Amy’s Santa Rosa sanitation team (far right, from left) includes Eloy Vega, team lead; Lauro Ignacio, sanitation I; Eduardo Lopez, team lead; Martin Castrellon, sanitation supervisor; Mary Johnson senior QA manager.
Jason Henry

By Lisa Lupo

It all started in 1987. Rachel Berliner was pregnant and on bed rest, so her husband, Andy, went shopping for some ready-made organic, vegetarian meals. Unable to find any that were also flavorful, the two decided to create their own. Thus was forever linked the birth of Amy with that of Amy’s Kitchen, and the subsequent growth of each.

Headquartered in Petaluma, Calif., Amy’s Kitchen, which began with a pot pie made (literally) in Amy’s family’s kitchen, now produces more than 250 types of organic, vegetarian meals in three “kitchen” facilities, which it distributes in 29 countries. Frozen meal options also include gluten-free, dairy-free, and vegan.

Although the company has achieved a great deal since its incorporation a year later, in 1988, each step has been taken gradually and thoughtfully based on its founders’ promise: “We choose what’s best for our customers, our farmers, our employees and our planet. It’s a tall order, but we wouldn’t have it any other way.”

“As we scale up, we do it with thoughtfulness and love,” said Vice President of Quality and Food Safety Anna Jesus. “Especially as we move forward internationally, we are being really deliberate about how we must scale up without losing the authenticity of the food,” she said. “We want to cook food for people, not just manufacture it, and I absolutely think you can taste the thoughtfulness in our food.” To ensure that the meals meet the specified flavor profiles, Amy’s holds two sensory panels each day. Employees taste the meals being produced, comparing them to reference samples, and judging flavor, texture, color, and mouth-feel. The goal is to determine, Jesus said, “Is there drift, and if so, how do we correct that drift before we get too far off target?”

If the drift is determined to be favorable for a potential recipe change, she added, “we get Andy and Rachel involved.” The founders are still an integral part of the company along with daughter Amy and her husband Jace Ricafrente, who also have become engaged in the business. “We are still family owned. We will always be family owned. That differentiates us,” Jesus said.

Thus, the founders still taste all new or changed ingredients and recipes and are involved in all big-picture and new product activities and decisions. And with 10 to 12 new products introduced each year, this is no small involvement. In fact, ideas or recipes for new meals are often introduced from trips taken by Andy and Rachel, or from consumer mail — which Rachel continues to personally read.

From its original pot pie product made in Amy’s family’s kitchen, Amy’s now produces more than 250 types of organic, vegetarian meals in three “kitchen” facilities.
Jason Henry
courtesy of Amy’s

Many of Amy’s processes that could be automated are conducted by hand, as depicted in this photo of a worker in Amy's R&D kitchen. (On the line, workers wear gloves.) 

Courtesy of Amy’s

“You hear people say the ingredients are an important part of the food, but we really believe it,” Jesus said. “Amy’s is incredibly selective about the ingredients we use.” In fact, it took the company seven years to find just the right tomatillo with the right flavor profile for its salsa verde. To ensure all ingredients are just as perfectly aligned with the specifications of each product, Amy’s works closely with its farmers at every step — from choosing the seed to ensuring that each ingredient is grown and harvested at the right time of year.

COOKING VS. MANUFACTURING. Maintaining the “kitchen” feel of Amy’s Kitchen is an essential component of the company’s quality, and its application means that many of the processes that could be automated are, instead, conducted by hand. The burritos and enchiladas are hand-rolled and boxed; pizza crusts and tortillas are hand-stretched; and pizza cheese is sprinkled and toppings placed by hand.

Additionally, incoming ingredients, such as the spinach for the Harvest Bowl is hand sorted even though it’s been processed to very tight specifications. This is because, Jesus said, “The visual aspect is so much a part of how you eat.”

Thus, while Amy’s recognizes the potential economic and efficiency trade-offs of hand-made food, the company sees its value as meriting it. While having multiple people on the line visually inspecting the food can be of value to food safety, it also can add potential issues, but Amy’s takes these in stride as well. In addition to achieving its SQF certification this year, the facility requires food safety procedures well above those of the GFSI standards. For example, after donning coats and hairnets, all who enter the processing area take special precautions.

“Every day is food safety day, but once a year we get together to train and learn and prioritize food safety,” said Vice President of Quality and Food Safety Anna Jesus (above).
Jason Henry

ANNUAL FOOD SAFETY DAY. “Every day is food safety day, but once a year we get together to train and learn and prioritize food safety,” Jesus said.

At the company’s most recent Food Safety Day, Darin Detwiler, an assistant dean at Northeastern University and a member of QA magazine’s Advisory Board, spoke about the personal impacts of food poisoning. Detwiler’s son was one of four children who died as a result of the 1993 Jack in the Box E. coli outbreak.

