The Beach Issue

A Berry Rich History

Driscoll Strawberries

Pick up any clamshell container of Driscoll’s strawberries, and you’ll notice something: The berries are uniformly crimson red, consistently bulbous, shiny but not too shiny. In other words, these strawberries look as good as they taste, and that’s by design — literally. The brand’s green logo scrolled on a bright yellow background may be what first catches your eyes, but it’s what’s inside those clear containers — packed full of perfectly colored, similarly shaped and always slightly sweet, genetically ideal (but not GMO) strawberries — that makes you recognize and love Driscoll’s.

Randy Benko moved to Watsonville, California, where Driscoll’s is headquartered, in 1963. He began packing baskets of berries into trays for the local farmers who lined the street he lived on, making as much as 15 cents a stack at just 10 years old, he recalls. About the same time, he had the opportunity to visit Driscoll’s distribution center — a family friend had a connection — and he tasted Driscoll’s strawberries for the first time. “Having worked and grown up in Watsonville, I had never seen strawberries that looked like those,” the now director of foodservice customer development for Driscoll’s says. “They were not apple-sized, but they were huge. And the thing that I really remember too, at that very young age, was the flavor of the berries was different. I knew even then that the berries in Driscoll’s boxes were very different than everything else.”

But what you might not know is Driscoll’s history, a path to those perfect berries that starts well before the World Wars. Today, Driscoll’s is a fourth-generation family business, and its founders J.E. Reiter and R.F. Driscoll, brothers-in-law, started growing strawberries even before the turn of the 19th century in the Pajaro Valley of California, which encompasses Watsonville. In 1904, the duo planted the strawberry that would become known as the Banner strawberry, the family’s first foray into consistently beautiful berries. While other strawberries might be oblong or pale, Banner strawberries were rotund and vibrant. The pair exclusively sold Banner strawberries for more than 10 years, until other farmers figured out the formula, so to speak, and grew them too.

By the 1940s, Driscoll’s sons, Ned and Donald Driscoll, and their cousin, Joe Reiter, joined with Kenneth Sheehy, T.B. Porter and M.W. Johnson to found The Strawberry Institute, dedicated to researching and breeding superior varieties of strawberries. By 1950, the group formed Driscoll Strawberry Associates, Inc., or Driscoll’s, and in 1958 released the Z5A strawberry, its first proprietary cultivar — so ideal in its visage, flavor and transportability it boosted the brand to national recognition. (In Quest for the Perfect Strawberry: A Case Study of the California Strawberry Commission and the Strawberry Industry, author Herbert Baum attributes the Z5A to establishing Driscoll’s “as the premier California grower-shipper, a position they still retain.”)

“Z5A really put Driscoll’s on the map,” Benko says. And indeed, it did in a literal sense, too. The Z5A not only boasted a later and longer growing season — which allowed Driscoll’s strawberries to ship after other companies had long run out — but the Z5A also transported especially well. It was hardy, Benko describes, and it held up as it was shipped long distances. At the time, most of Driscoll’s demand came from east of the Mississippi River, he says. The Z5A traversed the country well, and stayed so fresh that it “outperformed from a competition perspective,” he says.

“And that’s really at the core of what makes Driscoll’s unique: genetics,” Benko explains.

That doesn’t just apply to its strawberries, either. Until the late 1980s, Driscoll’s concentrated its efforts on strawberries and a handful of raspberries. But as it watched competitors such as Dole and Del Monte dish out other varieties of fruit, Driscoll’s decided to expand. It started growing blackberries and blueberries, and committed more fully to raspberries. Driscoll’s, the company decided, would become a year-round supplier of all the finest berries — not just strawberries.

But with bushels of new berries came new problems. The company, like all fruit companies, had been packaging its fruit in pints. Driscoll’s pints were a lemon-hued yellow, made from plastic arranged in a grid-like pattern that allowed the fruit to breathe. But those pints also often cut and scarred the more delicate berries, such as the raspberries and blackberries that Driscoll’s had begun to breed. The little baskets “weren’t very kind to the food itself,” Benko says.

To solve the problem, Driscoll’s began packing its berries in clamshells, the hinged, clear plastic containers all supermarket berries are packaged in today. In fact, it the company led the clamshell charge.

Retailers and customers, however, were reluctant to embrace the new packaging. “I recall very vividly, there were certain customers who did not want to see that change,” Benko says. “But there are so many added benefits to having products ready to sell in the clamshell that within a couple of years, [they] totally changed the strawberry industry from a packaging perspective.”

Not only did the new packaging better protect the berries from physical harm and airborne contaminants, but it also gave the brand a boost in visibility. The hard plastic shell allowed Driscoll’s to affix its label at the very top of the package, where it couldn’t be missed by consumers shopping at stores such as Rouses Markets. “Instead of a basket sitting in the produce department with no identification,” Benko says, customers could now quickly identify where their fruit came from.

Now, “when consumers buy Driscoll’s, they can see the brand name prominently featured on the package,” says Timothy Calkins, a marketing professor at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University.

