Experience, pride and the conviction to try new things contribute to success of the Rainier Fruit Co.
That is the most important thing officials at Rainier Fruit Co. strive for. In the super-competitive world of produce they realize that winning consumer—and retailer—loyalties depend on offering a product that is consistent in taste, quality and safety. In order to fight off the competition, near and far, domestic and international, and gain trust, it must be done all the time.
So it is no surprise that this company, founded in the Yakima Valley of Washington state about 150 miles southeast of Seattle in 1888, places its biggest emphasis on its total operation. From the planting and cultivating of its apples, cherries, blueberries and pears throughout Washington and Oregon, to packing the fruit in a state-of-the-art distribution center/warehouse, to getting it to retail outlets, Rainier officials make sure they get it correct.
“We are committed to doing it right,” says Mark Zirkle, the CEO and president of the Selah, Wash.-based company. “Consumers hate if we are inconsistent with fruit. Give them one bad cherry or apple and they may not come back to the store again and the retailer may not want to carry our brand. So we use our talented team and our experience to make sure that we get it right and keep it right.”
Experience is one thing that is definitely on Rainier’s side. The company is now operated by the fifth generation of the Zirkle family, a clan that moved to the Yakima Valley from Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley in the late 1880s. Soon after they started growing apples in the region, taking advantage of the rich volcanic soil of the nearby Cascade Mountains in Central Washington, as well as ample water and a long growing season.
The company’s sales exploded in the 1960s when Bill Zirkle, Mark’s father, took over the operation and started to expand its 50-acre farm to its current size of more than 15,000 acres. The company also, over time, formed relationships with five different family farming operations in the area to ensure that it had enough of the right products on hand to offer retailers a year-round supply.
“Bill’s vision was to always make sure that the company was ahead of consumer demands and our retail partner needs,” says Suzanne Wolter, Rainier’s director of marketing. “We were known for our Reds and Golden Delicious apples at first. Bill was a pioneer in planting Gala and Fuji apples in the 1980s and Honeycrisps around 2000. He was fast to understand that consumer tastes were changing and he reacted quickly.”
In the late 1990s, Rainier started to offer cherries and about 10 years later the company started growing blueberries. Pears had entered the mix back in the 1970s.
Apples, offered in 11 varieties, remain the backbone of the company and the segment has seen its share of ups and downs over the last two decades. However, with growers introducing new varieties, with sharper and more defined flavor profiles, the category has performed relatively well in recent years.
That may be why Rainier officials are not shy when it comes to taking a chance or two. They placed a big bet on the Honeycrisp variety and it paid off. Now both Zirkle and Wolter point at four other rising varieties (Pink Lady, Jazz, Lady Alice and Junami) as future areas of growth for the company.
“We try to look ahead and see what might be popular with consumers in the future,” Zirkle says. “We want to grow an apple that resonates with consumers. Do they want something more tart or sweet, big or small? Honeycrisp, for example, came out of nowhere and look how popular it is now. We keep looking for the next best thing.”
At the same time, Rainier is placing a big emphasis on organic products. A decade ago, organic apples amounted to just 1% of the company’s total apple sales—today they are more than 20%. More than 95% of Rainier’s blueberries are organic. Overall, the company ships more than 20 million packages of fruit each year; a number that Zirkle says is 20% higher than a decade ago.
“At this point, we are in a position where we need to know what works for our retail partners,” Zirkle adds. “We strive for a more collaborative relationship with them and we want to build a level of trust that begets confidence in our consumer insight.”
Why pick Rainier over all the other apple growers out there? Zirkle says there are three reasons. First, he says, is the fact that the company produces a better piece of fruit. Second is the service that comes with the product and, third, he believes that consumers end up with a better eating experience.
“It is all about our employees and the amount of freedom they have to interact with each other to make sure we keep things moving forward,” he says. “With our state-of-the-art packing and storage facility, we are also very confident that we put a lot of monitoring into what we deliver. In the end, we want to give our consumers a good eating experience that will turn into more demand for our brand.”
Going forward, of course, can be a bit tricky. Zirkle says he expects the company’s sales to continue to increase as it gains new customers and offers new varieties. However, retailers should not expect rapid changes. “We’re working to expand our footprint and modify our product mix,” he says. “Our goal is to match consumer demand for our products.”
This takes tremendous foresight. Zirkle says that there is about a seven year lag between transitioning new acreage and getting it to market. And, developing a new variety can take upwards of 20 years. “We have a lot of work to do. There are multiple varieties in the ground and it takes time to get them to the point where we can offer them to our retailers. In the next decade, we are going to see a lot of new varieties on the market. Our job is to stay ahead of the curve.”