In the lush California hills, Rich Sambado meets his brother Tim and father Lawrence. Lawrence, who is now 80 years old, is supervising dozens of employees who are patiently picking ripe apples. Unlike when Lawrence first picked apples from the farm, many employees no longer climb up and down handmade wooden ladders, but use industrial platforms…
The platforms not only provide a safer working environment, they also offer a speed advantage that enables Prima Frutta and its growers to compete in a rapidly expanding global market. This company’s story of success is the story of family, of innovation, and of farming values. It is a story that began with Rich’s grandfather, Alex Sambado.
In 1920, Alex Sambado owned a small grocery in San Francisco. For many Italian immigrants at the time, life was difficult, and rewards only came from daily hard work. Alex wanted to do more than just provide for his family; he wanted to offer them a better life than he had. In 1947 he took a risk that would alter the course of three generations. He began a small cherry and walnut ranch in the farming community of Linden, about 100 miles east of San Francisco. Working closely with his son Lawrence, they planted the first few seeds that would eventually expand into a small empire. They worked together and formed A. Sambado & Son, which by the 80s developed into a ranch packer of cherries, apples and walnuts.
As young boys, Rich and his brother Tim were always underfoot in the apple orchards, running amongst the walnut trees or sneaking a few fresh cherries to eat. Their grandfathers taught them the value of hard work at a young age. “Both my grandfathers, frankly, were really strong with instilling in Tim and I daily hard work: do not cut corners, make the investment to do the right job,” recalls Rich, “and then my father continued that with the same passion and emphasis on quality every day.”
During Memorial Day Weekend, while most kids were at home watching TV, Rich and Tim were helping with cherry packing. “Tim and I would be in the back of the line, putting liners in a box, all day long, Saturday, Sunday and Monday. And we got paid a penny a liner.”
Nobody would’ve guessed at the time that Rich and Tim would go from putting liners in boxes to building a state-of-the art cherry packing facility and a national distribution chain. Tim and Rich even won Co-Cherry Men of the Year in 2016, awarded by the California Cherry Board. “That was a real special honor to share with Tim, in a moment being so highly recognized by our peers. It was an award my dad won in the 1990s.”
After high school the boys set off to university. They worked for a few years in the corporate world, but eventually returned home to the farm. Tim updated the farm’s technology, and Rich expanded their national and international markets. It worked out perfectly, as three businesses were created based on their individual skills and interests. Lawrence and his wife Beverley run the growing business, A Sambado & Son; Tim oversees the state-of-the-art packing business Prima Frutta Packing Inc.; and Rich manages Primavera Marketing Inc.
Tim’s technological knowhow, acquired through his Master’s Degree in Industrial Engineering from Stanford and MBA from UCLA, is evident in their walnut packing plant. Dotted among the humming of machines, workers in white lab coats dutifully check for product consistency, aided by precision laser sensors that are able to sort what people can’t see: the fine details of the meat of the walnut. Magnets and five precision laser sensors sort through seven varieties of walnut kernels, detecting and eliminating any foreign object. The temperature is strictly controlled and bins are barcoded to ensure detailed tracking by the staff. Once through the machines, walnuts are then inspected by well-trained human eyes that observe the product with the scrutiny of the most hypercritical customer.
Rich and his team are presently working to rebrand the walnut from its role as a food ingredient to a snack food. “Usually people think of the other nuts as snack foods. We developed a Primavera Snack Pack, which is 1.5 ounces of fresh walnut halves.” And customers should take notice; walnuts improve metabolism and bone health as well as reduce the risk of coronary heart diseases and diabetes.
During seven short weeks in late spring, hand-picked cherries arrive from growers all over the valley to Prima Frutta’s state-of-the-art packing facility. Every bin of cherries that arrives is barcoded and sorted by machine, weighed precisely and packaged according to each client’s specifications. The barcoding enables Prima Frutta to precisely track where each cherry originated from, and cherries are packed under multiple brand names, meaning the sorting process is an engineering feat of its own. Every day over 80,000 boxes enter and leave the facility and make their way to major North American retailers. These large buyers rely on the Sambados’ ability to deliver a high quality, consistent product on time, every time. For everyday consumers it means establishing a loyalty to products packaged by Prima Frutta because the cherries taste as if they had picked them from the tree themselves.
In the company’s orchards, Gala, Pink Lady, Granny Smith and Fuji apples are hand-picked and later sorted in the packing plant. Apples are first sorted by an advanced defect sorting system for color, size and grade. They are then washed, dried and waxed before a final inspection by trained sorters. “Ultimately, freshness comes from growing a great piece of fruit and handling it with great attention to detail throughout the process, all along the way, never shy to invest capital in technology to create the best possible pack to customers all around the world,” says Rich.
Of course, the business didn’t grow on new machinery alone. The technical command of Tim was matched by Rich’s ability to identify new customers, connect with buyers and provide reliable customer care. “I don’t just get back to clients in hours; it’s minutes. I’m always available, and our customers know that.” He is supported by a dynamic team of staff, many of whom have been with the company for over twenty years. He appreciates them and so does the company; they represent a handful of over 40 staff who enjoy healthy catered lunches among other perks, actions which help to build morale and loyalty.
When asked about workers on the conveyor belts, Rich explains that everyone from the top down gives their all. “We are blessed with a tremendous family of employees,” he says. “We ask a lot and they perform admirably, every day.” Wages at the company are at the top of industry levels, employees have health plans and 401(k)s, and bonuses are shared amongst all staff. “The bonuses are based on yearly packages. If the company does well, everyone is rewarded.”
The staff are not only paid well because they work hard, but because the quality of their work ensures food safety. Primavera products meet the highest safety standards in the business. The three companies follow FDA guidelines and adhere to the Global Food Safety Initiative, which aims to create best practices and food safety consistency across the globe. The company uses an electronic pesticide reporting system on its produce and so does its network of growers, and new technology measures exact levels of insecticides, fungicides and herbicides. This information is constantly streaming in throughout California and to Tim’s staff to monitor. This high-tech method allows the closest traceability of Maximum Residue Level of these products, and ensures that only low and controlled levels of chemicals are used on the company’s products.
This adherence to strict environmental controls extends throughout the ranch. The entire orchard is fed by drip irrigation, and water and nitrogen levels are strictly monitored so that roots are not over-fed or over-watered. This cost-cutting method keeps prices competitive and makes sure that water isn’t wasted in a state that is so vulnerable to drought. In addition, discarded walnut shells from the plant are used along all the roads on the ranch in place of asphalt. This reduces dust, keeps roads firm and makes the use of asphalt and oil unnecessary. The Sambado family also harnesses energy from their 10-acre solar farm. Approximately 300,000 giant panels convert the sun’s energy into 2MW of power. Put another way, their solar farm can power the equivalent of 90 homes a day.
The Sambado family has a lot to be proud of, from the care put into the growing process to their precision technology, customer relations, respect for employees, and excellent environmental standards. Reflecting on the secret to their success, Rich defines their guiding set of principles. “We have a grower-first mentality, an attention to quality and a passion and culture to never waver from our mission of daily consistent quality. We’re ownership with our sleeves rolled up.”
The first few seeds that Alex Sambado planted in 1947 grew into something much larger than he could ever have predicted. But while the landscape has changed and expanded, the values of hard work, dedication, innovation and family remained the same.
70 years ago, Alex set out with the simple plan to feed his family, and now his family feeds the world.