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HR Juice squeezes a turn-around

By RAELYNN RICARTE

News staff writer

May 17, 2006

Hood River Juice Company is a “rags to riches” story that is about to write a new economic chapter.

This week, owner David Ryan will have a product on the shelves of Fred Meyer and other major chain stores. He expects to create immediate competition for Tree Top, a household name in the apple juice industry.

Ryan said it is “divine” that his bulk sales have quadrupled in the past 10 months. Instead of losing the facility on 31.84 acres at 1590 Country Club Road, he is now gearing up for a sizeable expansion.

“We’ve turned it around from bankruptcy to a growing concern,” said Ryan. “Soon, we will be making a presentation to every retailer out there.”

He is almost in disbelief about the drastic change in the company’s financial situation. The memory of last June and the looming foreclosure still haunts Ryan’s memory.

He remembers feeling heartsick that 25 years of work to refine a raw product into flash pasteurized unfiltered apple juice would be gone. Ryan was frustrated that he could manufacture a tasty and all-natural drink — but just couldn’t generate enough capital to pay the bills.

He felt a responsibility to protect the jobs of the 67 people on his payroll. He felt a responsibility as well to the livelihood of the orchardists — including many local growers — who supplied his apples.

“From the beginning our philosophy was, ‘If we don’t eat it, we don’t squeeze it.’ Our juice is a blend of apples with no preservatives or evaporation process to make a syrup concentrate,” said Ryan.

Since 1994, he had been selling a raw variety of the juice to Costco, Fred Meyer and other retailers. He had also supplied product for Martinelli, Coca Cola and other large companies to use in their beverages. Ryan kept realizing just enough success to keep on trying, but not enough to capture the lucrative markets.

“When we started doing this it was the only way that we knew to get out of debt. We could always see the profitability of a value-added product,” he said.

By last summer, Ryan was often spending the night at the office poring over marketing plans and looking for new ways to stretch a dollar. He was appreciative of the encouragement and support provided by his wife, Carol Joy, during that bleak time. Ryan was also determined to leave a family legacy to his son, James David, now 8.

Looking back on those dark hours, Ryan, 43, believes that he received “nothing short of a miracle.” In desperation, he dialed Monarch Capital, LLC, and that telephone call saved the business. What began as Ryan’s last bid to save a dying business turned his long-awaited dream into reality.

“Within six hours they had given me the funding to avoid foreclosure,” he said.

Ryan was referred to the Columbia Gorge Community College for confidential business counseling. Guy Moser, manager of CGCC’s Small Business Development program, helped him compile a financial package that would attract interest from bankers.

“I’ve certainly enjoyed working with an entrepreneur like David,” said Moser. “He’s done a good job of grabbing the reins and leading the company in the direction he wanted it to go.”

For a $507 one-year tuition fee, Ryan was able to not only get personal attention from Moser, but to sign both himself and his employees up for accounting, computer, marketing and other classes.

“This has been one of the best investments that we’ve ever made,” he said. “This program brings businesses to the next level — something that would ordinarily be a very large cost.”

While the financial ball got rolling, Ryan enlisted the graphic art talents of Debbie Francis, a relative who was recovering from cancer. She designed a nostalgic label for the gallon containers that is both bold and colorful. She also lent her composition skills to the label design for packing boxes.

“We’ve gotten nothing but compliments on the new look,” said Ryan.

He is hopeful that, with a 40,000 square foot expansion of the plant, about 200,000 gallons of juice will be produced each week. Already 25-30 tankers load up at Hood River Juice every week for deliveries across the Pacific Northwest.

Ryan anticipates that another 30 people could soon join his workforce — and receive good pay and benefits. He is pleased that his company will pour millions each year back into the American economy.

“I think he has shown me and many other people that success is never giving up,” said Brian Petros, operations manager. “I’ve learned that value-added products can work if you just keep at it long enough.”

In the future Ryan hopes to turn the pulp leftover from pressing apples into a secondary product. He plans to dehydrate the apple remains now used for cattle feed and add them to another food source, such as for a nutrition bar.

“Our turnaround has been like manna from heaven,” Ryan said.

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