The Savory, Spicy, Salty and Sweet Almonds of Sohnrey Family Foods
It’s harvest time at Sohnrey Farms, and the almond laden trees beckon the tree shaker. Th e annual ritual of harvest has been a norm for the past 100 years for the Sohnreys here in Butte County. Great grandpa Howard Sohnrey came west in 1919, at age twenty, after growing up on the farm his father established in Kansas in 1875. He purchased a parcel south of Chico, on the east side of highway 99, which the family still owns and farms today. Andrew Sohnrey, a fi fth-generation farmer, explained that the family has grown a variety of diff erent crops and has raised diff erent livestock over the years, but the mainstay of Sohnrey Farm has been rice and, especially, almonds.
California farmers produced $5.2 billion worth of almonds in 2016, making them the second most valued agricultural crop in the state. (Grapes are #1.) California grows nearly all the nation’s almonds and nearly all almonds sold in the global marketplace come from California ($4.5 billion in 2016). Th e Sohnreys have been harvesting their almonds and contributing to this enormous marketplace for decades. And yet, to keep the farm viable now that six generations of Sohnreys are involved, the family decided to try something a little diff erent, a value-added foray into fl avored almond production and retail sales.
OUT WITH THE MIDDLE MAN
Now in its second year, the retail venture and family product line were decided upon as a way to increase the income of the farm. Currently, Greg Sohnrey and his three adult sons, Derek, Alex, and Andrew all support their families as farmers. In addition, Greg’s brother Mike owns his own section of Sohnrey farmland, supporting his family by growing primarily walnuts and prunes. Th e family quickly ruled out buying and farming more land. Andrew explained that it’s very difficult to turn a profit on newly purchased farmland. “An acre of almond or walnut trees sells on the current market for about $30,000. It’s not an investment that pencils out for smaller farms.”
From many brainstormed ideas, the family decided to put their own name on the products they work so hard to grow. Up to this point, all the almonds were sold to Blue Diamond, where farmers are anonymous. It was also a way the family could all come together in a joint effort. “It felt crazy, but we decided, let’s try it!” Andrew said.
Farmers are a pretty entrepreneurial group, but they typically don’t run their own storefronts or package their own brands. The Sohnreys bring unbridled enthusiasm into this new world of retail and marketing. Their gift shop is located across the road from the original Sohnrey family parcel, a few miles south of Chico on highway 99. The gift shop offers many products from other northern California farms and producers, including a variety of delicious barbecue sauces, honey, sundried tomatoes, wines, lavender oils and lotions, and a number of other gourmet gift items and gift boxes. Yet there is no doubt that Sohnrey-branded almonds are the star of the retail floorspace.
Traditional raw and roasted and salted almonds and almond butter sit on many displays, and it doesn’t take too close a look to discover Sohnrey’s flavored offerings.
IN WITH THE FLAVOROLOGIST
As part of the plan to package and sell their almonds under their own family brand, the Sohnreys decided to create a line of unique specialty flavors. To begin with, they hired a company to flavor the almonds and package them under the Sohnrey label. However, the flavored almonds failed to meet their standards. This realization came once the retail building was half done, so they pivoted: they would make their own fresh flavored almonds in small batches in their own production facility. Keeping it all in the family, they hired their cousin Cyrus Fountain as the flavorologist. Cyrus would lead with recipe development. Though he has no formal training, Cyrus, a self-proclaimed “hobby chef,” said, “I’ve always liked to cook all different types of food, and I hadn’t been involved in the farm before so it was a great opportunity.” He had enough basic knowledge to begin formulating recipes and experimenting with a variety of seasonings and flavors.
And, he admits, he ate a lot of almonds.
The science behind the flavor development is completely homespun. Cyrus worked under a tight timeline, through trial and error, using their large family and many friends as his test market. Each of the flavors went through many iterations and required tweaking and adjusting. “To be honest, I was pretty terrified,” he confessed. “It was a leap of faith, but we did it.” Sometimes they would produce as many as twenty-five batches of a particular flavor before feeling it was ready for that next intimidating but critical step, taste tests by family and friends. The initial prototypes were cheese and jalapeno cheese, which eventually became smokey jalapeno. From there, Cyrus worked on a range of other flavors, mostly based on foods he likes. For example, a sushi fan, he developed wasabi soy flavored almonds. He also found inspiration in some favorite snack foods, like a maple bacon potato chip. Today, the maple bacon almond is one of Sohnrey’s best sellers, along with the original smokey jalapeno, both of which are also popular on Amazon Prime.
