Face to face with Larry Blagg

08 December, 2006
Senior vice-president of marketing, California Raisin Administrative Committee
Page 14 
Q How have you enjoyed the first year in your new job?
A There's an awful lot to do! It has been great fun and the last year has been incredible.We are spending money in areas that we feel will return benefit to our growers and our industry. We have been out of proportion with our spending, putting a lot more money into bakery.Bakery and confectionery, snacking and dairy are four areas to which I want to devote more attention. We previously had a campaign here in America, called 'Look Who's Cooking', that was focused almost 100% behind foodservice.But the foodservice industry only represents about 15% of the total value of raisin sales; bakery is about 34% of the business, so we are now focusing on that much more.That's for the USA. In other parts of the world, it really depends on the infrastructure.Q What does your day-to-day job involve?A I am mostly a paperwork guy or I am busy attending trade shows and visiting overseas markets. I have spent some time with the growers in the harvest season and have gone out and picked grapes.You really need to get involved so that you can understand the process completely. It makes you appreciate how hard a task it is.Q What are the trends in raisins at the moment?A We are getting requests for flavoured raisins and, over time, that's something that will become more popular. But, as of right now, it's still a small portion of the business.They have mostly been infusing some natural flavour from some of the higher-cost fruit, so that they can help cut the overall cost of the finished bakery product.We are now getting requests for savoury and have heard that cinnamon would be a popular flavour, so I am hoping that we can get one of our producers to put that together. It would be useful for cinnamon raisin rolls.Q What are the issues facing raisin growers in America?A Because our harvest is essentially driven by temporary labour, it is quite difficult to ensure that we have a constant labour supply.There's an element in the US that wants to shut the borders to immigrant labour, and that's not going to help the progress of California or any other state.We are really hoping that the government will come up with a guest worker programme, as in many other countries, but the signs are not good.Our US congress has just voted to build a 700-mile wall between Mexico and the US. They have funded enough to start it, but I don't know if they have enough money to finish it.We have enough things to spend money on, I don't know if that one is my idea of a great thing.Q Tell me about your own background.A I was born in St Louis in the middle of the USA and grew up in Ohio, which is in the mid-West. I've only come to California since my involvement in the raisin industry.I spent 23 years living in Tokyo, Japan. I actually went over there to start a frozen food company for Heinz. We were a chip manufacturer and introduced the Japanese to the wonderful world of fast food. I then set up my own company and was the only non-Japanese person working there. But the good news is that I was one of the two owners, so they could not kick me out. I have always struggled with Japanese. I can speak a little bit, but that's all.My 16-year-old is struggling with the language right now; she is half-Japanese and she has grown up with the language, but you have to learn 1,600 Japanese and 1,800 Chinese characters to get your high school diploma.It is an interesting country, housing 126 million people in a small space.Q California must be a real contrast to JapanA I love the space of California. I like being able to get out and drive around freely; the average speed on the expressway around Tokyo from 8am to 8pm is around 12 miles an hour.I made up my mind several years ago that, if I was going to retire, I would like to retire here. The climate is good; we very rarely have snow and I grew up in very heavy snow country, so I have no intention of going back.I am 61 at the moment. Retirement age was 65 in America but is now moving towards 70. I don't know when I will retire. I like what I'm doing and, as long as I am contributing, I will continue to do so.Q What is the freight system like in the US?A The train and track system in the US is very under-developed. We are not big on public transportation in this country, it's just too much of that independent spirit, I guess.We have a very well developed road system. Part of the excuse I give for gaining weight since I got back is that I never walk any more! I never have reason to.All the raisins produced in the US are within 60 miles of Fresno, and are moved by truck. We ship overseas in rail cars and containerised freight.One of the joys of living in California is that there's an amazing array of fresh produce. Twenty-five per cent of the US' fruit and vegetable crops are grown in the San Joaquin Valley.Q Where do you see California Raisins expanding in the next few years?A We just opened an office in South Korea. We had an office 10 years ago, but it was closed. The market is getting stronger, so we think it makes sense to put more effort there.China is also a source of new business for us; it is very underdeveloped at the moment. In terms of developing into any other new countries, we don't see that happening in the next three years.The first estimate for this year's harvest was 259,000 tonnes, but that estimate is done before the crop is fully off the vine. A final estimate will be given in January. In 2005, the crop was fairly decent, at 310,000 tonnes.We want to find ways of using raisins in value-added products. We are interested in selling to the fast food market.One of our processors, Sun-Maid, is selling food to Subway and your Jamie Oliver has also helped us; we are making a serious effort for sensible foods for school lunch programmes.We were pleased to see that one of the bakers in the UK is taking a quarter cup of raisins for each muffin, making it a portion of fruit. We are trying to do the same thing here now.



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