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Refining a Path to Puree Profit : Oregon's Sabroso Co. Enjoying the Fruits of Rapid Growth


MEDFORD, Ore. — Sabroso Co. has grown by nearly 50% in three years, emerging from a group of puree producers to become an international leader in its industry.

The company that did the basic research to bring a Gummi menagerie into the sticky fingers of America's kids is now collaborating to take Gummi-type snacks into Asia.

The company's exports grew by 52% last year and now account for one-fifth of its total business. (The company doesn't disclose sales figures.)

The company recently received the Governor's Achievement Award in international business.

"Over the last decade, Sabroso emerged from being one of many producers of purees and concentrates to status as world leader and premier marketer of these healthy products," said Gov. John Kitzhaber in presenting the award in Portland.

But it's a commitment to quality that made Sabroso Co. the world leader and marketer of purees and concentrates.

Mutual trust, quality assurances and sharing information are part of partnerships with its corporate customers, said Sabroso owner Jim Root.

"It's so important to have total disclosure when people's health and well-being is at stake," Root said.

Root, along with his wife, Valerie, is the third-generation owner of a company that traces its origins to his orchardist grandfather, Myron Root.

Sabroso--the name means "tasty" in Spanish--was created in 1964 to create a concentrate out of the Rogue Valley's leftover pear crop.

The company now processes 10 kinds of fruit into a puree with the consistency of tomato paste. Its principal competitors include J.R. Wood Inc., based in California and Valley View Packing Inc. of Portland.


Sabroso processes 90,000 tons of fruit a year, Root said. By comparison, last year's Rogue Valley Pear crop was about 60,000 tons. Sabroso processes about one-fifth of the local crop.

Sabroso specializes in aseptic processing, pre-sterilized products that do not require refrigeration. It's cleaner than canning (in which the food is cooked after it's in the can) and it doesn't require cooling.

"The rest of the world doesn't have the freezer infrastructure for storage and transportation that we have here," Root said.

The Far East is the fastest-growing region for Sabroso exports; Israel and Turkey are the newest markets, Root said.

"Trade barriers are declining," he said. "Publicity about trade barriers has brought them under scrutiny of the world. Patently unfair trade barriers just don't hold up."

The company has 100 full-time employees and up to 225 during the peak of the season.

The number of employees has remained roughly even in recent years, as automation has stepped up capacity and control of the processes.

The company has invested $4 million in its Medford plant since 1993. The business sprawls over some 400,000 square feet on South Grape Street.

Recent improvements have replaced a huge bank of mechanical controls and monitors with a pair of video screens.

Brent Oldfield, processing preparation supervisor, can watch each component of the production line in an unceasing process of narrowing the variables.

"Our policy is to make the highest-quality product at all times," he said.

Sabroso plans another $4.5 million enhancement this summer, Root said. Included is a special production line for baby food that will contain no detectable amount of pesticide.

Baby food is the biggest market for Sabroso. It supplies Gerber, Beech Nut, Heinz and Earth's Best.

Fruit juices and nectars are the second-largest product line for Sabroso, which serves Tropicana Twister juices, Dole, Chiquita, Libbey and Kern.

The "healthy snack" sector, including fruit rollup and Gummi snacks, ranks third. Sabroso is the sole supplier for the three big producers: General Mills, Farley's and Stretch Island.

"We have a fourth new area that's pretty exciting--McDonald's dipping sauces for McNuggets," Root said. McDonald's recently transferred a major share of its dipping sauce business to Sabroso.

The company has formed partnerships with other international companies to explore such areas as cold processing, direct osmosis technology and carrot puree.

With a foothold in 21 countries, Root said a second processing plant in the Southern Hemisphere is a possibility. But he said Sabroso is content to remain based in Medford.

"We like the work force and we like the geography because we bring fruit from both the north and the south," he said. "And, unlike some other businesses, we've had a good experience with local governments."

Still, he worries about the health of the pear industry. Local orchardists complain that global competition is taking the profit out of pears.

"We're certainly concerned," he said. "We feel like we're running the risk of becoming a mill without timber."

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