Long ago, PARTNERS figured it out. All-natural crackers would be the wave of the future. Today, consumers can't seem to get enough of their products, which can be found in specialty food sections nationwide. So what took them so long?


By Dan Malovany

If life went according to plan, Marian Harris would have retired decades ago. Success, however, has a way of taking the best-laid plans and putting them to rest, or so the saying goes.

   In 1972, years before Seattle became decorated with neighborhood cafes serving low-fat lattes and gourmet baked goods, she started The Bakery in Pioneer Square, one of the first deli, bakery and catering operations to pioneer the fresh-to-go soup and made-to-order sandwich movement.

   “We always had a family philosophy of fresh, no preservatives, all-natural ingredients and made from scratch, and there was nothing in Seattle at that time,” she recalls. “It was a success instantly.”

   Riding a wave of rave reviews, she then launched “Marians,” an elegantly designed but comfortable full-service restaurant that served Pacific Rim food, and once again, the accolades came pouring in. Harris seemed to have the magic touch, but for the detail-minded gourmand, one thing was missing.

   “As time went along, I got very bored with the crackers I was using at the restaurant,” she says. “I was wondering if there was something better out there.”

   Wonder may be the beginning of wisdom, but sometimes it takes the encouragement from someone else to take a smart idea and bring it into fruition. In Harris’ case, a friend put a bee in her bonnet, prompting her to develop a buttery, light and crisp flatbread with sesame seeds that, once again, became such a hit that her customers suggested packaging and selling them in her restaurants or in neighborhood retail stores.

   In 1992, three years after “retiring” from the restaurant business, she revisited the idea of selling the all-natural gourmet crackers as a nice side business to supplement her income.

   “When you went to the grocery store, there was nothing unique out there that you could buy,” she says. “It was all national brands’ style of product at that time.”

   Initially, Harris’ household business targeted farmer’s markets, gift shops and high-end specialty stores. Her five-year goal was to distribute as far as Portland, Ore.

   “A friend of mine said, ‘With your luck, this is going to be successful,’” she remembers. “Sure enough.”

Instead, in one year, PARTNERS, a tasteful cracker, was being shipped across the country. Today, the Kent, Wash.-based company’s line of award-winning specialty crackers and crispy flatbread can be found in the nation’s largest supermarket chains.

   Driving the business is the philosophy that made Harris’ restaurants so successful, and that’s creating all-natural products that are decisively distinctive from what’s on supermarket shelves.

   “We really do have a different texture and taste than the competition,” notes Cara Figgins, vice president, co-owner and daughter of Harris.

   PARTNERS, for instance, is the brand known for its full-bodied, indulgent products that are made with nearly the exact formula that Harris developed for her restaurants years ago. The crackers won best bakery product by the National Association of Specialty Food Trade at the Fancy Food Show shortly after it was introduced in the early 1990s.

   On the other hand, the Wisecrackers line was developed in the mid-1990s as a low-fat alternative. Shortly after making its debut, these products received the best baked good runner up/silver award from the NASFT for its taste and texture, not necessarily because it was lower in fat. As a result, Figgins says, Wisecrackers now appeals to both health-conscious consumers and those who simply enjoy their premium taste.

   “If you look at what’s on the shelf and open all of the boxes, there’s a distinct quality to our products,” she adds. “We’re a bit more artisan, gourmet-style product. Our manufacturing process is different. As a result, our end-product is different than a lot of other products.”

   PARTNERS and Wisecrackers come in traditional 1.5-in. square crackers and 3- by 6-in. crispy flatbread, the latter of which appeals to entertainment-oriented consumers. Each line, however, offers slightly different varieties. Although both come in Harris signature sesame flavor, the PARTNERS brand offers products in Walla Walla onion, cracked black pepper, fresh garlic and sun-dried tomato and herb varieties while Wisecrackers come in roasted garlic and rosemary, spicy pepper mélange and poblano chili and sweet onion. All products have a 12-month shelf life.

   “There are some similarities, but they are distinct enough so that people aren’t choosing between PARTNERS and Wisecrackers solely on the fact that one is low fat and the other is not,” Figgins explains.

   In addition to its all-natural lines, the company has ventured into the organic arena with its Blue Star Farms stone ground wheat, rye and flax and multigrain crackers. It offers gourmet granola similar to what “momma made at home” during the ‘60s and ‘70s, Harris says. And it has a line of Get Movin’ cookies, crackers and granola that are packaged in 1- to 2-oz. bags. The products, which include specialty crackers sold under private label store brands, are distributed via warehouse or through a network of distributors.

