Two Generations Realizing the “American Dream”
by Myra G.
When you walk into Earthbound Farm’s processing plant, the first thing that strikes you is the size. Our San Juan Bautista, California plant is 295,000 square feet, larger than five football fields. The second thing you notice is the cold—you’re walking into an immense refrigerator, outfitted with giant water slides and row upon row of finely calibrated salad dryers. Nine laser sorters, at $400,000 a pop, identify “foreign objects” that don’t contain the same level of chlorophyll as salad greens, effectively removing rocks, twigs, and insects. Other machines weigh the salad, and then fold and seal printed plastic around it, creating a finished bag. 100% post consumer recycled plastic tubs are created from immense rolls of plastic sheeting. The whole process of filling, weighing, lidding and labeling is automated, and the boxing is done by computer-controlled robotic arms. Each state-of-the-art pack-out line (and there are fifteen of them) represents a $3 million investment. Eight engineers and forty maintenance workers keep the whole operation running smoothly. More than 4 million servings of organic salad greens are processed here every day; over 1 billion every year.
Every time I tour our processing plant (after donning the required sanitary smock, booties, gloves, and hard hat, then passing through the sanitary foot and hand wash stations), I am amazed at how huge and high-tech we’ve become. On my most recent visit, I couldn’t stop thinking about the early days of Earthbound Farm, when our packing room was our living room, transformed by the ingenuity of my father, Mendek Rubin. He had died a few months earlier, after living with Alzheimer’s for more than a decade. How I wish he could have been with me on that tour to see just how far we had come since his brilliance, vision, persistence, and generosity enabled me and my husband Drew to lay the foundation for Earthbound Farm so many years ago.
When we started our little farm in Carmel Valley, California in 1984, I was only 20 and Drew, 24. Our college degrees and childhoods in New York City didn’t prepare us for our new endeavor. We had tons of passion. We knew that our bags of pre-washed organic baby greens were a revolutionary product, and that the market was untapped, but we didn’t have a strategy to keep up with the growing demand. We washed the salad in our kitchen sink, and dried it in a salad spinner. We filled zip-top bags while we weighed them on a kitchen scale, then sealed them, and finally stapled on the paper label that folded over the top. We’d stay up late into the night packing “salad bags” for early morning deliveries to the Bay Area—this after working all day growing and harvesting the greens, making the sales calls, doing the books, and managing everything else our start-up required. We were beyond exhausted.
Serendipitously, my dad had just sold his jewelry business in Brooklyn and retired to Carmel. My dad always had to be busy, and nothing piqued his interest more than something with potential for improvement. Our fledging business became his project, and my dad applied his brilliant mind to washing and packing our salad.
Although my father had built an extremely successful jewelry business with his cousin, Simon Geldwerth, beginning in the 1950′s in New York City, neither my mother nor his sister ever thought of him as a jeweler. To them, he was an efficiency expert. According to his sister, Bronia Brandman, “Whatever Mendek looked at, instantly his wheels would start turning. His mind would go into action thinking how to do it faster and better.”
When we started Earthbound, most people thought we were crazy to believe that washed organic greens in a bag would ever catch on, but my father had complete faith in our idea. The fact that he had no experience in the produce world didn’t intimidate him for a minute. Never discouraged by obstacles others saw as insurmountable, my father was energized by limitless opportunities no one else could see. He immediately got to work turning the living room of our 800-square-foot house into a salad packing plant.
My dad separated our salad packing into individual steps and figured out how to do each one most efficiently. With materials that came mostly from the junkyard, he quickly created a very efficient system: As the washed and dried salad was inspected, it was pushed down into a basket that rested on a scale. The scale was rigged to a bicycle bell that would ring when it hit four ounces so no one had to watch the scale. Then it was sent down a ramp to the next worker, where the contents of the basket were poured into a bag held open by four thin poles attached to a big funnel. To release the filled bag we pushed the lever in with our hip, and then popped it into a contraption lined with soft foam that we’d gently press (again with our hip) to remove the air from the bag without damaging the leaves, leaving both hands free to close the zip-top bag and place the sealed bag into the bin to be labeled.
