The Oregon Fruit Products Family Since 1935
Working on his family’s Eola Hill cherry and plum orchard, Max Gehlar grew weary of the ups and downs of the commodity fruit market. His son Mark vividly remembers a payday that turned sour when the cherry co-op the Gehlars belonged to suffered a bad year. Instead of a check, Max got a notice that he owed the co-op $1,200! It was then he decided processing fruit instead of growing it may be a more financially stable venture. Max purchased a little processing facility in Salem, Oregon and even though $3,200 was a lot of money in 1935, Max knew he had to get creative to better weather the roller coaster of farming life. Mark joined him, food processing degree in hand from Oregon Agricultural College (now Oregon State University), and Oregon Fruit Products was born.
"The Housewife Shift"The two began buying and canning dark cherries and Italian plums, working frantically when the summer fruit was at its peak, and bringing in seasonal help where they could find it – high school and college students, teachers, and even local homemakers. As WWII got going, women were the primary workforce and comprised the majority of Oregon Fruit’s packing staff. They donned little candy striper-esque paper hats and plucked through fruit for 27 ½ cents an hour during what was casually named “the housewife shift.” The Gehlars weren’t the only family in this family business –several men brought in their spouses and eventually their adult children to work the line.
Mark Gehlar eventually became president of the company in 1951 and was responsible for much of the charming fruit “musings” on the back of the original cans. Plunking away at an old Remington typewriter, Mark made use of his college newspaper experience and added touches of whimsy to each can, whether it was expounding on the Oregon weather, or waxing poetic about the composition of a raspberry:
“Red Raspberries Are a Strange Arrangement,” said one can from the ‘80s. “HAIR can be a lovely silky thing, a mannish macho thing, a distasteful thing in one’s food, or some strange musical we do not understand. HAIR is the vertebrae of a Raspberry. Hair is what holds its act together. WE ARE truly sorry that we can’t keep more of these drooplets together, but you know how hair is. Some naturally curly—some just straight string.”
Customers were charmed by the vignettes, and coupled with the ubiquitous black label and colorful hand-drawn fruit, Oregon Fruit Products easily stood out on grocery store shelves, even inspiring fan letters and can-inspired artwork that hangs in the office to this day.
The company grew steadily as the decades passed. The late ‘60s brought one of America’s first significant diet crazes, with consumer demand for low-calorie products skyrocketing. In response to the trend, the company sweetened its plums with the most popular artificial sweetener of the day, sucaryl, and sales soared. But in 1969 the federal government banned all cyclamates, sucaryl included, for its link to cancer, and Mark and Max found themselves with one-third of their inventory un-sellable in the U.S. Eventually, they sold the cans to Germany at a loss. At Max Gehlar’s passing that year, Mark didn’t know if the company he and his father founded would survive. In the end, Oregon Fruit’s long-standing relationships with its growers saved the company. Knowing that the Gehlar family was all too familiar with the ups and downs of the market, several farmers deferred payment until the company could recover. Those kinds of bonds still exist today, with Oregon Fruit working with multi-generational growers throughout the state.
The ‘80’s brought about a changing of the guard. Mark’s son Paul was brought on as president, with Mark staying on as sales manager until his retirement in the late 1980s. Mark still had his bursts of creativity though, creating aseptic packaging that was idea for housing fruit purees. The go-go-go consumer market of the times demanded convenience, and Mark thought that a shelf-stable, consistent fruit puree would be attractive to food manufacturers as an ingredient for other prods. Heinz bought into the idea, purchasing a plum puree for baby food. They are still a customer to this day.
The company continued to innovate through the millennium and beyond. The company developed a foodservice product consisting of small-diced fruit in a thick, lightly sweetened sauce for a Japanese account and eventually started selling it under the “Berry Up” label in the U.S. Today, the renamed “Fruit in Hand” sauce for foodservice is used by major restaurant chains and food companies for adding a touch of Oregon fruit to drinks and dishes across the country, with “Pourable Fruit” (the consumer version) now available in grocery stores.
By 2011, Paul Gehlar was at a crossroads. He had already retired and handed over leadership to Joe Peterson, OFP’s resident CFO in 2006, yet neither Paul nor his sister (a silent partner) had children who were interested in keeping the company in the Gehlar family. Eschewing a few big venture capital offers, he quietly went in search of a private buyer, hoping to find someone who would uphold the company’s values of integrity and high-quality products, as well as maintaining cherished grower relationships. He found such a person in Ed Maletis, a 3rd generation Oregonian who had just sold his own successful beer and wine distribution company, Columbia Distributing, and was searching for another Pacific Northwest venture to propel to the next chapter. It was a perfect match. Ed bought Oregon Fruit Products in October 2011, and Joe remained as CEO until his retirement the following year, transitioning in Dave Lakey, former VP of Marketing of Reser’s Foods, in the fall of 2012.
Chris Sarles, CEO of Oregon Fruit ProductsToday, Chris Sarles leads Oregon Fruit Products, a recruit of Ed Maletis from Columbia Distributing. Now in its 80th year, the company is still very much in tune with the Gehlar family’s commitment to showcasing the best of Oregon fruit, while also continuing to create new channels for growth. In recent years, sales of the company’s fruit purees have exploded, thanks to a booming craft brewing industry looking to add new flavors to brews and ciders, and the export business continues to climb. The black label cans remain on the shelves of grocers nationwide, recognized by a new generation of customers who occasionally call the company to share how they re-discovered the brand because they used to see the cans in their grandmother’s pantry.