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Seated in the living room of their 1870s farmhouse, Andy and Rachel Berliner laugh easily when looking back on 23 years of business successes and a few mistakes at Amy's Kitchen, their Petaluma-based maker of natural, convenience foods.

Dressed in jeans and unhurried in their recollections, the couple strike a more earnest tone when discussing the link between the company and its namesake, their only child, Amy.

"One of my motivations during the hard times, and there were hard times, was to leave the opportunity for Amy if she wants to carry on the business," said Andy Berliner. "So my goal was always to hang in there long enough at least to where she was able to make a firm decision about what she wants to do in life."

Those who know them say that, for the Berliners, it isn't about the money.

Andy Berliner, 64, a Chicago native, came to Sonoma County in the early 1970s, saying he'd always wanted to live on a farm. Later on a meditation retreat in India he met Rachel, 57, who grew up in Southern California. The couple married in 1985.

Together they have built one of Sonoma County's largest locally owned companies — with sales of vegetarian frozen entrees, canned soups and other products this year expected to top $300 million.

Plenty of large companies have tried to buy Amy's Kitchen and its processing plants in Santa Rosa and near Medford, Ore. But the Berliners refuse to sell. They see themselves as caretakers of a business for people seeking a different kind of prepared foods. Their values and their fingerprints are everywhere at Amy's Kitchen.

Both the company and their daughter, who graduates today from Stanford University, are poised to begin a new era, one where the connection between the two will grow even stronger.

The business this year is expanding with a small plant in England and eventually a $63 million processing facility in South Carolina.

And Amy Berliner, now 23, will start work for the company this summer as part of a small team based in England. In the coming years, she said, she hopes to learn much about her own career skills and interests, but "I do know that I'm committed to Amy's and the cause."

She emphasized that the company will stay in the family.

With strong, steady growth, Amy's Kitchen has broken into the ranks of the nation's largest food processors. Last month the company ranked 19th among makers of refrigerated and frozen entrees. The list in the trade publication Refrigerated and Frozen Foods includes such giants as Nestle, Oscar Mayer, Kellogg's and Sara Lee.

The company has 1,800 employees, and about 1,000 of them work in Sonoma County, most at its main processing plant in Santa Rosa.

Andy Berliner, 64, and wife Rachel, 57, continue to pour themselves into the company they began in 1988. They run it their way, which at times seems counter to common practices in big business.

The Berliners do little advertising. They have built a reputation for refusing to skimp on quality and nutrition in their foods. And they seek managers who have what Andy Berliner called "the right spirit," including a willingness to lead with "gentle guidance."

"There's no yelling at Amy's anywhere in the organization," he said. "It's kind of like a not-allowed thing. If somebody loses it, they go for a walk."

The couple also give attention to seemingly small details. After their interview, the Berliners drove to the company's headquarters in Petaluma to look over several packaging designs.

One task was to change the bright orange background color on their Golden Lentil soup label. With 21 of their other soup flavors lined and stacked before them — each with its own distinct background — the couple huddled at a conference room table and studied sheets of available ambers, tans and other shades.

Eventually they picked a hue that their marketing director described as a "lighter, softer orange."

"They live and breathe and eat and talk Amy's constantly," Amy Berliner said of her parents. To her, it would be "weird" to spend an entire dinner together without discussing the business.

All three family members believe that selling the company would hurt the quality of its products and eventually its workers.

"There's a certain responsibility you feel when you know that if you sell this company, that nobody in their right mind is going to be spending all the time that we do and not make quite as much money," said Rachel Berliner.

The Berliners' success began with a powerful idea — that people would buy tasty and nutritious vegetarian frozen meals. They tell how they were unable to find such food after the birth of their daughter, when time for cooking meals was at a premium.

From their first product, a frozen vegetable pot pie created with the help of Rachel's mother, Amy's Kitchen grew as consumers began embracing more natural products at stores like Whole Foods, which today carries a vast array of Amy's 180 all-vegetarian products. The offerings include frozen pizzas, burritos and various entrees, breakfast foods, snacks and desserts.

Getting the company's products into major supermarket chains was a major step forward, as was opening the new plant in Oregon.

Today Amy's Kitchen produces the equivalent of a half million meals a day. A company video says its products annually require 20 million pounds of tomatoes. The business makes its own tofu, tortillas and, soon, pasta.

Amy's is ranked sixth among all U.S. food processors for sales of single-serve frozen dinner entrees in the 52-weeks ending May 15, according to SymphonyIRI Group, a Chicago-based market research firm. The top five brands all saw their sales dollars for such products decline in that period, while Amy's sales grew almost 13 percent to $104 million. The data doesn't include Wal-Mart or membership stores like Costco.

