At the start of a new year in Spain, to beckon prosperity and health, residents eat 12 grapes in sync with the chiming of the clock tower. They scramble to gulp down 12 Spanish grapes, one at a time, for good luck, on the countdown to midnight. And, as one might imagine, it can be a challenge, especially since the grapes there usually have seeds.
Halfway around the world, in rows of rugged California farmland, table grapes are grown to satiate a building demand for healthier foods as part of America’s slow shift back to eating more fresh produce. While California grapes are usually seedless, farmers have tended to focus on making them cheaper, bigger, prettier and extending the shelf life. Flavor is not often a priority.
My uncle, Jack Pandol, and his partner, Jim Beagle, have taken a different approach. They teamed up with a fruit geneticist to develop new varieties. With names like Gum Drop, Cotton Candy and Flavor Pop, the fruit they grow through their Grapery brand are specifically bred with one goal in mind: taste. But it didn’t happen overnight, and it wasn’t an easy road to get there.
They’re doing some innovative things right here in Kern County. Jack has developed new types of irrigation, fertilization and a different way to train the grape vines so they receive more sunlight and fresh air.
Grapery grapes have developed a cult following. Fans post pictures online when they find them in stores (#cottoncandygrapes has been used in over 32,000 posts on Instagram), and the patented fruit is available in every state from mid-August through September.
Jack’s story is one of an immigrant family, a lot of hard work and an obsession with creating the most flavorful grapes.
I recently interviewed Jack. Read on if you’d like to learn more about this visionary farmer’s approach.
AS: What led you to work in the grape business?
JP: I am a third generation grape grower. My grandparents all immigrated from Croatia at the turn of the century. They were farmers and eventually all migrated to the southern San Joaquin Valley. My father, Jack V. Pandol, was well known internationally in the grape industry. I attended UC Davis and graduated with a BS degree in Plant Science/Viticulture. I worked in the family business for about 20 years, leaving amicably to work in the Wilson administration for a few years before forming Grapery in 1996.
AS: Do you enjoy what you do?
I absolutely love producing products that consumers love. We use social media to get a lot of consumer feedback. It is incredible to be able to provide fruit that kids love to eat rather than junk food. I also enjoy the science that is behind the product. There is a lot. IFG, the breeding company that creates the unique products, has two PhDs on staff. At Grapery we have a PhD on staff also. We use science, state-of-the-art growing techniques and cutting-edge marketing.
AS: Tell me a little bit about Grapery.
JP: Grapery is a table grape grower and marketer. Our fruit is only produced in the southern San Joaquin Valley, from Arvin to Porterville. Owing to our investment in 2000 in IFG we are able to bring to market new and very unique varieties that have the potential to be game changers.
AS: How did you come up with the idea to develop new flavors of grapes? Tell us about the breeding process.
JP: The source of the great flavors is IFG, a breeding company that is a partnership of Sunridge Nursery and myself. The “mad scientist” is Dr. David Cain. David is arguably the most prolific table grape breeder in the world. He has identified very unique sources of genetic variation in the grape genome and skillfully combined those genetic traits using traditional/classic breeding techniques. The new variety goes through several stages of testing to determine the quality of the fruit, yield potential, necessary growing methods, post-harvest life and most importantly consumer testing. From the initial cross of two grape varieties it takes about 10 years on the average to bring any significant amount of product to the market.
AS: How important has branding been to your business?
JP: Branding in the fruit and vegetable category has been very difficult. Even though there are brands in the produce section, very few are recognized by consumers. Jim Beagle and his team on the marketing part of the business have done a great job with retailers and consumers to develop brands recognized by consumers. Even though we are a small supplier compared to other giants the uniqueness of our products has begun to register with consumers. Every brand must be backed up by a consistently great product in order for consumers to take notice. We strive to meet that challenge.
AS: Why are you proud to live and work in the Bakersfield community?
JP: I was raised in Delano and my wife, Carolyn, in Shafter. We both attended local schools, which did a great job preparing us to succeed at major universities. When we moved to Bakersfield in 1996 with our two young children, Jack Jr. and Cici, we were delighted at how friendly and welcoming everyone was to us. We met many new friends through school, church and other community activities. Our neighbors have been fantastic also. No place is perfect but we see a community that is very generous, friendly and accommodating. We note that local leadership isn’t partisan but works together to achieve the best results for all citizens. We see very positive developments such as a revitalized downtown, improved transportation and good choices of public and private schools.
AS: What would you tell someone moving to Bakersfield?
JP: Bakersfield is a great place to raise a family and to challenge yourself professionally. I work in the fresh food industry. There has never been a more exciting time. There are many new opportunities for great jobs at all levels. Some of those jobs are directly in the sector and others are to support the sector. Either way, our area is on the cutting edge of fresh food and the changing of the American diet.
AS: What do you think our city could do better to attract an educated workforce, particularly those in younger generations, like your son and daughter?
JP: Promote the positive attributes of our city and locale. Clearly, Bakersfield is affordable. We boast an improving school system with opportunities for both public and private education. The doors are open for young people with ideas and enthusiasm to get involved and create a better community. There are good jobs; for example at Grapery and IFG we employ three PhDs, several MBAs and multiple BA/BS degree holders. Agriculture isn’t your grandfather’s farm anymore. We require a highly educated management team.
AS: How does your business maintain its relevance and keep up with trends in flavor, healthy eating, etc.?
JP: Social media, and our efforts to stay in close touch with consumers, play the key roles. We use several platforms to reach out and to review comments from consumers. We answer each comment quickly and resolve every complaint. We categorize every comment and track trends so we know what consumers are thinking. I like to say “Listen to what the customer says ... but also listen to what the consumer doesn’t say.” When we listen closely we find out what is important, what isn’t and how we can meet and exceed expectations.
We also have a program we call Grapery VIPs. During the harvest season we send samples of existing products along with new varieties we are testing and ask our VIPs to tell us what they think. It’s a lot of fun for the VIP to be able to try something that isn’t on the market and to play an important role in helping us to decide when to go forward with the latest, greatest new grape product.
AS: Tell me about the international aspect of your business.
JP: Not that many years ago Grapery exported over 70 percent of our product, primarily to the Pacific Rim. Today that is much lower, less than 20 percent. Part of the change is due to the evolution of varieties. We grow varieties that have a greater domestic demand now.
AS: What inspires you about your work and career?
JP: It is very satisfying and exciting to provide products consumers love that are a healthy choice and that will improve the lives of their families. I am also thrilled to work with so many young people in our company and industry who are smart, talented, excited and energetic about what we are doing. It is also very important to us to provide good jobs and a workplace environment of respect. As owners, Jim and Robin Beagle together with Carolyn and I, (we) consider the workers at Grapery as family.
Grapery also provides the opportunity for us to give back to the community. Grapery Gives Back is a good example of the effort spearheaded by Carolyn and Robin to organize company activities that benefit the less fortunate in our community.
AS: Thanks so much, Jack. Your passionate approach to farming and community is inspiring. And part of my new year’s resolution is to eat more local produce. I’ll eagerly anticipate late summer when I can get my hands on a bag of Gum Drops — my personal favorite!
Anna Smith writes a weekly column about downtown Bakersfield. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. The opinions expressed are her own.