Califia Farm’s plant power

In 1980, Greg Steltenpohl bought a box of oranges and borrowed a couple of hundreds bucks to buy a hand squeezing machine so he could sell fresh orange juice out of a van around San Francisco.

“That was my first taste of business entrepreneurialism in the beverage industry,” Greg describes. 

The small start-up would one day form the basis of Odwalla, a multimillion-dollar US supplier of fresh juice and nourishing healthy beverages, which Greg founded. The brand, later purchased by Coca-Cola, remains one of the fastest growing beverage ranges in the company’s suite of products.

“Odwalla was a huge education in the business world of beverages,” Greg says. “I built it from scratch into a medium-size business. We were a publicly-owned company for a while and it became one of the first natural food companies that broke out into American mainstream culture. I’m extremely proud of that.”

Greg, who holds an environmental science degree, is a pioneer of plant-based beverages in the US, which he describes as simply “alternatives” to dairy, and are free from undesirable ingredients such as genetically modified organisms, gluten, and fats.

His passion for growing the plant-based food industry stems from a belief that businesses can do something better for the planet, and in turn, for human health. 

Califia Farms Founder Greg Steltenpohl.

“The food business has the largest single planetary impact on the environment,” he says. “I felt that rather than fight the world of business, I could make a business that operated a bit better and made food a bit better by growing it in a smarter way, with a smaller footprint. If we did that, we could leave the world in a better place.” 

This philosophy led Greg to start natural beverage company Califia Farms in 2010. Pronounced like ‘California’ but without the ‘orn’, Califia Farms is dedicated to producing a range of plant-based products using whole ingredients, such as coffee, almond milk, coconut milk, and cashew milk, and plant-based creams.

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At the time of its inception, Greg says he started to notice the slow decline of the fruit juice industry with lots of consumer conversations driven around a need to lower sugar intake. 

“Fruit juice is still a healthier option than a soft drink, but there was a definite consumer shift in what was perceived as ‘healthy.’ I saw the energy that was put into feeding the industry with cheap calories, and it had run its course,” he says. “Now we’re seeing emerging economies in Africa and Brazil for example, literally go from starving to obese because they have access to the wrong type of foods. America in itself has a 60 per cent obesity problem. We need to reframe the food equation as part of our healthcare or self-care, and that starts with the consumption of quality foods made from whole food ingredients rather than chemically modified ones.”

While it’s a movement that won’t change over night, Greg says it’s independent-minded companies like Califia Farms, and not those owned by “stock market conglomerates” who are placed to change the landscape.

Califia Farm’s Almond unsweetened and unsweetened vanilla products, and cold brew with almond.

“My plan is to use botanical ingredients to create delicious products that people enjoy, but keeps the calorie count low,” he says. “Our strength is creating great tasting and attractive dairy substitutes that doesn’t make them feel like substitutes.”

Greg says while Califia Farms is not the first to invent almond milk by any means, what makes his product different to others is its influence of dairy products. 

“We wanted to make people who drink milk feel comfortable about drinking a plant-based alternative,” he says. “Early on I said, ‘we don’t have much money, I can’t advertise on TV, my hands are tied.’ So we put our product in a modernised paper carton, like one you would find in dairy milks on a supermarket shelf.” 

The dairy lookalike approach has resulted in Califia Farms’ “exponential growth”. The company has become the number one plant milk and refrigerated ready-to-drink coffee brand in the United States natural channel. 

“I worked 20 years at Odwalla to get half of where we are today in just five or six years,” Greg says. “I’m very grateful for the timing of Califia Farms, and more than that, the readiness of the consumer to embrace plant-based products. We’re modern people, we like lots of variety, but we’re not educating our consumers, they’re educating the market. We just listen.”

He adds that the concept of a plant-centric or plant-based diet has captured people’s imagination in an “acceptable and positive way”. 

“For the first time, people are thinking about dietary change without the concept of ‘diet’ in a restrictive way, and more like a philosophy without any tension,” he says. “Customers who aren’t 100-per-cent plant based usually start their integration slowly, first by cutting down their dairy intake one day a week, then two times and three, and before you know it, they’re hooked.”

More than just delivering tasty and nourishing products using nuts, seeds, fruits, and roots, Greg says Califia Farms is helping solve some of the problems consumers have been wanting food companies to solve for years, such as the curdling of almond milk. 

The solution is Califia Farms’ Barista Blend Almond Milk, a specially formulated version that’s designed to stretch better, create full-bodied foam, better latte art, and holds just 70 calories per serving – finer details Greg says the Australian barista community appreciates. 

“We learned right away that Australia was ahead of the US in terms of its coffee sophistication,” he says. “The country’s coffee quality has been an inspiration to us and provided immediate traction for us given that we have developed a great tasting almond milk especially for baristas, and given its reception in Australia, I think Califia’s range of products can really make an impact on Australia’s dietary choices.”

Califia Farm’s Almond Milk and Cold Brew products are available in Coles and Woolworths, and the Barista Blend is available through its distributor, Roasting Warehouse.

All of Califia Farm’s products are big on having fewer calories. Its Cold Brew Coffees are much lower in sugar than traditional iced coffees, especially in Australia. All of its beans, sourced via Direct Trade, are custom-roasted in a light, Scandinavian style. They are then brewed in cold water to create a coffee that’s low in acid and naturally smooth. This coffee is mixed with Califia Farm’s signature almond milk for a great natural taste without high volumes of sugar.

Over the past two years, Califia Farms has reduced its sugar content by 40 per cent across all of its product lines, and in March 2018, cut the sugar content of four of its coffee products by 25 per cent.

To show its vertical integration into the coffee supply chain, Califia Farms in partnership with Coffee Manufactory, will open a new Roastery and Coffee Lab in downtown Los Angeles in July. It will feature all phases of the coffee production process, including research and development, roasting and packaging, cupping and service. All of Califia Farm’s coffee will be roasted out of this site, and sourced via Direct Trade to increase supply-chain visibility and transparency.

Whether consumers enjoy Califia Farm’s plant-based range or coffee-dedicated products, Greg says the most important goal is to link human and environmental health. 

“By choosing a plant-centric diet rather than an animal-based diet, a single person can lighten their carbon footprint and save a tonne of carbon emissions each year,” he says. “We are passionate about making the planet a better place and putting clean food in our bodies.” 

For more information, visit www.califiafarms.com

This article appears in the April edition of Beanscene magazine