Amy's managers said the company has gained 55 percent of natural frozen pizza sales and 47 percent of the natural canned soup market.

When it comes to natural convenience foods, Amy's Kitchen "absolutely dominates that category," said Tom Scott, vice president and manager of the Cotati-based Oliver's Market chain. He said the company benefitted from being "first to market" and it has never surrendered that advantage.

Bob Garrison, editor of Refrigerated and Frozen Foods in Troy, Mich., said he's impressed with both the company's growth and its independence.

"It's rare that a company can continue to be privately held," he said.

Success didn't come without mistakes. The Berliners recalled how they tried a new method for making pizzas at the Oregon plant. The approach, to cook pizzas without metal pans, proved a disaster, Andy Berliner said. The company eventually spent about $1 million to switch over to the same method used in Santa Rosa.

Friends credit the Berliners with creating a company culture that isn't fixated on short-term profits.

James Tyler, a longtime friend who lives near Cooperstown, N.Y., said the Berliners approached the business "in the same way that they brought up Amy, with a lot of love and care and attention."

"It's amazing how there's this kind of parallel between the growth and development of their daughter Amy and the growth and care of their business," Tyler said.

The couple have distinct roles. Rachel Berliner, whose art background influences Amy's package designs, said her contribution has been to listen to customers. She typically starts and ends her day by reading emails, many of which are shared around the company.

As a result of such messages, the company began to make gluten-free pizzas, "light in sodium" soups, "lite & lean" entrees for dieters and most recently, organic chocolate candy bars. Rachel Berliner said customers convey needs and wants "before it becomes a trend."

"And if you listen in the beginning, then … you have the product ready when the market is demanding it," she said.

Andy Berliner, who uses two cell phones but rarely sits at a computer, is the visionary, the one who decides the right time to launch a new product or to test new markets in Europe and Asia. He keeps his office beside their home in a former dairy barn, removed from Amy's headquarters to give him space to think.

One of his biggest business lessons concerns how difficult it was to quickly expand operations at the Oregon plant after it opened about five years ago. He said Scott Reed, the company's executive vice president, had warned him.

"And I said it couldn't be that hard. But he was right," he said. As a result, the company plans to take more time building its operation in South Carolina. That plant is slated to grow to 700 workers in six years.

Among their latest ideas, the Berliners this year plan to open a fast-food restaurant in Sonoma County that will feature some of their popular vegetarian recipes. It's an experiment to see whether enough consumers want a more nutritious alternative to the typical fast-food chains.

The company declined to name the location, but public records indicate that Amy's Kitchen is about to complete the purchase of a restaurant on Gravenstein Highway South in Sebastopol, directly across the street from a McDonald's.

The Berliners also plan to open two "wellness centers," staffed with a doctor and nurse practitioner, that will provide non-emergency medical care to Amy's employees and their family members for the plants both here and in Oregon. The aim is to help improve workers' health, a move they said also will help hold down medical insurance costs.

Eddie Rosen, a longtime friend from Penngrove, said the Berliners remain remarkably unaffected by all that they've achieved. They have lived in the same farmhouse outside Petaluma since their marriage, and they have stayed connected with their friends.

"In spite of the remarkable success of Amy's Kitchen, they're both the same that they've been all along," Rosen said.

Rachel Berliner's interest include calligraphy and collage art. Her husband was once an avid surfer, telling one interviewer that the things he couldn't live without included a Donald Takayama Noah Ka Oi surfboard. However, today he said he rarely gets out on the water, though he still wants to.

The company's donations include a $200,000 gift to allow the completion of a long-delayed city park in Santa Rosa near their Northpoint Parkway plant.

The Berliners have been involved for years with Petaluma's Science of the Soul Center. They hosted weekly group meetings at their home for more than 20 years. They helped donate 77 acres for the center's facility and they were involved in 2003 when an estimated 5,000 people attended a gathering to welcome their religious organization's spiritual guru from India.

Its believers follow a vegetarian diet, take no drugs or alcohol, promise to lead a fair and moral life and meditate daily.

A key insight on couple's values came when they discussed what the result would be if they ever sold Amy's Kitchen.

"It would be a huge burden to have all of that money," Andy Berliner said. "Just think about having that much money. Unless you like that kind of thing, which I don't, imagine having to try to figure out how to invest and ... how do I donate."

Rachel Berliner said, "Having that much money is its own job."

"And I don't think it's as fulfilling as what we're doing," her husband said.

You can reach Staff Writer Robert Digitale at 521-5285 or robert.digitale@pressdemocrat.com

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