From Juice to Nut Milk: Califia Farms’ Evolution

October 25, 2019

Before almondmilk, there was juice. Califia Farms got its start as a juice company looking to combat food waste by squeezing imperfect fruit that was destined for the trash bin. Eager to hear more about the company’s early days, we recently met with Greg Steltenpohl, CEO of Califia Farms, to learn more about how Califia Farms is contributing to a better food future. Read on to get the full scoop.

Many people don’t know that Califia Farms started out as a juice company hoping to minimize food waste. How did the company evolve from there?

I was approached by the growers of Cuties Tangerines to create a juice product using their cosmetically rejected fruit (because Cuties have to look cute!). The fruit that didn’t make it through the beauty pageant was set aside for juice production instead of being thrown away. However, we realized Cuties were a seasonal product and couldn’t be grown year-round. As a result, our production line became dormant for a substantial part of the year. At this time, I was already making almond milk at home, so I thought maybe we could use the factory equipment to make almond milk during the off months. It really took off from there.

What was the first product you launched, and how was it received at the time?

We began squeezing and bottling Cuties Tangerine Juice in 2010 as a locally-distributed product. It was popular right away. Our Almondmilk came along in 2012. Soon after, we got a call from Whole Foods asking for a full sales program and national distribution. Acceptance was huge from the get-go. From there, we started adding coffee and coconut flavors. After that, we realized “plant-based” was a true platform and could carry Califia Farms across a wide spectrum of categories.

What was the food landscape like when you first offered dairy-free drinks, and what have been some of the biggest industry changes since then?

Milk alternatives have been around for a long time, but they didn’t become more widespread until the end of the 1990’s. With the rise in the number of people with food intolerances in the last 20 years, the demand for milk alternatives has become insatiable, first with soy and rice, and then followed by almond, cashew, coconut, and most recently, oat. We started when consumer demand had reached critical mass and an actual cultural shift started—a mass awareness and interest in health, the environment, and sustainability. This awareness has only gotten stronger since 2010.

Califia Farms has been there since the beginning, but many large agribusinesses are now struggling to catch up with consumers. Frankly, some of their offerings fall short in terms of taste and sustainability. We’re hoping our way of doing things can help shift the food system itself, towards a healthier, more sustainable model. One where the land is stewarded to be productive beyond this generation, and the people who work the land are treated fairly and are able to live decent lives.

We’re hoping our way of doing things can help shift the food system itself, towards a healthier, more sustainable model.

The website says you believe plant-based foods can power tomorrow. How does this philosophy play out in the choices you make when it comes to product offerings and ingredients? Why is plant-based the future of food?

Obviously, we can’t survive as a company if we don’t respond to what consumers are demanding. The philosophy of plant-based living is already widespread and accepted. People get it! They want access to all the information around the food system, nutritional choices, more sustainability, and food justice. It’s easier to find products that fit the bill now, and more and more, people are seeking it out. Our society is in the midst of a moment where we’re realizing we can’t continue depleting the Earth’s resources the way we have been over the last 150+ years. It’s pretty simple—a plant-based diet uses far less resources than an animal-based diet.

Scientific studies have shown that if we make the shift to plant-based, we could reduce greenhouse gas emissions by approximately 70%, and water usage by 50%. And that’s just in Western countries. If we intend to “thrive, not just survive,” it seems clear that plant-based is the way to go. On an individual level, nutrition from plants is generally easier for the body to digest and use than animal protein. Plus, there are more and more plant-based choices for the kind of complex protein sources that earlier generations got from animal sources. It’s an exciting time for food and nutrition. The innovation and creativity that’s happening around plant-based alternatives is amazing.

What’s your relationship like with farmers? How do you find or vet them? Why have you chosen to focus on direct trade and shortening the supply chain?

We included “farms” in the name of the company because we’ve been owned by, and worked directly with farmers from our inception. They’re a fundamental part of human culture, and unfortunately, do not get heard often or loudly enough outside of agribusiness lobbies in the halls of Congress. So our philosophy of offering “Something different, something better” came directly out of a desire to address the food system in hopes of sparking positive change. Our direct relationships with farmers (not just in California but also in Africa, South America, and Central America) puts us in the vanguard.

Worldwide, coffee markets are in a crisis because of the relentless drive from corporations to reduce costs. Farmers are exiting the coffee business because they can’t make a living. We have been working to flip this trend by working directly with the growers. Currently, we’re partnering with about 2,000 local farmers in South America, Africa, Central America, and California. By working within these direct trade relationships, every part of the food system benefits. Farmers get better prices for their coffee, Califia gets better beans to roast, and consumers get better coffee to enjoy! We work with farmers so they can get the healthiest, most sustainable yields from their land. Our ultimate goal is for future generations to have the resources to grow coffee. We call this “Better coffee for all” or “Clean-conscience coffee.”

Can you share more about your decision to take steps to reduce sugar in your products? What milestones have you achieved so far?

Let’s face it, humans love sweet things! Even when we know it’s not always the best thing for us, we’re tempted to grab that immediate comfort. It’s an understandable response to living in a modern urban environment that’s constantly assaulting us with challenges and stresses. By stepping back and taking a breather, we also can see that over the long term, loading up on sugar is not a sustainable form of self-medication. We acknowledge both parts of this dynamic. Assembling a balanced and successful product line with these factors in mind has been a delicate dance. Technology and what you might call the “foodie hive mind” are helping find innovative ways to satisfy our taste buds without sugar-loading. Auditing our ingredient portfolio has helped us reduce our sweetener usage; we’re already down by more than 40% since 2015!