My dad also created a system to triple wash the salad in a shed that we built outside our living room. We commissioned a custom made stainless steel washing station that consisted of three huge sinks welded together. A bar attached to the ceiling was rigged with pulleys so you were able lower a large, very heavy stainless steel mesh basket filled with salad down into the first sink where it was manually swished around to clean it, and then pulled up to drain. Next you moved the basket to the second tub where it was submerged in cleaner water, and then onto the third wash for its final rinse. My dad eventually added an automatic “dunker” to gently agitate the salad during each of the washes rather than having people wearing big insulated gloves do it with their hands. As my mother, Edith Rubin recalls, “Trying to figure out the best way to thoroughly clean the greens without damaging them kept Mendek up many nights. They were so delicate, but he was determined to figure out a way.”
As our business grew and our finances improved, we were able to take my father’s original prototypes and find professionally manufactured equipment to help us do the tasks that were required. One of the big lessons we learned from my dad was to look beyond the technology currently used in our own industry. He also taught us that it was fun and exciting to find new mechanical solutions to our production challenges. As Drew recalls, “It’s easy to get discouraged when you think you’ve solved a problem and your solution doesn’t work as well as you expected. But one of the beauties of Mendek’s mind and spirit was that when something didn’t work out the first time, he didn’t get upset. He was always patient and enthusiastically got back to work trying something else.”
My father was an amazing example of the American Dream. He was such an unlikely success. Born between the two World Wars into an Orthodox Jewish family that owned a hardware store in the small town of Jaworzno, Poland, he was the second oldest of six children. When the German army occupied Poland in 1939, he and all the other Jewish children were soon banned from attending school. As a teenager, he was forced to work long days in a local coal mine. Even when he came home late, starving and exhausted, and his mother only had rough gruel for him to eat, he never complained. Two years later, when the Nazis issued an edict requiring the oldest child from every Jewish family report for deportation to slave labor camps, my dad volunteered to go in place of his beloved older sister, Mila. Soon after, his entire family was sent to Auschwitz, where they all perished, except one young sister, Bronia.
My father arrived in New York from Germany on August 31, 1946. He had no high school education, spoke no English, and had no marketable skills. He and his sister were sponsored by his cousin, Simon Geldwerth, a Vienna trained toolmaker who had escaped before the war. Simon gave my father and his sister a home, inviting them to share a tiny one-bedroom apartment that was already overflowing with family. My father and Bronia slept in the hall.
After serving in the Korean War, my father got a job in a jewelry factory, setting precious gems in rings. At the time, the industry assumed it was impossible to achieve good quality settings without skilled hand labor, but Mendek conceived of a brand new way to set the stones mechanically. His cousin Simon expertly created the machinery to execute his vision, and their first business, Do-All Jewelry, was born. In the years to come, my dad conceived of a groundbreaking bracelet clasp that could be stamped out and cut to any size mechanically. Again, with great ingenuity, Simon created the machinery that replaced a process previously only done by hand. Their production costs were dramatically lower than their competitors, so once they received a patent, they held a virtual monopoly on the worldwide supply of bracelet clasps for the many years. They expanded to a large shop in Brooklyn, and formed two more companies that produced beautiful silver, gold, and gold plated bangle and charm bracelets. Together, the immigrant cousins built a multi-million dollar jewelry business.
Be it a bracelet clasp, or the “Breather Relaxer” (a simple device that taught people to relax using deep belly breath), my father was always inventing something new. He was a poet and a painter. He published two books on how to overcome fear and live a joyful life. He was always in pursuit of the solution that the rest of us couldn’t see or even imagine. My father wanted to make everything better. And even though my dad’s story is seldom told, he helped plant the seeds of Earthbound Farm’s success today with his determination, hard work, and passionate love of innovation.
If he were alive today, my father would be very proud to know that Earthbound Farm has become the largest grower of organic produce in North America, and that we continue to lead our industry in packaging innovations. He’d be thrilled to learn that the crazy idea we had to put baby greens in bags almost thirty years ago has become the biggest segment of a $3 billion+ packaged salad industry, and that the majority of baby greens salads sold today are organic. My dad would love the fact that we’ve helped change how people eat salad, but I don’t think he’d be surprised. He believed in infinite possibilities and he made us believe in them, too.
City: San Juan Bautista
Time Period: 1980s, 2010s
Themes: Technology, Personal Experience