Along with the success stories from the almond test kitchen, there have been some failures. Cyrus said he keeps an eye on food trends and competitors’ flavors. He thought that a beer cheese flavor might be interesting and tasty, and so found a purveyor selling a malty stout beer powder. He created a mix with the beer powder and cheese powder thinking he was on to something great. It turned out, not so much. He also developed a curry flavored almond, but it just didn’t catch on in sales, so they cut that from their line of offerings. Beyond raw and roasted and salted almonds, there are seven winning combinations that Cyrus dreamed up: chipotle lime, mesquite smoked, balsamic herb, roasted garlic, wasabi soy, smokey jalapeno, and maple bacon. Cyrus said people often ask which is his favorite flavor. He often feels compelled to say he loves them all, since they are all his creation. Truth is, “the jalapeno is my first choice,” due to his love of spicy foods.
If something sweet is your first choice, the Sohnreys sell some delicious candied flavors like cinnamon toffee, butter toffee, lemon crème, and chocolate covered almonds. They even have a seasonal candy cane flavor for Christmas. The candied almonds are sent out for production, explained Andrew, because “the process is more complicated, and it’s much more economical to purchase these from the big companies that make huge batches daily.”
Luckily, all three of Greg’s sons have degrees in Agricultural Business from Butte College and Chico State. These degrees have served them well as they figured things out. “It’s been a giant learning process for us, a bunch of hillbillies thrown into this new business venture,” joked Andrew. Derek got the ball rolling, and the plan took off from there. Everyone in the family fills a role in the business whether it’s working in the fields and orchards or doing marketing, sales, and promotion in the office. In addition to the retail storefront, products are sold in various stores in about twentyfive towns in northern California from Sacramento to Redding. The Sohnreys have embraced online sales and marketing, selling through their own ecommerce website, Sohnreyfamilyfoods.com, and on Amazon.
Sohnrey Family Foods also produces uniquely flavored almond butters in addition to their natural almond butter. Maple, chocolate, and snickerdoodle almond butters are available. Cyrus and Andrew laughed telling the story of one batch of snickerdoodle almond butter that accidentally got double the amount of cinnamon. “We decided to sell it under the name ‘Oops-adoodle’ and people loved it!” Cyrus said. Though it was a one-time thing, they have had requests for more and may consider a limited release batch in the future. They also recently partnered with Shubert’s ice cream in Chico, who is making a specialty flavor called Almondoodle using Sohnrey’s snickerdoodle almond butter. (Being professionals, we decided it was critical to carry out research on this product. We personally sampled this creation, and it is a winner!)
Looking ahead, there is talk of product line expansion to include flavored walnuts and cashews. Cyrus is still in the test kitchen conjuring new combinations. In addition, there are plans to experiment with some flavored rice kits that people can prepare easily as side dishes. Andrew said the biggest challenge the Sohnreys face is getting people to turn off Highway 99 and down Skillin Lane to #41. Sohnrey Family Food’s retail store and production facility is the only building in sight down a short lane bisecting a rice field. Make that turn, and you’ll see why Andrew says, “We’ve done it all ourselves, learned a lot, and so far it’s worked out.” With a visit to the shop, you can sample the almonds and buy a bag of your favorite, pick up a gift or two, and maybe even meet the flavorologist!
NUTRITIONAL FACTS ABOUT ALMONDS
How do almonds stack up nutritionally? Almonds are considered a superfood and have many redeeming health benefits. According to dietitian, Betsy Daniels, “Almonds are low in carbohydrates, high in heart-healthy, unsaturated fats, protein and fiber. They are also high in magnesium, a mineral most people don’t get enough of, which helps control blood pressure and blood sugar levels.” There are about 23 almonds in one serving, which is equivalent to about ¼ cup and 162 calories. “Almonds are a nutrition powerhouse!” said Daniels.
HOW ALMONDS ARE GROWN
In a nutshell, the growing process of almonds has four stages.
In the winter, buds develop and farmers hope they are hardy enough to withstand weather and frost. In early spring, blossoms burst open ready for essential pollination.
From March to June, each blossoms transforms into an almond inside a hull. In July and August, the hull will naturally split, at which point the almond shell begins to dry.
Harvest begins in August. Since varieties of almonds mature at different times, the harvest can go all the way through October. Mechanical shakers vigorously release the almonds from the row trees. The almonds are left on the ground for more than a week to completely dry and then are collected for processing
Bonnie and Ken Chapman are partners in many of life’s great endeavors including marriage, raising two children, global travel adventures and writing for Edible Shasta-Butte. Both are avid trail runners and you can find them enjoying Upper Bidwell Park or wherever the trails take them.