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Trailblazer Food Products celebrates its 30th anniversary

by: OUTLOOK PHOTO: JIM CLARK - Gresham-based Trailblazer Food Products was founded by former Centennial High School teacher Gary Walls, after Elmers restaurant owner Jack Elmer took a fancy to Walls Marionberry flavored table syrup.

The next time you pick up a bag of sweetened coconut for cooking or baking, you’ll be supporting a local business.

Coconut? In Oregon?

“We are among the top three manufacturers of bagged, sweetened coconut in the U.S.,” said Rob Miller, CEO and president for Trailblazer Food Products. “I think that’s really interesting. Who would ever think this little company in Gresham is one of the country’s largest suppliers of coconut?”

Somewhat hidden from sight, off Northeast 181st Avenue and San Rafael Street, sits a rather low-profile building housing one of largest manufacturers of private-label and branded grocery products in the United States. Your favorite strawberry spread or table syrup was most likely packaged at Trailblazer Foods, and distributed to major retailers like Safeway, Fred Meyer, Wal-Mart and Costco. by: OUTLOOK PHOTO: JIM CLARK - The company packages more than 15 ton of sweetened coconut daily, making Trailblazer Foods one of the top three suppliers of bagged coconut in the country.

And if you’re a fan of flavored syrup on your pancakes at Elmer’s Breakfast-Lunch-Dinner, thank Trailblazer Foods’ founder, Gary Walls.

Walls spent his childhood in the berry fields of the Willamette Valley. He went on to work at fruit processing plants and canneries, and eventually became an overseer for local berry farmers.

In 1977, Walls was hired as an English and physical education teacher at Centennial High School. He also taught a class for adaptive PE and established the Gary Walls Memorial Meet of Champions — Special Olympics. A “gentleman farmer” at heart, Walls planted his own small blueberry farm in rural Gresham, dubbing it Walls Berry Farm.

According to company legend, Walls networked with local businesses to help his students find employment. One such relationship was with Jack Elmer, who agreed to let Walls bring students into his Gresham restaurant after hours to clean.

Walls’ hobby was experimenting with flavored syrups. While his students cleaned Elmer’s restaurant one evening, Walls barricaded himself in the kitchen and produced three bottles of Marionberry syrup. The next day, he contacted Jack Elmer and offered him a bottle for his restaurants.

“Elmer told him the syrup was good,” Miller said, “but it wasn’t sweet enough. So the next day, Gary brought him another bottle from the same batch and Elmer told him it was too sweet. The third day, Gary gave Elmer the third bottle from the batch and Elmer said it was perfect.”

And from that, Trailblazer Foods was born.

The company began manufacturing preserves and jellies under the Walls Berry Farm name in 1984. By 1991, production had grown to a point where its work force had more than doubled. by: OUTLOOK PHOTO: JIM CLARK - Trailblazer Foods turns out 50,000 jars of finished spreads each day, which are packaged and distributed under private label names to local retailers like Fred Meyer, Safeway, Walmart and Costco.

The company expanded in 1999 to its current location on Northeast San Rafael Street, now operating a 40,000-square-foot manufacturing facility, with two storage warehouses off-site.

Walls retired in 2000. Miller Family Holdings purchased a majority interest in the company, claiming the remaining interests in ownership two years later.

Today, Trailblazer Foods employs 80 people, who keep the plant operating 24/7 during the height of berry season. They turn out 50,000 jars of finished spreads each day, along with other products like pie filling, sauces and marinades, syrups and preserves and jellies.

by: OUTLOOK PHOTO: JIM CLARK - Rob Miller, president and CEO for Trailblazer Foods, said the company purchases local raw products when feasible, citing Sandy Farms in Boring as a major supplier for the local berries used in the companys signature fruit spreads. Management has always placed a high priority on food safety and sanitation, Miller said, which earned Trailblazer Foods certifications for organic foods in 2005 and kosher foods in 2008. The company goes to great lengths to store raw ingredients (i.e. organic sugars and known allergens like those in the nut family) in areas where they won’t become contaminated or cross-contaminate each other. Finished products are also routinely tested for microbiological contaminants at two in-house labs.

“One of the biggest things I’m most proud of is we’re always trying to get better,” Miller said. “The industry is really good about food safety these days, but we can always be better.”

Trailblazer Foods does buy locally when it’s feasible, Miller said, citing Sandy Farms in Boring as a nearby source for local berries. Most raw product, however, is purchased from sources outside the community.

“We’re extremely proud of the milestones we’ve achieved during the past 30 years,” Miller said. “The grocery industry is exciting and dynamic and we’re thrilled to be a part of an industry with such an important role in our economy and lives. We see a bright future ahead.”

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