Western innovator: Family pushes fruit into the future
Third generation of Liberty Orchards experiments with new products, markets
By DAN WHEAT
CASHMERE, Wash. -- Greg Taylor is no stranger to innovation, and his uncles and grandparents who walked before him were not either.
Taylor is president of Liberty Orchards, maker of the iconic Aplets & Cotlets, fruit and nut confections savored by consumers for almost 100 years.
While the first generation launched the fruit candy from their Cashmere orchard, the second generation made it a Northwest favorite and the third generation -- Taylor -- expanded product lines and distribution to a national level. In the last two years, he's led the company into competing in the nutrition-energy bar arena with the Orchard Bar in seven fruit, nut and seed combinations.
Not content to stand still on tradition, he's appealing to the younger generation with the new bar, which is easily carried by those on the go.
"He's a strong leader, very good communicator and excellent listener," his wife, Kris, said, adding that he reads broadly, picks up on trends and things others may not, knows production, marketing and accounting and has vision. She is the senior vice president of investments in the Wenatchee office of Stifel Nicolaus.
It all started with Greg Taylor's grandfather, Armen Tertsagian, who emigrated to the United States from Turkey about 1905 after the Armenian genocide, which left everyone else in his family and more than 1 million others dead.
He met another young Armenian, Mark Balaban, in Seattle and after attempting a yogurt shop and restaurant there they bought an apple orchard in Cashmere, preferring the drier climate. They named it Liberty Orchards in gratitude for freedom.
Both are Taylor's ancestors, since Tertsagian married Balaban's sister.
Needing outlets for excess fruit, they started Northwest Evaporating and sold dehydrated apples, mainly to the U.S. government during World War I. They sold Applum jam, made from apples and plums, and canned peaches and pears under the Madam label through their Wenatchee Valley Foods.
The cannery was their main business in the 1930s and '40s but another of their innovations was catching on. They started Aplets in 1918, patterned after Rahat Locoum, a popular Near East candy they loved as children. Locoum remains a favorite in that region.
Aplets & Cotlets developed into mail-order sales. Sugar rationing during World War II restricted production, but after the war the business sold the cannery and devoted itself to the candy.
The second generation of John Chakirian and Dick Odabashian -- Taylor's uncles -- were involved after the war. Odabashian, a former airline pilot, flew around the Northwest in a small plane selling and promoting Aplets & Cotlets. It was also sold in Northwest department stores such as Frederick & Nelson.
The Century 21 Exhibition, also known as the Seattle World's Fair, was a huge boost for Aplets & Cotlets in 1962.
"We had a great location (for our booth) at the entrance and hundreds of thousands tried it for the first time," Taylor said. "It created a new level of demand and we were able to move into California more."
But sales were hampered by a two- to three-month shelf life. That was overcome with an adjustment to the recipe in the 1970s, and the product lasts nine months. Putting an image of the candy on box lids so people could see what it looked like also helped sales, he said.
But what really propelled national growth was broadening flavors beyond Aplets & Cotlets. It started with the introduction of Graplets in 1974 at the World Exposition in Spokane.
Armed with a master's degree in business administration from Harvard Business School and three years as vice president of marketing and sales at Roger's Chocolate Factory in Seattle, Taylor became president of Liberty Orchards in 1978.
"I was in the grocery store looking at the umpteen flavors of Jell-O when it came to me -- I wondered where Jell-O would be if they only offered their original two flavors," Taylor said. "That's when we got aggressive about new fruit and nut combinations."
Fruit Delights were introduced in 1984 and featured strawberry, raspberry, orange, blueberry, peach and pineapple. They became as popular as Aplets & Cotlets. Chocolate Delights, Hawaiian Delights and Cranberry-Aplets followed in the '80s and '90s. There's also Nutty Delights and Turkish Delight.
Taylor won't disclose production volume or gross income but said the company is the only national player in locoum. Sales are strongest on the West Coast. Liberty Orchards sells in Canada and Mexico but leaves Europe and the Near East alone, and locoum producers there stay out of the U.S., Taylor said.
Costco is one of Liberty Orchard's national outlets. Sales are year-round but strongest at Christmas followed by Valentine's Day, Easter and Mother's Day. Orchard Bar has potential to be a more even year-round product, Taylor said.
It is all natural, gluten free, vegan and high in antioxidants.
"It took a couple years to develop. It's growing rapidly and we're really proud of it," Taylor said. "It's an excellent product, tastes better than the competition but has a similar nutrition profile. We have a long way to go against the competition. We're struggling to get distribution."
Each generation of company ownership has been innovative and there are "smart," young members of the fourth generation, he said, that may be involved one day.
Born: Pasco, Wash.
Raised: Mercer Island, Wash.
Family: Wife, Kris; children, Lisa, 27, Matt, 21.
Education: Graduate of Mercer Island High School, Seattle, 1967; bachelor's degree in political philosophy, Claremont McKenna College, 1971; MBA, Harvard Business School, 1975.
Occupation: President of Liberty Orchards since 1978.
A collection of 2011's Western innovators is available on Amazon's Kindle. Take a look at "Western Innovators: Profiles of 42 agricultural leaders who shaped the West in 2011" at amzn.to/WesternInnovators