Q&A: Chris Sarles
By Jan Mitchell
Describe what your company does. How many employees do you have?
We are a family-owned fruit processor in the Willamette Valley, offering a complete line of canned, frozen and shelf-stable premium fruit for consumers, food service operators and ingredient sales. We bring fruit to life – processing fruit and creating value-added products for both the culinary and beverage industries. We have about 95 employees, increasing to 150 in the summer when we bring in fresh fruit.
How long have you been in operation? How did your business get started? Why Oregon?
Oregon Fruit Products was founded in 1935 by Max Gehlar and remained in the Gehlar family until 2011, when grandson Paul retired and the Maletis family purchased the company with the intent to carry on the legacy. Ed Maletis was already very established, operating several successful Oregon businesses, so it was clear the family business mindset would stay intact as Oregon Fruit transitioned ownership.
We started here in Oregon because of proximity to some of greatest agricultural land in the U.S. We remain here for that reason as well.
What makes your product unique?
We like to say that, as we bring fruit to life, we spend a lot of time on product quality. You can see the commitment to quality, from the selection of high-quality fruit in harvest to hand sorting on the line to make sure only the best fruit is used.
We also focus on ease of use for our customers, taking care of the washing, prepping and hand-chopping, all labor-intensive tasks. Our culinary and beverage customers appreciate how much time this saves them; they can just use our high-quality finished product.
What other businesses are dependent on what you do? How has the local community benefited?
We touch many other businesses, from the farmers in the field to manufacturers of bottles, cans and cardboard packaging. We’re part of the engine that keeps dining going, serving a wide variety of restaurants and even the consumer at home who counts on us to provide great specialty fruit in the can to complement their meals. And we serve the beverage industry, whether wine, spirits, beer or kombucha.
We support local organizations and provide a good tax base and jobs that support families. We have a very tenured group of employees and make sure we take care of our team. Last year, when we wanted to get into a new facility, we moved to one by the Salem airport because we wanted to remain firmly rooted in the community we’ve supported all along.
How has your business changed since it began?
We have continued to evolve over the years, staying nimble to meet changing consumer desires and maintain a healthy business. After 70 years as a canned fruit business, as those sales started to slow, we established our food service business and ingredient and fermentation channels. We’re building for generations to come, and we do that by really listening to our customers and responding to changing consumer needs.
What do you think your business will look like in five years?
Our legacy – our iconic black can – will still be on the grocery store shelf but we also will continue to grow our ingredient business. We will look back and be able to say that we’ve become known as a branded ingredient and that people can count on Oregon Fruit for high quality and unique innovation that helps them, in turn, meet their customers’ needs.
What are your thoughts on the current state of manufacturing? Thoughts on the future of manufacturing?
Agriculture, food and beverage industries are a core competency in this state. Our state is known for it, and the food and beverage industry forms an incredibly vibrant economic engine. Beer, wine, small food manufacturers – if you add those up, the economic impact is staggering, and all contribute to keeping the state economically healthy.
We need to fight hard to attract the right people to manufacturing jobs, which are sometimes perceived as not as cool as in other industries. Other pressures not specific to manufacturing, but specific to Oregon, are things put in play legislatively that make the state not particularly business friendly. We need to make sure our voices are heard in Salem and that legislators understand the impact on large, medium and small businesses before they make decisions.
Why is it important to have manufacturing in Oregon?
As noted above, Oregon relies on food and beverage manufacturing and it has a significant impact on the Oregon economy. It’s important that all food-related manufacturing, from the field to the consumer, stays healthy for the state to stay healthy. Oregon today is known globally for quality, uniqueness and adventure. These help drive tourism, as does the beer, wine and food industry here, and all trickle down to benefit the economy. I see a very bright future.
What makes you excited to come to work every day?
I enjoy that we’re taking a company that’s been around for so long and honoring that heritage while reinventing ourselves for generations to come. We’re having a lot of fun, and it all starts with people. When I see cars in our parking lot, I’m proud that each represents a family that we’re doing our part to support through wages, healthcare and other benefits. Sometimes there are two or even three generations of families working together at the plant – inviting family members to join isn’t something you’d do if you didn’t like working here. The harvest season is also fun to watch, when a tidal wave of fruit comes in and there’s a massive rush between mid-June and mid-September. Now we can step back and breathe – after we celebrate together at our annual harvest party!