Driscoll’s shift to using clamshells may have impacted the company’s mission statement, which Benko says the company adopted sometime in the 1990s. “Our mission is to continually delight berry consumers through alignment with our customers [like Rouses Markets] and our growers,” says Benko. And it does that in a variety of ways, from its Joy Makers to limited edition berries.

Joy Makers? Yes, that’s what the company calls its team of scientists — or “artists,” as Driscoll’s dubs them — who are dedicated to creating and growing those genetically perfect berries that the brand is known for. They’re agronomists, breeders, sensory analysts, plant health scientists and entomologists using techniques such as hand cross-pollination to ensure tasty, colorful berries. (The Joy Makers use only natural methods to create and breed varieties of their patented berries.)

Each year, the Joy Makers study thousands of potential plants, choosing only what they believe to be the top one percent, to farm and sell under the Driscoll’s brand name. Each variety takes up to seven years to produce a seedling that’s ready for mass production. And after they’re grown, the Joy Makers flavor-test more than 500 varieties from test plots around the world to ensure quality.

Frances Dillard, Driscoll’s brand strategist and general manager, says that few other companies employ such large teams dedicated to freshness and flavor. The team was responsible for the brand’s recent “rosé” strawberries, which hit select markets last summer in an attempt to tap into millennials’ love for the wine of the same name and consumers’ growing interest in more exotic fruits. Instead of a traditional red hue and sweet taste, these “rosé” strawberries were pink, with hints of floral flavor. Dillard described them as “silky and creamy, almost like a creamsicle.”

The flavor certainly delighted consumers. Benko says, “if we do a good job — and by that I mean delighting consumers — we believe they will come back and purchase time and time again.”

Calkin agrees. “Driscoll’s is a premium player, committed to quality,” he says. “Driscoll’s has clearly established itself as a leading brand — perhaps the top brand — in berries. Consumers and retailers know the brand and will pay more for it. This is a good definition of a valuable brand.”

But while the Joy Makers are in charge of developing new and perfect berries, Driscoll’s quality is also controlled at another level: with its growers. Driscoll’s grows its berries in more than 20 countries — including the United States, Mexico, Peru, Australia and China — across what Benko estimates is more than 1,000 independent farms. The Driscoll’s proprietary and patented berries are given to farmers to grow on their land. “Back when I first started, we basically tried to service the world out of Watsonville, California,” Benko says. But that wasn’t a model the brand could sustain. As its international demand grew, Driscoll’s had to partner with farmers outside its immediate area to meet those needs, as well as be able to provide berries everywhere year-round.

The independent farmers, which Driscoll’s refers to as harvesters, have become valued members of the still family-owned company. (J. Miles Reiter, the grandson of J.E. Reiter, is the company’s current CEO.) About 85 percent of Driscoll’s revenue goes back to its farmers, with the brand writing on its website that it has “a responsibility as a trusted brand to ensure harvesters are treated with respect and working within the enterprise is a source of pride.”

Audelio Martinez, co-owner of Marz Farms in Oxnard, California, has been growing Driscoll’s berries since 1995, and says he feels like he is a part of the Driscoll’s family. “I believe you should treat all of your employees with respect, as if they are members of your own family,” he says. “I am proud to work for Driscoll’s. Their way of doing business is also my way.”

In 2016, Driscoll’s began selling Fair Trade Certified organic strawberries and raspberries from Baja California, Mexico. By 2019, all its berries from the region were fair trade — a mark of the company’s commitment to supporting and empowering its independent farmers. “We want to do the right things,” Benko says. “You really want to recognize hard work and reward the people at the grassroots of any business. And for us, that’s really at the picker level at our harvesters.”

Driscoll’s berries are hand-picked. When the novel coronavirus swept the globe and its pickers could no longer enter the fields, production temporarily slowed. But the company donated $2.5 million to initiatives in the U.S. and Canada, $1 million to Central Mexico and Baja, and another $500,000 to Europe and Morocco. (It also delivered $500,000 of fresh berries to first responders and hospitals in New York City.) And its independent farmers got back to work as soon as they reasonably could, Benko says. “You want to talk about the heroes in keeping the food supply and food chain open?” Benko asks. “Those [pickers] are the people on the front lines, continuing to harvest fruit and be an integral part in getting it to market, so that people don’t have to worry about getting food or how they’ll be able to get their hands on fresh fruits and fresh vegetables.”

As rich as its history is, Driscoll’s promises an equally flavorful future, one in which everyone from its pickers to its Joy Makers to its CEO will continue to work to delight its consumers.

“When you start thinking about all the hands that are connected to one box of berries, it’s pretty amazing,” says Benko, “because not only are you talking back to the picker, but you’re talking about all the other processes and people that come into play — all the way down to a company like Rouses Markets. All the people that are affected by that one box. Ultimately, we’re being judged by every clamshell we produce. Knowing that, we have to do a good job to make sure that, ultimately, we’re enriching the entire supply chain, from grower all the way to end user.”