Community Food Enterprise: Graber Olives

Way back in November, family friends Lynne and John Orr took me and my parents to some wineries in the Inland Empire, a region that exemplifies that sad, but common story of agricultural land and open space succumbing to sidewalks and superhighways.

After the wineries, we drove over to the Graber Olive House, a small third-generation family-owned olive production and processing facility. Graber is Ontario’s oldest business, in operation since 1894. Our tour guide was a cheerful, white-haired woman, who had been best friends with one of the Graber daughters since they were both blushing teens. She remembered when the family would leave buckets of olives out by the back door for locals to pick up when they were away.

The main orchard is located in the Sierra Foothills, but the olives are cured and canned in the factory in Ontario. Clifford Graber designed most of the equipment himself, including the olive-sorting machine that’s still in use today. There’s so much beauty in a thing well made, and the sturdiness and appropriateness of these machines made me want to know more about the man who created them.

The olives themselves are special, Manzanillo and Mission varieties, brought to California by Spanish missionaries in the 1700s. Unlike commercial olives which are picked green, and then cured to deep black, Graber olives are picked ripe, when they’ve turned from green to warm brick brown. Experienced pickers who have worked for the family season after season (and some for multiple generations) pick the olives by hand, no more than 15 at a time so as not to bruise the delicate skin.

The olives go back to the factory where they are cured, then sorted by size and canned by workers who, again, have been with the company for multiple years.

The finished product is a firm but yielding, rich and buttery flavorful thing that doesn’t really resemble most olives I’ve tasted. The olives are slightly mottled, not perfectly unblemished like your typical black olives, but more like a forest floor.

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I’ve been meaning to post some of the photos from the factory because it was just so cool, but it came back to mind after I attended an event all about Community Food Enterprises co-sponsored by the Wallace Foundation and Business Alliances for Local Living Economies (BALLE). The workshop centered around the results of a three-year project studying two dozen community food enterprises in the US and abroad. TheĀ  work was based on the premise that locally owned businesses are the bulwark of strong, resilient, regional economies and socially vibrant communities.

When business is rooted in community, it seems to be more accountable to its neighbors, socially, economically and environmentally.

Food business, in particular, are interesting because of the clear links between food and land and food and place. The study set up a definition for what it meant to be a “community food enterprise,” and came to some conclusions about common challenges and common strategies for success as a starting point for replicating good models.

As a successful locally-owned food business, it wasn’t surprising to me that Graber fit a number of the indicators for success identified in the study. As a small start-up, Graber’s success relied on hard work, innovation, local delivery (see above for that anecdote about delivery in pails), some vertical integration (with production, processing and marketing), better taste, and a better story. No doubt because it is small and locally owned, Graber appears to be loyal to its workers and pays them fair wages.

I’m sure it faced many of the challenges of a small local business as well, but somehow it managed to survive and thrive despite the rapid changes in the surrounding community.

In the midst of the asphalt and strip malls and housing developments of the IE, it’s no surprise that Graber stands out. Is it strange to yearn for a world where there are more Grabers and fewer car dealerships and box stores full of housewares?


1 sharon kennedy { 02.16.10 at 7:00 am }

I love those olives! Now I know why I love them! I would like to print this story in the Fullerton Observer when I have the space and with your permission.

2 Becky { 03.10.10 at 6:13 pm }

I love the slideshow picture widget you have in this post. Very nice, miss pro-blogger :)

This post makes me want to have olives… and I do not like olives. Good job haha

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