Jim Merryman, president and COO of Oregon Freeze Dry in Albany.
// Photo by Adam Bacher
Strawberries and low-cost energy, two abundant Oregon resources, prompted Oregon Freeze Dry to set up shop in Albany in 1963. The food processor was founded as a supplier of strawberries for Post Toasties Corn Flakes, says president and COO Jim Merryman. When the cereal brand failed, Oregon Freeze Dry realized “Vietnam was going on heavy,” Merryman says.
So the company went into the military-ration business, landing its first contract in 1967 with the federal government for 4 million pouches of food. Postwar, returning troops were still hungry for the product, a demand that led to the birth of Mountain House, the company’s pioneering backpacking brand. “We created the whole market segment,” Merryman says. “At one point, we were 100% of the market; 40 years later, we’re 75% of it.”
Staying true to a core product while exploiting new market niches has been a hallmark of Oregon Freeze Dry, a food processor with five business units: the government and backpacking divisions, private-label products for companies such as NutriSystem, industrial ingredients for other food processors, and freeze-dried pharmaceuticals. “We have worked hard to make sure we have many legs to our stool,” Merryman says.
But that diversification has come at a cost: The company occasionally has “shorted” its own brands in favor of supplying other companies. A 38-year company veteran who became president in 2011, Merryman plans to devote more resources to house-branded food products. The company also is expanding its pharmaceutical division, a new direction manifest in a 12,000-square-foot pharmaceutical research building in Albany that will break ground later this year.
“My strategy is for OFD to be a branded freeze-dry food company and a branded freeze-dry pharma services company,” Merryman says. “Then, with any ‘leftover’ capacity, we will supply other customers.”
The self-described largest diversified food freeze-dryer in the world, Oregon Freeze Dry grosses more than $100 million annually and employs 350 full-time and 200 part-time employees in its Albany administration, research and production facilities. A European joint venture employs another 75 in Denmark and England.