   “Over the years, consumers have recognized the quality, and they expect that quality when they see products from us, and that has been a big advantage for us because we can go to our (retailers or distributors) and say, ‘Hey, we have this new product’ and they say, ‘Great. We’ll bring it in,’” Figgins notes. “They don’t ask, ‘Where do we sell it?’ They’re excited we have something new because consumers will say, ‘There’s another quality product from PARTNERS.’ It’s not as easily substitutable as some of the other items out there.”

Fruits of Wisdom

PARTNERS seems to be perfectly positioned for continued growth as it’s specialty niche has become increasingly mainstream. Overall, general cracker sales are expanding at a sluggish 1-2% rate, Figgins says, while all-natural and organic varieties are surging at a 12-15% clip. Part of this growth is consumer-driven. The low-carb craze may have wreaked havoc on baked goods sales a few years ago, but it ironically enlightened Americans about what they’re putting into their bodies.

   “It did make people think what the heck is in their food, and that’s been very good for us because we don’t have anything but natural ingredients in our products,” Harris says. “You can read the label and understand what’s in the product. It’s always been like that.”

   The other driver is a channel play. Traditional grocers and the national players in the cracker category are jumping on the bandwagon as natural and higher end specialty food retailers command a greater share of supermarket sales.

   As cute as they sounded a decade ago, organic, all-natural and sun-dried tomato snacks are no longer avant-garde. PARTNERS has gone from trendsetter to the high end of mainstream.

   “People have really gotten into all-natural and organic,” Harris explains. “And if you look at all of the national brands, they are doing it as well.”

   As more Americans spend a few more pennies for specialty crackers to go along with their fine wine and gourmet cheeses, PARTNERS sales have taken off. In fact, sales doubled between 2004 and 2005 and again between 2005 and 2006. Last year, sales increased 10-15% as the company moved from its small 12,000-sq.-ft. operation to its current 45,000-sq.-ft. facility, and it has plans to double the output of its operation, according to Greg Maestretti, Harris’ son and vice president in charge of manufacturing.

   Keeping up with growth hasn’t always been easy, he adds, especially during the end-of-year holiday season when entertaining is at its peak. Prior to moving to its current facility, the company had quintupled capacity, but that still wasn’t enough at certain times of the year.

   “There were certain months where we had to push orders off to the next month, especially with the shift in the grocery industry,” Maestretti says. “We had to move.”

Intelligent Design

Historically, PARTNERS has struggled to keep up with demand, partly because it was a victim of its success. Additionally, the company refused to automate the entire process, especially if it changes the products’ taste profiles. Onions and garlic are still processed fresh on-premise, and although the original rolling pin has been retired, parts of the make-up process require additional labor.

   “We’re not a push a button and run,” Figgins says. “One of the things that keeps us different is our manufacturing processes. It’s also one of the reasons we stay in the marketplace. Most companies retool their operation to automate the process, but when you do that, it comes out different.”

   That doesn’t mean the company isn’t repositioning itself for growth.

   “We’re setting the stage,” Maestretti says. “If we’re in the $10 to $15 million stage right now, what do we need to get to the $50 million mark?”

   This spring, upgraded packaging makes its debut.

   “It’s brighter and zipped up a little bit,” he says. “The new ones have the same theme, style and brand recognition, but they’re a bit more pepped up.”

   To enhance product recognition, the names of flavors on PARTNERS flatbread crackers have a bold banner across the bottom while the varieties of Wisecrackers banners are across the top.

   “It’s like shag carpeting and avocado appliances of the 50s,” Figgins says. “The cracker packaging was great in 1992, but it needed to be transitioned into something that’s a little more current [yet] still maintained the same brand recognition and visual appeal it had.”

   The new product pipeline remains full, although that’s always been the case.

   “If we can’t find it on the shelf, we know we have a good recipe to make it,” Maestretti says.

    With the larger facility, Figgins adds, PARTNERS is able to focus on selling products to new channels of distribution. So far, the company hasn’t needed to focus on advertising its brands.

   “It would be fabulous to have gazillions of dollars because we’re full of ideas, but we kind of stay our course and stick to our quality and core values,” she says.

   Indeed, organic growth has been so robust that the company has taken five-year plans and tossed them to the wayside.

   “We’ve always exceeded where we wanted to be in five years, and the industry has constantly changed,” Figgins notes.

   Maestretti adds that the business now has a much more short-term “long-range plan.”

   “We have a 1- to 2-year path,” he says, “and beyond that, we have some general concepts about where we want to be.”

   That’s probably a smart strategy, given Harris’ luck. If she had stuck to her plan, she would have been retired a long time ago.

   Then again, who says she didn’t. As a wise man once said, “Do what you love and you will never have to work a day in your life.”