Nov./Dec. 2013 California Bountiful magazine
Story by Toni Scott
Photos by Matt Salvo
Fresh California vegetable platters dress up the holiday table
Vegetable platters are popular throughout the year—especially during the holidays.
The spotlight of Thanksgiving and Christmas meals often shines on the main course, usually turkey or ham. But there is likely to be one understated staple that also finds its way onto most holiday tables: the vegetable platter. In fact, much of the fresh celery, carrots, sugar snap peas, cherry tomatoes and broccoli that people across North America enjoy this time of year comes from California companies such as Mann Packing, a family-owned business in the heart of the nation's salad bowl.
Three generations strong, Salinas-based Mann Packing has been a mainstay in the California produce business for decades. H.W. "Cy" Mann started the company in 1939 packing fresh carrots for wholesale customers, with Bill Ramsey and Don Nucci joining as partners in 1976. Over the years, the business has evolved to offer a wide variety of value-added vegetable products—from washed, ready-to-cook broccolini, Brussels sprouts or sweet potato cubes, to small and large vegetable platters piled with California-grown produce.
Lorri Koster leads Mann Packing, a family-owned fresh produce business in Salinas.
Lorri Koster, CEO and marketing director for Mann Packing, said the company strives to provide nutritious convenience for shoppers year-round: "Our goal is to have something for every occasion: your lunch box, your desk or your party."
Although sales of vegetable platters are at their peak during the holidays, never underestimate the power of sports, she added.
"When the (San Francisco) Giants and the 49ers made the playoffs, those weekends were huge spikes for us," recalled Koster, who started answering phones for her family's company—she is Nucci's daughter—when she was in high school. Now she owns and operates the business in partnership with her sisters and three generations of the Ramsey family, including Bill.
Fresh vegetables are washed, cut and hand-packed shortly after harvest.
The fresh-vegetable business has evolved significantly during the last 20 years, and California boasts a number of companies that offer value-added products. With consumer demand for health and convenience, Koster said Mann's strives to offer innovative ways to prepare and eat the fresh vegetables grown by California farmers.
Early this year, the company began selling vegetable platters without black lids, after research indicated that the lids were often discarded. This holiday season, Mann's is introducing lidless vegetable platters sealed with a film that peels off. Koster said the new tray has 38 percent less packaging than the old tray.
She noted that all vegetables that pass through Mann's are held to strict safety standards. Workers are required to wear hair nets and sanitized lab coats, hands are vigorously washed by everyone entering the processing facility and metal detectors even check the packaged vegetables as they make their way out the door to retailers such as Safeway, Raley's, Costco and Food Maxx.
Roots in local farming
Mann's has established relationships with key farming partners in the region, and every product that leaves their location can be tracked to its literal roots. "From field to fork, we can trace where everything came from and is going," Koster said.
Farmer Craig Johnson grows a proprietary variety of sugar snap peas, below, for Mann's. The vegetables are grown from seed and harvested by hand.
One benefit for Mann Packing is that there's not far to go to find those fields. Surrounded by the bountiful landscape of the Salinas Valley, the business is just down the road from many of the farms growing produce that will eventually be sold under the Mann's label.
Craig Johnson of Garden Valley LLC, and Mike and David Costa of Costa Family Farms, are three of those farmers who work with Koster to provide consumers with safe, nutritious, California-grown produce. Many of the vegetables on Mann's vegetable trays begin in a field like Johnson's, where the morning sun dances on the delicate tendrils of sugar snap peas. The vegetables are nearing harvest, where they will be hand-picked, with care given to preserve the pods.
The sugar snap peas Johnson grows are a proprietary variety, grown exclusively for Mann's.
A few fields down, the smell of fresh celery fills the air as skilled crews hand-harvest the thigh-high stalks with precision and remarkable pace. Mike Costa, a second-generation farmer, oversees the harvesting tasks, taking over for his brother David, who directed the growing of the celery.
Mike Costa oversees the harvest of celery that will be used in Mann's vegetable platters.
The Costa family's long-standing relationship with Mann Packing started when Mike and David Costa's dad began growing produce for Koster's dad in the early 1980s.
"Over the years, we've grown together," Mike Costa said. "We can focus on our strengths of growing vegetables and Mann's focuses on their strength of marketing them. It benefits both of us."
The benefits of the relationship also extend to shoppers who can include these fresh vegetables in menus throughout the year, for celebrations around the fireplace or the pool.
Celery grows about 90 days in the field before it is harvested by hand, with large machetes and clean precision.
A mother of two teenage boys, Koster said she feels a connection with her customers, who shop for their families just like she and the other owners of Mann Packing do. Sixty-five percent of Mann's shareholders are women, including Koster's sisters, her sister-in-law and Bill Ramsey's daughters. Koster said there is a camaraderie these women feel with their customers that allows them to understand the business just a little bit better.
"Being a mom, and being majority-controlled by women who are moms, I like to say that we are moms marketing to moms," she said. "I love that I'm selling something that I send my kids off to school with and feed to my family every night."
Fun facts about veggie snacks
- Celery became integral to the Bloody Mary after a patron at the Pump Room in Chicago's Ambassador East Hotel stirred his drink with a stalk of celery.
- The scientific name for the cherry tomato is Solanum lycopersicum var. cerasiforme. Whew!
- The saying "dangling a carrot" originated in the 1890s when carrots were dangled in front of donkeys to get them to move.
- The sugar snap pea is a hybrid of green peas and snow peas. It was developed in 1979 for consumers seeking edible-pod peas that are sweeter and larger than snow peas.
- Broccoli wasn't widely known in the U.S. before the 1920s, when Italian immigrants in California began growing it commercially.