was a sixteen-year old high school student. He explained to me that food processing and canneries were vital to Oregon’s economy at the time…and a reliable source of seasonal work for young people like him. Over the years, he’s held a number of positions at different companies in the area.
In his current role as plant manager, Barney is the main purchaser of product ingredients and packaging materials. He schedules all production for Truitt’s own product line, as well as production for the company’s co-pack customers. He interfaces with all departments, from human resources, to quality control, to maintenance to purchasing. Barney says his work is a “dynamic and moving process” and that a big part of his job is “to maximize crews, equipment and capital.”
Q: What are your products? We make shelf-stable, all natural legume-based products. We can sustainably pack beans in nothing but sea salt and water. We then take beans and create value-added products that we put into cups and pouches. This past year we launched single-serve Hummus and Dippers, which are made with white bean puree with Greek yogurt. This year we are developing several other varieties.
Q: How did you come to this work?
Barney: My first experience was in 1976, when I was a high school student. I worked a night shift at a processor in Salem…I was 16 years old and working in a cannery. That’s the power the food processing and canneries had in Oregon at that time. I came back to the food processing business in 1979 at a nearby processor and again in 1981 for summer work. I began to enjoy the work and see the opportunities in front of me. I was a maintenance mechanic and had been a sauce cook [butter and cheese sauce for frozen vegetables] for General Foods, which operated a Birds Eye plant in Woodburn, just up the road from Salem.
I’ve done many of the jobs at the plant over the years. This career path wasn’t intentional. I was learning new things by doing them and kept finding new places to go and new jobs opened up. It was hard work. Some summers I worked over one hundred days in a row. That is still the nature of food processing…when berries, beans and other crops are ripe you pick and process them. It was – and is – a lot of work, but I have very fond memories. It’s what I did. I have a lot of pride in that and in this company and the people around me…it’s not an easy way to make a living.
I try to tell people how much effort goes into putting food on their table every day. Getting food to the grocery store is an incredible undertaking. One thing that makes this country so great is its safe, affordable and plentiful food supply. We take it for granted. You don’t have to go very far to see what a country is like that doesn’t have that…people need to understand. We put our hand out at the store and someone puts something in it to eat. That’s not the way it works in the majority of the world.
I don’t go down the path of the political stuff that goes along with that, though. Me? I just see the day-to-day effort in it…and the results.
When I was younger, I’d look back at the end of a harvest season and I’d be tired and take some time off. I’d wonder, “How did I do that?” And by the next year I was ready to do it again. I equate it to a sports season. I always took it for granted that’s how people worked and I saw many come and go that didn’t want to work this way…it’s not for everyone.
Q: What are the biggest challenges facing food processors today?
Barney: We’re a small to medium-size processor. The biggest challenge is anticipating the next big thing consumers will want. Everything changes so rapidly now…information moves change much more quickly. When we were kids it didn’t move much…brands were brands. With a changing society and all the information that’s available, the focus, appetite, desires and consumer dollars move quickly. Markets change. A big challenge is determining whether it’s a different flavor profile, packaging medium or a completely different product that’s needed. The challenge is in staying in front of that.
I’m not the visionary. When we began co-packing for a customer using pouches, I could see the success with that packaging in Europe and realize it was a good thing. The pouches went from a novelty to a commodity in a matter of months; it was a very fast process. But in general, it’s a hard thing to know which way that product or packaging medium is going to go. I can add value to an idea with my experience and knowledge, but I’m more of a hands-on sort of person.
Q: What are the challenges you face around distribution?
Barney: The easy part is putting the product in a case and putting it on a truck. I have a tangible start and finish in terms of that process. Distribution is the challenge…and for the folks in our company that do that, I can see that it’s a very creative process to get products to the end-user. Companies want to get their stuff out, but the cost of transportation is very expensive. To get something from Oregon to Florida, for example, is very expensive. And competition gets in there, too, and then the market is not sustainable at that point.
We distribute to food service and retail distributors; we provide direct service to some customers as well. We also sell some product directly from our website and are hoping that part of our business grows.
A big challenge is getting your products in front of a consumer. I’m thinking about the Super Bowl right now and the power of that advertising and what it costs; it’s not a possibility for small companies.
Q: Where do you source your ingredients?
Barney: For our own products, we try to source in the Northwest. Beans grow well in this part of the country. We do our best to source from the Willamette Valley. Not everything comes from the Northwest…that’s not always possible, but we use product from the region if it’s available.
We understand that the pay back of sourcing close to home is greater, not only to ourselves but to our community. It’s a healthy, sustainable business that takes dollars and puts them back in the community…that’s the way a healthy economy works. Agriculture is a great way to grow your economy; it adds value.
Q: Truitt has been in Salem for forty years and is continuing a tradition of employment at this particular site. What are the gifts and challenges of this kind of legacy?
Barney: We have employed multiple generations of families. There is really a strong feeling of family values here. That starts with Peter [Truitt]. It’s how we define ourselves: we are a family. Inside of that is a certain amount of trust and affection…we see one another as a family. I think all of us appreciate this about our company. I don’t like a hard and fast way of working, or a monolithic type of business. We strive for a different feel…this is the home office. And that’s a huge benefit…you can’t put a dollar value on it…it’s beyond dollars. We don’t have a huge bureaucracy we’re struggling with. We all see the company owner on a regular basis…that’s priceless. It does make a difference.
Q: What about the vision for the future?
Barney: A part of our business is in co-packing product for other businesses. It is wonderful and a great way to make a living, but we hope to continue to grow our own line. You want to be managing your own brand.
Q: What’s concerning you about the food system?
Barney: Food safety. When there are product recalls or someone gets sick, it reflects poorly on us as an industry. There have always been food safety problems; detection is better now. But we don’t always see the closure or follow-up stories about the food safety issues. Some of those have been train wrecks.
It’s also a bit of a challenge finding employees. The jobs are what they are and it can be difficult to fill our needs. Because of the flow of our work, our workforce has to be able to expand and shrink depending upon production. We don’t keep a huge staff idle. We hope to grow our way out of this…we want to build a more permanent workforce.
Q: What’s exciting you?
Barney: The potential of the new packaging technologies we’re looking at is exciting. Canning food in Salem, Oregon is still profitable, but we need to step into new business models. What’s after this? Installing new equipment and seeing the company’s commitment to our facility and our people makes us all feel good. There’s a huge smile on people’s faces here because they know they have a future…it’s a promising thing. We will be going after new markets with new items that we’re making here in Salem. And these products may be going to new and different places. Another thing that is exciting to me is when I go into a store and I see one of our products. My daughter is really good about finding our products wherever she travels, taking pictures of them and sending those pictures to me.
Q: Anything else you’d like to add?
Barney: I’ve been thinking about how many years I’ve been doing this…where did the time go? I’ve also been thinking about all the people I have worked with and learned from…it was quite a process to get here.
I try to mentor young people so that someone can step into this job. You always have to be thinking about building your workforce and helping others succeed, blossom and go forward. And with new equipment, new processes and new recipes, it’s exciting for them, too.
I don’t forget those nights on the strawberry belt thirty years ago, struggling to stay awake. When I see strawberries in the store now, I still know which ones to buy and which to avoid. Those kinds of life lessons have gotten me here. I still enjoy what I do.
Editor’s Note: Alaska Airlines serves Truitt’s hummus to its customers.