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Rainier Fruit Company: The Pursuit of Excellence

Essentially, it’s the same way a hunter keeps from starving. When your target is moving rapidly, you have to shoot ahead of the target to have any chance of hitting it. If you don’t do that, you have no dinner,” Randy Abhold, President of the Rainier Fruit Company, tells me. We’re talking about a cutting-edge approach to apple growing, about using predictive analytics to optimize assortment and make sure retailers have the most desirable apples possible.

It’s an ongoing process, Randy tells me—a hunt.

“Predictive analytics is kind of a catchy buzzword we use around here,” Randy jokes. “It makes our data and IT guys feel pretty good about themselves.”

The term denotes a technique, but the process is simple, he explains. You have to pursue. You have to achieve success. You have to eat.

As President of Rainier Fruit Company, Randy Abhold is looking to the future, juggling popular apple varieties and “rising stars” to provide the best possible assortment to its retail partnersOne morning in November, I made a phone call from the Sacramento, California, offices of The Snack Magazine. 600-some miles away in rural Selah, Washington, Randy greeted me with a humor and an immediacy that I hadn’t expected. I had anticipated a call about a data-driven company, an apple provider at the cutting edge of category selection and market research, and I did get that.

But I had to adjust my expectation. Randy let me know that Rainier is about more than metrics. It’s about culture, family, and enthusiasm—about imbuing each action and item with a sense of excellence and about pursuing that apex, that apogee—that quarry—relentlessly.

Randy isn’t a hunter in the traditional sense of the word, he tells me; he’s not out for live game. But he is in pursuit of excellence.

“We believe in the spirit of self-driven excellence. You can decide to do better; it’s a decision that you make,” says Randy. He’s talking about the core values that make Rainier unique.

“Once we bring the right people together, we bring in that collective belief. We make our associates part of what we produce, empower them with a sense of responsibility, help them be their best and our best, and they end up putting in their own personal emotions, pride, and ownership. That translates into the best quality product that we can produce every day.”

During his tenure at Rainier, Randy has seen the apple industry go through a tremendous transformation. In his nearly quarter-century at the company, Randy has witnessed the end of the Red Delicious’ reign and the renaissance of the signature apple variety. Throughout that time, he and the company have ridden in the avant-garde of this transformative process—pushing ahead to identify new trends, new needs, and new ways to serve Rainier’s retail partners.

It’s a process for Rainier, one that requires an understanding of the past, present, and future—an attention to trends and an understanding of where the industry has been.

We make our associates part of what we produce, empower them with a sense of responsibility, help them be their best and our best...
—Randy Abhold, President, Rainier Fruit Company

The story of Rainier might be divided into two parts: a prehistory in which the company came together and found its core values and a modern era in which the company set out to hone its techniques and push forward to identify the next innovation before it becomes vox populi.

The forward-thinking company can trace its roots back more than a hundred years—and across over 2,000 miles—to Antebellum Virginia—where the Zirkle family, Rainier’s owners and operators, first began farming in the United States.

“The Zirkle family is a fifth-generation apple family that farmed apples in the Shenandoah Valley in the 1800s. They found themselves on the wrong side of the Civil War,” Randy says. “So they picked up, moved West, and came to Washington.”

The transplanted family would take root in Selah, Washington, drawn there by the burgeoning apple farming scene. The Zirkles would continue to farm for the next century—eventually deciding to band together with like-minded growers in the region to form Rainier.

A Rainier Fruit Company orchard in Central Washington

“In 1973 they formed Rainier Fruit Company, which was the marketing arm for their own product. They got together with a handful of other long-term family growers who had their own warehouses and were growing their own product,” Randy adds. “Most of those families are still with us today. We’re a family of families.”

The Zirkle family’s Zirkle Fruit Company would join with family-owned operations Allan Brothers Fruit, Price Cold Storage, Matson Fruit, and Earl Brown & Sons, and with Cashmere, Washington-based cooperative Blue Star Growers, pooling the resources of like-minded local growers and uniting those growers under a single marketing operation.

The root structure was there, but it would be several decades before Rainier was ready to pick up the hunt—and the pace of innovation—and adopt its analytics-intensive methodology.

I think it’s easy for us to say one thing but do another, so we really have to ask ourselves: ‘Are we walking the walk?’

