Under the California sun
Mar./Apr. 2013 California Bountiful magazine
Story by Toni Scott
Photos by Richard Green
Family brings sun-dried tomatoes from their kitchen to yours.
Bringing California sun-dried tomatoes to customers throughout the nation is a family effort at Mooney Farms, with the kitchen at the center of the business. Seated from left are Mary, Kelly, Steve, Gretchen and Lisa Mooney.
Sitting at the head of a long, farm-style table on an early afternoon, Mary Mooney wraps her hands around a cup of tea, as her brother, Steve, walks in with a bag of groceries. Moments before, Steve's wife, Lisa, had popped in looking for a midday snack, with Mary offering up some homemade gazpacho.
The kitchen as the hub of activity is typical of many California homes, and to the Mooneys, this is family life. It just happens to take place at a prosperous sun-dried tomato company.
Before making their way into recipes as sun-dried tomatoes, the freshly harvested fruit is moved from a trailer bin onto a grated transport platform at a drying yard in Stanislaus County.
Mooney Farms processes 10 million pounds of sun-dried tomatoes annually, shipping thousands of truckloads of Bella Sun Luci products each year from their headquarters in Butte County. The Chico-based, quarter-century-old company has catapulted sun-dried tomatoes into a culinary staple, and produces and markets 75 percent of the sun-dried tomatoes consumed in America.
Yet as revolutionary as Mooney Farms is, the success of the thriving business is built on the simplicity of the family home, with the kitchen at the cornerstone.
"We started out in Mom's kitchen and for me, life is in the kitchen," Mary Mooney said. "We're a food factory, but the centerpiece is the kitchen. Really, we're bringing something from our family's kitchen to their kitchen. It's more than a product in a jar."
Before the Bella Sun Luci label was sold in 25,000 retail outlets across the nation, sun-dried tomatoes in olive oil were a favorite Mooney family recipe, passed down from Portuguese relatives. It was in the Mooney family kitchen that the idea for a commercial sun-dried tomato product was born.
Years prior, with tough economic times and declining fruit prices bearing down on them, the Mooneys were in financial jeopardy and on the brink of losing the family kiwifruit farm. The family was charged with the daunting task of raising $30,000 in 30 days. If they couldn't come up with the cash, the Gridley farm would go to the bank.
Fresh California-grown tomatoes are washed, sorted, sliced and placed on racks in preparation for the drying process. It takes about 20 pounds of fresh tomatoes to create 1 pound of dried.
Mary Mooney was 25 years old at the time, and along with her mother, Gretchen, brother Steve and sister Kelly, the family went into action. Mary and Kelly stood on a corner of Highway 99, selling the family's kiwifruit directly to passersby, hoping the last-ditch effort would bring in enough money to fend off foreclosure.
Their tenacity paid off. The money was raised, the farm was saved, and from the corner of a rural California highway, a family food company ultimately emerged.
A business ripens
After helping save the farm, the Mooneys began selling the family's kiwifruit at farmers markets in the Bay Area, with the whole family pitching in from production to presentation. From there, the business evolved to selling kiwifruit jam alongside the fruit, and soon, Mooney Farms was offering 13 varieties of jam, trying to keep up with the demand of faithful farmers market followers.
"We would hand peel the kiwi in between markets," Mooney said. "We were working seven days a week, my mother, brother, sister and I. We all lived at home and would just put the money in one big family pot."
After the jams became a success, the Mooneys came together to find another value-added venture. A handwritten recipe for sun-dried tomatoes in olive oil was found, and in that, opportunity abounded.
Sun-dried tomatoes are named for the way they are processed, and for Mooney Farms, that means under the California sun.
Fresh tomatoes from California growers are delivered to a drying yard the family co-owns in Stanislaus County, where they are washed and sorted, with the highest quality fruit selected for drying.
Once sorted, the tomatoes are sliced, with the cut tomatoes placed onto wooden drying racks. The racks are transported to a paved drying yard, where the tomatoes sit out in the fresh air and under a warm sun, basking for five to seven days.
After their time in the sun, the tomatoes are ready for processing and can eventually be used in everything from pastas to dips, salads or soups.
Yet, in the 1980s, sun-dried tomato products were generally found in a gourmet food or specialty store, not a typical grocery store, and consumers knew little about sun-dried tomatoes or how to use them. There were no other domestic sun-dried tomato products on the market and no commodity board or industry group to provide guidance.
"We were trying to grow an industry by helping consumers know how to use sun-dried tomatoes," Mooney said. "We were constantly formulating recipes, going to trade shows, doing demonstrations, inviting people just to come eat. The key really was education. That's why you see a recipe on every bottle of our tomatoes. We aren't a bag of lettuce or a loaf of bread. Consumers need to know what to do with sun-dried tomatoes."
Mooney began that process practically, in one of her first buyer meetings in San Francisco.
The Central Valley sun is ideal for drying tomatoes, according to Cesar Corona, who oversees the drying process.
"I walked in, unannounced, with a jar and a fork and said, 'Try this,'" she said.
Her boldness brought results. The buyer was Price Club, and four hours after the Mooneys' sun-dried tomatoes hit the shelves, the store sold out. Soon, orders started coming from other major retailers, including Costco and Safeway. The Mooneys began buying tomatoes from California growers and California dry yards to meet the growing demand and eventually moved from Gridley to a larger processing facility approximately 30 miles north in Chico.
The fruit basks in wooden racks in fresh, warm air for five to seven days.
Today, the Chico headquarters is home to approximately 50 full-time employees, including the Mooney family. Mary runs the sales side of the business, Steve oversees production and Gretchen can be found crafting recipes from the extensive Bella Sun Luci product line, which includes the original sun-dried tomatoes in olive oil, as well as pesto, extra virgin olive oil, bruschetta, pasta sauce, dry-packed sun-dried tomatoes and risotto. Kelly and sister-in-law Lisa also remain active in the company, as they have for decades, with the success of the business truly a family effort.
Aside from the personnel, the facility also boasts the family hallmark feature of inspiration: a custom kitchen. The kitchen is where many of the key company decisions are made, where employees gather to share lunches and laughs, and where the Mooneys bring the many guests who come through their doors. The kitchen brings the home into the business and reinforces the familial bond that defines Mooney Farms.
That connection is part of the reason the Mooneys remain in frequent touch with their customers and open the doors for tours and tastings.
Steve Mooney oversees production at the Chico-based business, which processes 10 million pounds of sun-dried tomatoes each year. Noted for their health-boosting lycopene and antioxidant content, sun-dried tomatoes are a flavorful addition to salads, pastas, sandwiches and more.
For Mary Mooney, Mooney Farms isn't just about selling tomatoes. It's about sharing the experience of California family farms and California-produced food.
"I really want our consumers to feel like they came to our family home and we shared in that experience of food and of home," she said. "Home to me is always the feeling of farming. I still have my own garden. I still make kiwi jam. I still can my own tomatoes. That's what home is about.
"People will say to me, 'You have a tomato factory, why are you wasting time canning tomatoes?' Because it's a lifestyle. Growing something from the earth, bringing it into the kitchen, preparing something for your family, that is what is unique about family farmers. And that is what people are after. That feeling of home."
Winner, winner, pasta dinner
Mooney Farms sponsors a national recipe contest each year, with family members choosing their favorites from among the thousands of entries received. Here is one of last year's winners. The search for the best recipes of 2013 has begun. For details and additional recipes, visit www.mooneyfarms.com.