With a few keystrokes, Chuck Eggert can tell you the exact hatch date of the chickens that flavor a batch of organic soup on the loading dock at Pacific Foods of Oregon.
He can tell you what those birds ate before they became broth. He knows where every organic vegetable, grain, and herb that goes into Pacific Foods’s line of soups, broths, and nondairy drinks was grown.
Eggert, 54, started Pacific Foods in 1987, 16 years after graduating with one of Washington State University’s first degrees in food science.
Today, after another 16 years, Eggert remains at the Pacific Foods helm as president and chief executive officer. On his business cards he is Charles W. Eggert and has titles such as “Director” or “Product Development.” In casual conversation, however, Chuck Eggert is “the simple solution person” and, sometimes, “a meddler.”
In some respects, the man who has been meddling in the food industry since he was 16, when he landed a job at a frozen vegetable plant in the Puget Sound area, now is among the pioneers in his field.
Like plenty of CEOs, his business is making and selling food. But what he really wants to make is a difference–”to show that it can be done.”
Eggert continues to cook up new recipes, to be sure, but he also is turning his zeal toward a new conquest: becoming an “environmentally neutral” company through aggressive recycling and renewable energy.
After starting his career with traditional vegetable processors, Eggert figures he has built Pacific Foods into one of the country’s top five privately held makers of natural and organic foods. The company’s 2001 sales were $43 million, according to Dun & Bradstreet. Eggert won’t discuss current sales figures, but says sales continue to outstrip the red-hot natural food industry, which swelled by 19 percent last year despite the faltering economy.
He credits Pacific Foods’s success to vigilance for quality and commitment to sustainable agriculture from the dirt of his organic farm to the customer’s dinner table.
“People are becoming more and more concerned with what they’re eating–as well they should,” he says. “I think we’re just on the beginning edges of a huge nutritional transformation.”
Making natural foods is a family affair. Father-in-law Edward Lynch is cofounder and partner at Pacific Foods, wife Louanna Eggert (’71 Education) is in charge of the family’s winery, and 25-year-old son Charlie Eggert helps run its organic farm.
Pacific Foods’s main plant could pass for a high-tech campus in the Portland suburb of Tualatin. Although it’s located in an industrial area, Eggert’s office overlooks restored wetlands. On a spring day, Canada geese stand sentinel over their goslings, and a hawk soars overhead. It seems a fitting place for an ultra-modern company striving to bring customers a real taste of nature.
“A lot of the organic products we use just taste better,” he says. “Our soups and broths, in natural foods, are the industry standards for flavor and quality.”
When Eggert started Pacific Foods, he expected to make tofu, but soon found an emerging market for soymilk. At the time, neither product was a grocery store mainstay. “When we first started, if you said ‘tofu’ or ‘soymilk,’ they’d look at you funny.”
Today, Pacific Foods makes 170 products that line the shelves of natural food stores and supermarket health food aisles from Washington state to Washington, D.C.
Most of the products are sold in Tetra Pak aseptic containers, similar to juice boxes. Eggert chose this type of packaging because the laminated material protects food quality without preservatives and is recyclable, like glass and metal, but its lighter weight makes it convenient for consumers and uses less energy to ship.
In business parlance, Pacific Foods’s dirt-to-dinner table approach is called “vertical integration.” Some companies only manufacture or market goods, but Pacific Foods keeps a tight grip on as many aspects of its business as possible. For example, the company
- develops its own recipes and product lines;
- grows some of its own ingredients;
- buys other ingredients from suppliers who grow natural or organic products and meet its strict “certified to the source” guarantee;
- manufactures all products under Pacific Foods labels and affiliated brand names, such as French Prairie Cellars boxed wines and Healthy Essentials natural pet foods;
- makes private-label products for large retailers such as Kroger (including Fred Meyer and QFC stores) and Trader Joe’s, and sells bulk products to other manufacturers;
- markets and sells its products at Portland-area New Seasons stores, which Eggert co-owns, and elsewhere throughout the United States and Canada;
- turns organic waste into animal foods and compost used to grow ingredients.
Eggert leaves day-to-day details of manufacturing and packaging to his 130 employees, to whom he frequently gives credit for the company’s success.
“It’s about everybody,” he says. “I’m just fortunate I get to be in charge and I don’t have to do a lot of the work.”
Eggert pinpoints his passion on two areas.
First, he helps develop new food products that fit with Pacific Foods’s strongholds in the market, such as a new line of organic gravies that complement its best-selling broths.
“What we really do well are soups, and broths, and nondairy drinks,” he says.
Second, Eggert doesn’t just talk about his goals for sustainability because he knows many of his customers demand it.
“If he’s going to promise something, he’s going to follow through on that promise,” says his son, Charlie Eggert.
Pacific Foods buys locally when possible, supports farming practices that protect the environment, and looks for ways to cut energy use.
In 2000, the company formed its Biogroup of Oregon division on an old lily farm near Aurora, in the rolling hills of the northern Willamette Valley. Oregon Tilth previously certified Biogroup’s greenhouses as organic. This year, the USDA-accredited organization certified nearly 40 acres of fields, and staff planted tomatoes, butternut squash, and other crops, many of them from non-hybridized heirloom seeds. In a few more years, Eggert expects the farm’s organic-certified acreage to triple when 80 acres nearby are certified.
Besides growing hard-to-find products for its own Pacific Foods brands and to develop new products, managers Charlie Eggert and Brendan McMillen grow organic vegetables, herbs, and flowers for restaurants and farmer’s markets.
“We’re also trying to use our farmland as a model for how you can grow organic or sustainable products the best way possible,” Eggert says.
In 2001, he started Pacific Environmental Group to guide his manufacturing business to be “environmentally neutral.”
In the first phase, he is finding ways to recycle every scrap of waste. In part to keep a close watch, Eggert moved his office into the warehouse devoted to recycling.
“The goal is to get rid of our dumpster,” he says.
Some packaging materials, such as 40 tons of cardboard generated per month, are easy marks. Other wastes are tougher to recycle, so Eggert is working with his suppliers to reduce or change packaging. Until then, he is finding novel approaches to cutting waste, such as converting a mountain of plastic buckets into container gardens for low-income people, in a partnership with the Oregon Food Bank. Eggert is on the food bank’s board, and Pacific Foods is a major donor.
The sloppiest mountain Pacific Environmental Group has overcome is the 50 tons of okara, the putty-like soy residue that Pacific Foods creates every day while making nondairy drinks. Nearly a year ago, Pacific Environmental spent $500,000 on a custom-built drier that converts okara into a protein-packed powder. Petaluma Poultry Co. in California feeds the powder to chickens that in turn go into some of Pacific Foods’s soups, broths, and gravies.
Eventually, Eggert wants to sen
d vegetable wastes to a composting facility at the Aurora farm. The farm also buys compost made from vegetable and fruit wastes from supermarkets such as New Seasons.
After celebrating the demise of the dumpster, which he expects by the end of this year, Eggert will search for sustainable energy sources. For example, he wants to convert tractors at the farm to use a biodiesel fuel made from plants grown there.
Unlike Pacific Foods, Eggert doesn’t expect Pacific Environmental to make money, but he does think it can break even. “It’ll take two or three years, maybe four.”
More important, Eggert says, is setting an example to be less wasteful.
“That just becomes a mindset. Once people start thinking that way, it just helps them do things more efficiently.”
Eric Apalategui is a writer and reporter who lives near Portland, Oregon.