Straight from the fields

Wrangling Lightning

Wrangling Lightning

"Looking back on how we started, maybe our company should have been named ‘Luabob’ for Lupe and Bob,” Bobby Jones laughs. Sitting in his office with his brother and Co-Managing Partner RC Jones, he points through the window behind me at the colorful fields of Oxnard, California, where the Jones family lays claim to some of the first strawberries planted in the now-flourishing growing region.

“The ranch we’re sitting on was where the first strawberries were planted, but our grandfather, Bob, was leasing those acres out to someone,” Bobby says. “He was happy to keep the land where it was, while Lupe, our grandmother, had a more business-like mentality and advised him to keep buying. She saw the potential for how big this could get. That potential became a berry business called Bobalu.”

In the tale that brought this brand to life, the woman does the rescuing—more than once, according to Bobby and RC.

“It’s the song, ‘Mamas, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to be Cowboys,’ to a T,” RC chimes in.

They describe their grandfather, Co-Founder and the ‘Bob’ of Bobalu, as a cowboy in all the best (and worst) ways.

“When they married, he didn’t have any money, and he was a wild man,” Bobby laughs.

I’ll be the first to say that traditional Westerns didn’t usually favor a female protagonist. But, as I hear how Lupe’s strong work ethic and business savvy anchored Bob’s tenacious spirit, loaning her husband the capital from her own floral business to plant his first crop on the land he worked, I can’t deny that there were two leads in this tale.

 

As the saying goes, there are two theories to arguing with a woman; neither one works. This was as fortunate as it was true in the case of Bob and Lupe Jones when, together, they formed what eventually became Bobalu Berries. So, while it may have been a sweet gesture to add his wife’s name to the label, Bob Jones’ grandsons are quick to point out that the order could very well have been reversed.

With such a beginning, it’s safe to say that this wild Western of a story came with some twists and turns that eventually led the family to move into the background to grow for others. Now, an opportunity has inspired Bobby and RC to resurrect the brand their grandparents began more than six decades earlier.

“It was by pure chance,” RC tells me when I ask how the brothers made the decision. “We were growing for another marketing company when the Principals passed away two weeks before we were going to plant. We were offered the opportunity to acquire their leases, assets, and personnel.”

"We expanded not only our acreage but also our timeline coming out of the gate, so to speak. Becoming a 52-week shipper overnight meant we had to build up the staff from what we, as an exclusively Oxnard-based grower, were used to. The kicker is, we did it in one year."

Bobby Jones, Co-Managing Partner, Bobalu

From a sheer roll of the dice, Bobalu virtually exploded onto the scene with strategic moves and, according to the Joneses, a bit of catching lightning in a bottle. Almost immediately, operations expanded further north in California to include the Santa Maria and Salinas areas, and further south into Mexico.

“Between these districts, we achieved year-round production and maintained decent volume for our customers,” Bobby shares. “We expanded not only our acreage but also our timeline coming out of the gate, so to speak. Becoming a 52-week shipper overnight meant we had to build up the staff from what we, as an exclusively Oxnard-based grower, were used to. The kicker is, we did it in one year.”

The magnitude of this can not be overstated, especially amid a continuously challenging labor market, leading me to believe that there must be a unique draw to the Bobalu methodology—or that Bobby and RC are actual wranglers of lightning.

Yet, while RC and Bobby point out that revitalizing the brand was important, equally so was having a sturdy foundation.

“Having a good environment for those who work for us and their welfare is really important to us. Some of our longest-tenured employees live in company-owned housing. They take care of the land here, just as they would if they owned it. They know the ranches as well as any of us, if not better. So, having a really strong, bonded team is the key to what we continue to build,” Bobby explains.

To this, RC tells me Bobalu’s slogan: Family-grown, farmer-owned. In it, he says, is the intention to be a vertically integrated, top-down, bottom-up company owned by farmers, treating all who make a living there like family.

“There are a lot of marketing sales companies which get leveraged to a point where they’re putting money into crops, but they don’t necessarily have agronomic experience. They end up starving for supply over a given period of time, whereas we’re getting into the sales, marketing, distribution, and processing side so we can have total control of our destiny to be a completely vertically integrated strawberry enterprise,” RC points out.

To accomplish this, Bobby and RC sought out some big guns in the sales and marketing game, welcoming Anthony Gallino as Vice President of Sales and Cindy Jewell’s Jewell Marketing to handle branding.