“We were asking ourselves what varieties we needed to take out of production, but we were throwing darts,” Randy explains. “So, about 10 years ago we decided to jump into the data on consumer buying habits. We pretty much learned that the guessing thing was expensive—especially when we were wrong.”

Planting acreage is a pricey and time-consuming proposition. From planting or grafting, the process of introducing new apple varieties can take more than three years. If the end result is increased acreage of a variety on the decline, the associated costs can be even steeper.

“We started charting what the consumer buying habits were at retail, using retail purchase data from Nielsen and others, and we started identifying trend lines. That led us, essentially, to start carrying less of what the consumer wanted less of and more of what they wanted more of.

Once we got into that pattern, it became very clear and identifiable what their needs were,” Randy says. “When we put all that together it was a simple thing; you have to lead the target as a hunter does.”

To this end, Rainier continues to curate its “Rising Stars”—varieties like Honeycrisp; Pink Lady®, Rainier’s exclusive Lady Alice® apple; and Envy™ and JAZZ™ varieties, which the company co-markets. These Rising Stars meet the company’s exacting standard of flavor, texture, and transportability—and comport with consumer data on apple varieties trending upward as shoppers search for new eating experiences.

An apple sorting line at Rainier Fruit Company’s campus in Selah, Washington

“Right now, everyone is enamored with the Honeycrisp. It’s become a very large part of our menu,” notes Randy. “And we continue to develop our exclusive apples—our Lady Alice, our Envy and JAZZ™ apples, and our Pink Lady, which is another rising star—if not rock star—apple. We also offer organic blueberries; we have cherry and pear programs that round out our menu, so customers have a full basket from which to choose.”

Randy adds that the company also continues to grow its organics program—meeting increasing consumer demand for organic apples across the entirety of Rainier’s product line.

So, what is sacrificed, I wonder, when a company like Rainier transitions more production to on-trend offerings?

Randy Abhold reviewing Rainier apple data with a facility worker“We have to look at it like a retailer does. There’s only so much shelf space. So what we offer not only has to appeal to the consumer, but it has to make fiscal sense for the retailer. As we add additional varieties and organic options, there’s going to be less space for other things,” explains Randy. “But the shift is less painful when you do it right. We work with the retailers and their customers to figure out where consumers are focusing their attention, to show our partners the buying data and help them decide where to focus their resources.”

While Rainier’s process may be data-driven, the buck ultimately stops at Rainier ensuring the best possible eating experience for consumers across the U.S. and throughout the world. When adopting a new variety, Randy tells me, the company has keyed in on a strategic set of characteristics that consumers consistently crave.

“The first place we have to start is here with ourselves. Is this something that I would eat? Is this something that I would spend my hard-earned money on? We have to get past that first test. But when we start to talk about packing and shipping product all around the world, the test becomes not about what the apple is here; it’s about what it is when it arrives,” says Randy, noting that an apple fresh off the tree in Selah may not ultimately arrive in a supermarket in Texas sporting the same characteristics.

With that in mind, Rainier has adopted a set of standards aimed at providing the freshest, most delicious fruit possible throughout the world and throughout the season.

We work with the retailers and their customers to figure out where consumers are focusing their attention, to show our partners the buying data and help them decide where to focus their resources.

“Rainier continues to study what characteristics are most desired by all consumers and to focus all our efforts on varieties that lend firmness first, then rich flavor and a consistent eating experience throughout the marketing season,” Randy continues.

It’s with that same standard of excellence in mind that Rainier has adopted a number of initiatives aimed at encouraging nutrition and healthy living.

“I think it’s easy for us to say one thing but do another, so we really have to ask ourselves: ‘Are we walking the walk?’” Randy explains. “Like everything, it starts at home. At our own company, we’ve adopted a number of wellness initiatives.”

Randy tells me that Rainier has both taken its message out to the public and, simultaneously, brought that message home to its employees. The company installed walking trails at its flagship facility, stocked its own cafeteria with healthy options, and sponsored national health- and wellness-related happenings including the Boston Marathon and national yoga events through Wanderlust.

In the same sense that the company pursues a spirit of excellence in its product offerings, Rainier’s Wholesome to the Core and Wholesome Happens Here initiatives offer employees, athletes, and members of the public the opportunity to flourish.

For Rainier Fruit Company, the pursuit, the hunt, the effort to be one step ahead—in the apple category or in a marathon—is about more than just sustenance; it’s about thriving.