That’s one of the milestones we’re most proud of. Some ingredients, like the oats in our oatmilk, create their own natural sweetness. This decision to reduce sugar has also helped our bottom line, financially speaking. We have a bottom line for the product experience, too, and it’s just as important. We won’t sell something if we don’t love the taste. We’re really happy to be able to meet that target, more and more, using less and less sugar.

Can you share more about some of your sustainability practices? Has this been built into the brand from the beginning, or were these initiatives launched over time?

I’ve always been a supporter of businesses that give back to people and the planet. My interests in recycling efforts, waste management, water recovery, crop recovery, farmer education, and community development began with Odwalla in the 1990’s. So, sustainability has been built into my DNA from the beginning. Certainly, Califia Farms would not exist in its present form if we had not been founded on these core philosophies. Our investors know that these practices are not auxiliary; they are really core to our values and the way we conduct our business. We can’t be stripped away from them for a profit motive and they get it. Our customers love this about us. Sustainability is the only way forward for Califia Farms!

Let me go into more detail about our efforts around sustainable coffee. In 2017 we moved the majority of our coffee sourcing to a direct trade model. Our general manager in charge of Coffee, Brian Lovejoy, regularly visits our growers in Africa, Colombia, and Central America—not only to inspect and select coffee beans, but also to work with the families who are producing coffee and to help them improve their practices. We’re also at the forefront of the movement to pay a sustainable price for coffee beans, working with the Coffee Manufactory group and researchers from the University of Michigan’s School for Environment and Sustainability. A “sustainable price for coffee” translates directly to more empowered lives for farmers, their families and communities, along with more stable prices, a reinvestment in the environment, and better tasting coffee! We hope to set an example for larger coffee buyers, so they can get on board with creating a sustainable coffee market, all the way from the tree to the cup.

What packaging improvements have you made over the years, and why is this beneficial to both the company and the planet?

We try to look at packaging with the most holistic perspective, including consumer choice and total packing lifecycle. Creating new interest and excitement in plant-based products was part of the reason we created our iconic carafe bottle. To put things in perspective, the CO2 emissions we have avoided by swapping dairy for almondmilk is about 5x more than the CO2 footprint of our packaging. We have always chosen to use 100% recyclable materials, and we have been working hard to think of ways to reduce our waste even more. The state of recycling in our country is not good, so reducing material use and improving the quality of materials is critical.

We’ve put new contracts in motion that will dramatically reduce the plastic usage in our largest bottle and cap by almost 30%. Right away, these reductions will reduce our total plastic consumption by more than 25%. We’ll be following these changes with an initiative to introduce RPET (Recycled Post-Consumer Plastic) into our raw materials stream, which will begin to close the loop in our industrial ecosystem. At the moment, we still haven’t found a fully commercial-ready option that has an environmental footprint we’re comfortable with. The more we learn about the ins and outs of packaging, the clearer it is that we need to do a better job of educating consumers on how to best dispose of materials in their areas. Education on best practices in recycling is a huge part of the challenge in America. We now include perforations on the labels, with tear-off instructions, to encourage consumers to recycle a ‘cleaner’ bottle — clear plastic has more applications and value to recyclers than colored plastic.

Was your pursuit of renewable energy directly related to being a California-based company and living in a state that’s a leader in this area, or do you think it would have been something you explored regardless of location?

A lot of Califia Farms’ company culture derives directly from being based in California and growing up bathed in its healthy glow, you might say. Our muse, Queen Califia (that’s her on our bottles), was the original “Spirit of California,” on the state seal. There’s a lot more to her story and than that, however. That would be an additional interview! (Check our website.) Oh, and by the way, it’s pronounced “Cal-uh-FEE-ah,” the way you pronounce California.

We’re proud to be part of the state’s efforts to create a better future for our children and grandchildren and their children and grandchildren. I’ve lived in California nearly all my life and I’ve always loved how everyone here is so optimistic and sunny about the future. That said, the California mentality is manifesting in new initiatives all around the world. We’re optimistic, too. People everywhere are finding new and different solutions to what once seemed intractable challenges. We just have to keep talking to each other.

Is there anything else you’d like Thrive Market members to know?

One aspect of Califia Farms that wasn’t touched upon in your questions is our love of, and support for the arts. We believe that artistic expression is a vital part of a healthy community. We make sure to always keep art, music, poetry, dance, film, architecture—all forms of human expression—in an advisory capacity, as we continue to innovate new foods and beverages. Not only do we sponsor art and cultural events like the NADA Art Show in Miami and various programs at the new LA Football Club, but we also produce my personal favorite event, called “The Queen’s Cup.” This is a barista throwdown, where artists of foam compete in a friendly, dynamic setting. We also publish our own art-zine called Pour Over, which celebrates coffeehouse and barista culture. It’s 100% produced by women, and a beautiful and informative publication. We’re tremendously proud to share it with the world.

This article is related to:

Dairy-Free, Dairy-Free Diet, Nuts

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Nicole Gulotta

Nicole Gulotta is a writer, author, and tea enthusiast.

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