“You only have the luxury of food safety being theoretical if you haven’t lost someone. Then it becomes reality,” Jesus said. “Getting to know Darin is, for me, such a powerful reminder that we’re not making widgets; people eat our food. So, we really just have two choices: we can nourish or we can harm.”

It is just such a reaction that illustrates how educating employees on the “why” of food safety instead of just the “what” can significantly increase the focus. While the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) comes at food safety from a completely different angle, educating workers on the “why” of the increased inspection and documentation required by the Act not only helps with company compliance but adds to employee knowledge and understanding of food safety as a whole.

Amy’s has always had a thorough food safety program, so Jesus sees that it is FSMA’s increased documentation and recordkeeping that is having the greatest impact, as it can cause employees to feel as though they are being micro-managed. To offset this, Jesus explained, “We are educating and getting people to understand that we are asking you to record it as part of our legacy. I don’t want these people who are sanitation specialists to feel we are babysitting their work, but we have to keep records as it is one of our preventive controls.”

Amy’s also involves its people through its employee-run Food Safety Committee, for which Detwiler is one of the panel members who interview and select employees. The volunteer committee, for which employees have to apply and be selected, includes representatives from all areas of production, sanitation, and maintenance. The team helps to foster greater education and knowledge development in food safety.

Social responsibility also is seen as significant to food safety. Food manufacturers are dependent on their suppliers to have ethical programs in place.

When they don’t (e.g., a supplier uses child or slave labor), there are not only significant ethical issues, but a higher food safety risk is introduced as well. Thus, this along with requirements for sustainability and food safety programs and processes, is a key component in Amy’s supplier approval program.

The company’s organizational structure also provides significant support for food safety, Jesus said. “There are touchpoints, but not blockades for food safety.”

SANITORS NOT JANITORS. While all these internal and external processes and requirements are critical to the company’s food safety programs, the real foundation of its food safety is its sanitation program conducted by its “unsung heroes,” Jesus said.

“Although no one really sees them, our sanitation team that is here at the graveyard shift sets the stage every day for what we do,” she said. As such, Amy’s has recently made an extra effort to recognize the expertise of the team and the importance of their work as chemical sanitarians. “Sanitation has always been the foundation, but what has changed is that we’ve made a shift to our recognition of the team and that they are sanitors not janitors,” she said.

“This is the year we are celebrating the skilled professionals on our sanitation team” — recognizing that they have chosen to apply their skill sets to make an impact on the business. Thus, Jesus said, “We have become thoughtful in how we respect our sanitation team, make them heroes, and recognize them.”

And, in turn, she said, “Our sanitation team is proud of being a part of Amy’s Kitchen. We see their role as just as — or more — important, because it is so foundational.” One area of which the sanitation team is particularly proud is the Santa Rosa facility’s new five-bay sanitation room, which follows a dirty-to-clean flow to reduce risk, with equipment, utensils and parts brought in a door near Bay 1 and taken out a door at Bay 5:

  • Bay 1: Larger equipment is manually rinsed to remove loose particles.
  • Bay 2: Small parts and utensils are rinsed, then soaked and scrubbed clean.
  • Bays 3 & 4: After larger equipment is rinsed in Bay 1, it is moved to Bay 3 or 4 for soaking and scrubbing.
  • Bay 5: All equipment and parts are sanitized, after which they are ready to be taken out the exit door to be put back into use.

“We have separation with a dirty area and a clean area so we don’t have any cross contamination,” explained Martin Castrellan, sanitation supervisor for Northpoint.

A PIONEERING HISTORY. When Amy’s Kitchen entered the organic market in 1987, it was a pioneer — there was no national certification for organic, and organic foods were hard to find. So, the company invested in small, local family farms to grow its organic ingredients. While Amy’s continues to prefer to source locally, it “will go to the ends of the Earth if that’s where the most flavorful tomato happens to grow.”

That spirit of pioneering fortitude has been preserved in the Amy’s of today. While the rise of consumer interest in organic has added demand for its product line, it also has brought new challenges — due, primarily, to the increased large-scale manufacture of organic foods reducing the availability of organic ingredients. But change and challenge are all a part of Amy’s culture, and when new challenges arise, Jesus said, she thinks of the lyrics in one of her favorite songs that states, in essence, “Circles are easy, triangles are hard.”

Continuing to do the same thing over and over — going around in circles — is easy. But change, which is the definition of Delta and is symbolized by a triangle — can be hard, she explained. But it is the thoughtful deployment of such change that has taken the company’s frozen meals from Amy’s home kitchen in California to international distribution.

The author is Editor of QA magazine. She can be reached at llupo@gie.net.