“It’s been a breath of fresh air to have professional marketers and salespeople that know the business. Anthony, Cindy, and our Sales Leads Tom O’Brien and Jonathan Sparks, too, have been really pivotal in the growth we’ve experienced just in the short couple of years since they’ve joined us. We are two guys that are more farm production-oriented, so it was great to have the best out there come in to show us how to get the national and known retailers on board,” Bobby explains.

When I ask about the lure that could draw so much horsepower in such a short time, Bobby smiles as he looks back on the last few years.

“I think everyone who has joined us saw an opportunity to really help grow and recreate a brand that they’re just as passionate about as we are. From the beta phase to our big-scale growth—they’ve been influential in getting us there,” he says.

While it was certainly a quick rise, Bobalu was not built in a day. The Jones brothers explain how much of 2017–18 was spent doing a lot of heavy lifting to support the growth trajectory their family farms had cultivated. Luckily, doing so in the past few years meant putting into place strategies many more established companies can only accomplish through a complete overhaul.

“From the farm standpoint, sustainability and integrated pest management are very pivotal in what we’ve been doing from the get-go, as well as what we’re going to do in the future,” RC points out. “We are using predator mites to feed on the pests that are attacking the plants and ensuring we have as minimal waste as possible. Whether it’s berries that we’re culling for our processing plant or anything in general that we can do in the field to keep improving, being good stewards of the land is really important to us. It’s going to be important for the growth of our industry and how we’re perceived.”

"We definitely want to continue expanding our fall production. September through December is a window often lacking good promotional volumes for retailers. This is where we’re focusing our attention and strategically positioning ourselves. That program is expanding as we speak."

RC Jones, Co-Managing Partner, Bobalu

While culling helps Bobalu’s plants stay clean, it also ensures that only the best berries go into clamshells for supermarkets. The remainder then goes to the processing plant where the company makes juices and purées.

“What’s unique for us is that we’ve been, more than anything, one grower/shipper. This way, we can really control quality because we have such a strong team that we trust and rely on in the field. We have guys that have been packing berries for a long time; they know how to manage the crews properly, setting our quality above most others,” Bobby shares.

Still, even amid the dawn’s early light of success are the shadows of what any California grower must face.

 

“As much as we’re fairly youthful and see a long future in this industry, there are going to be a lot of obstacles and hurdles to overcome 20 years—or more—from now,” Bobby observes. “Something that more and more people, especially outside of the small growing regions, need to understand is that our biggest concerns for the future are labor availability, water, and increased regulations. All of these compiled together are very challenging and make our industry, and any ag business, more difficult.”

As concerns mount, the necessity of providing food is becoming a high-speed chase toward the proverbial blown-out bridge in the distance.

“It’s making it more and more challenging, and we should all be very concerned,” RC agrees. “Unfortunately, the limited solutions available to us are to sell more berries and for retailers and consumers to buy them. On the operational side, most regulations start in Washington, DC, and go straight over to Sacramento, California. By the time they get to us, they make little sense.”

Thus, a year-round program becomes not just a snazzy offering, but increasingly necessary. Luckily, in that vein, the Jones brothers can see the glimmer.

“We definitely want to continue expanding our fall production,” RC says. “September through December is a window often lacking good promotional volumes for retailers. This is where we’re focusing our attention and strategically positioning ourselves. That program is expanding as we speak.”

When we discuss the horizon, Bobby’s gaze shifts from the descendant Owner to the father, looking to what may be the next generation of the family legacy.

“My daughter just left for college, so we’ll see if she wants to join the industry. She wants to get an MBA and a law degree, so she may be keeping me out of trouble,” he laughs, sounding as if another ‘Lu’ has emerged in the family. “My son is 12 and has expressed interest. He is learning the name of every tool on the service truck in English and Spanish right now and has a handful down.”

Even as a glimpse, it’s a future far beyond the humble beginnings Bob, and even Lupe, had in mind when getting into the strawberry business more than 60 years ago. Looking at the two who have taken up that mantle, it seems the spirit that sings in the Jones blood has only strengthened with time.

“We grew up out here. It’s where we learned how to ride bicycles and motorcycles and drive tractors. Our father raised us here, and now Bobby is doing the same,” RC reflects. “We put a lot of passion into our strawberries. Learning about customers in little towns and areas around the country that you never even knew existed has been more rewarding than we could have imagined. They’re seeing our message and our family story, and it is gratifying to know we’re doing it right.”

Flying beyond fate’s control is to make your own rules, and where else is that truer than in the wild West?

One thing I know, even as I put these last words to the page, is they are far from the last ones for the Bobalu story.

This is not ‘The End.’ Not even close.