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Tulare County Boutique Firms Skip Large Chains, Create Qwn Business Models

Valerie Gibbons
 Dairyman Ron Locke had a choice.

As the owner of Top O’ the Morn Farms, Locke could try to compete for space on grocery store shelves — and with some of the most powerful distributors in the state — or he could blaze his own trail.

He chose the latter — delivering his milk directly to customersthroughout the county and building drive-through kiosks in Visalia and Tulare.

Locke is part of a growing number of local producers who are forging new ground when it comes to distributing their products to customers. Increasingly frozen out of the grocery store shelves by the large chains — and even larger industry distributors — small producers are looking at boutique outlets or shipping directly to consumers.

To Locke it’s just good business.

“The dairy business is pretty tough,” he said. “We wanted to stay in control of our distribution and control our profits.”

The business model is so old it’s new again. Top O’ the Morn delivers glass bottles of milk directly to customers’ homes, along with an array of locally produced products such as jams, jellies, cheese, olive oil, vinegars and nuts.

“We’re a big believer in buying local,” he said.


One of those local producers is Visalia’s Richard Allender, whose eggs, sold under the Sam Cooksey brand, are part of Locke’s e-commerce site and delivery service.

“You just can’t get into the chains,” Allender said. “There are twocompanies that distribute to most of California.”

But Allender’s eggs, produced at chicken ranches in the Delano area, are sold in smaller markets, including R&N and Best Buy in Visalia. Food 4 Less in Visalia also carries his eggs from time to time.

Dinuba’s Bari Olive Oil is showing its independent streak as well, with its own tasting room, gift shop and e-commerce site. The company, first founded in 1936, has enjoyed a resurgence in popularity after it was revived four years ago by Kyle Sawatzky and his brother Ryan.


Despite winning awards at olive olive competitions around the state, Sawatzky found that getting on to the grocery store shelves with the large chains was an uphill climb.

Some stores ask producers to provide the first case of their product for free, with a promise to pay for later shipments, other stores ask for deep discounts on the products.

“We’ve found ways to protect ourselves over the years,” Sawatzky said.

And most large chains work with distribution companies that can guarantee quantity and on-time delivery.

While the firms provide a valuable service for small producers who can’t do it all, they also take a percentage of the profits.


“You’re working just as hard, you’re just making 25-percent less,” he said.

So today, making phone calls to prospective distribution sites is now part of Sawatzky’s daily routine — and the effort is paying off. The oils can be found at more than 300 boutique retailers around the country.

It’s a strategy that appears to be working for Daren Hess and his Kingsburg-based honey business. 

Hess is one of dozens of local producers who started selling their wares at farmers markets around the Valley. And while they are a lot of work, they give local business owners the chance to give customers samples and sell their products face-to-face.

Hess produces pomegranate, orange blossom and wildflower honey from South Valley hives.

“Once its in there, it’s almost guaranteed that it’s going to sell,” he said. I have a lot of people who come in just for the honey. Smaller stores seem to operate on the same level as I do.”

Between the farmers markets and distributing to local boutique gourmet stores, Hess sells about 1,500 jars per year.


“I don’t spend any money on advertising,” he said. “It’s all word of mouth.”