Salinas, Calif.-based Church Bros. LLC is planning a fairly aggressive expansion for its fresh-cut salad mix products, along with the planned addition of some specialty items.

The California lettuce company, the sales and marketing arm of True Leaf Farms, broke into the fresh-cut salad category in January 2009 with two new production lines, adding to its repertoire that included whole leaf, whole head, wash and trim and spring mix lettuces.

Church Bros. expands, adds processing lines

Ashley Bentley

Ernst Van Eeghen, director of marketing and product development for Church Bros., leads a tour through the company's True Leaf Farms processing facility in San Juan Bautista, Calif., July 30. True Leaf will soon be packing whole leaves, like this spinach, on an additional processing line.

True Leaf has plans for two new fresh-cut salad processing lines and a new whole leaf and wash and trim line. The wash and trim line should be running in the company’s San Juan Bautista processing facility by the end of August, and will make the transition to Yuma, Ariz., for the winter, said Ernst Van Eeghen, director of marketing and product development for both companies.

One of the fresh-cut lines should be up and running in California before the turn of the season, and the other is set to make its debut in Yuma by December.

The additional fresh-cut lines bring the company up to four lines total.

The whole leaf and wash and trim line should reduce mechanical damage and will have an improved wash cycle, Van Eeghen said. Through the reduction of damage, the company expects to see gains in efficiency and quality.

The company also added a new broccoli line in early July, and is packing three-pound packs of both regular florets and mini florets for foodservice. Broccoli is a new commodity for True Leaf.

“We’re still growing aggressively,” Van Eeghen said. “Everything is expanding. With the addition of fresh-cut and the two new lines, that category is probably growing faster than everything else.”

To get ready for the winter, the company is expanding its Yuma facility, adding more processing space and additional dock space and loading doors.

The company has also beefed up its management staff, hiring Randy Sypolt as plant manager July 26.

Sypolt worked with True Leaf’s general manager Vince Brigantino at Salinas-based Tanimura & Antle, where Brigantino was vice president until 2007. Sypolt was with Tanimura & Antle in a similar position to his current one for eight years, he said.

Julio Loaiza also recently joined the company as director of technical services, Van Eeghen said.

Along with Brigantino came the venture into new products for Church Bros., including the fresh-cut salads and vegetables and its recently launched proprietary Teen Green sandwich leaves.

“In the leaf category I think it’s one of the most innovative items lately,” Van Eeghen said. “It’s an item we invested a lot of time and effort in because it’s harvested and processed differently than other green leaves.”

The company has new test varieties of the leaves, which are shorter and rounder than traditional green leaf lettuces to fit on sandwiches and burgers, in the ground now, Van Eeghen said.

“We’re also looking at expanding our arugula program and growing the category with different varieties,” Van Eeghen said. “We just put the first test seeds in the ground.”

The company is looking at adding one or two specialty arugula varieties, in addition to the wild, regular and baby arugula it currently offers.

True Leaf moved into its San Juan Bautista processing facility three years ago to give itself room to grow, Van Eeghen said. He joined the company around the same time, in May 2007.