Gilroy now home to garlic king

GILROY -- As subdivisions and shopping centers pave over more and more farmland, Gilroy Foods and Flavors is sinking its roots deeper into the community.

The food processing plant owned by ConAgra Foods is in the middle of production, converting millions of pounds garlic and onions into various dehydrated forms around the clock and churning out Gilroy's signature smell in the process.

"I don't even notice it anymore, but it's a nice aroma," Plant Manager Lane Marte said in a conference room, a small, air-conditioned rarity in the 900,000-square-foot plant along Pacheco Pass Highway in west Gilroy. Microclimates, eye-watering odors, acrid clouds of onion dust and the incessant humming of machinery linger around every corner.

At the outdoor loading dock Tuesday, miniature twisters of white garlic skin flakes twirled in the hot air, and an idling diesel truck began to dump 26 tons of garlic onto a conveyer belt. The stinking roses took a short ride to the plant's open-air silo, about the size of two football fields, where the bulbs "cure" for five days until a bulldozer scoops them up to begin the company's secret dehydration process.

But throughout the past few years, the desiccation business has changed, and Gilroy Foods and Flavors has emerged as one of the industry's top two producers, according to Rosemary Torres, the materials planning and control manager at the Gilroy plant who has worked here for the past 30 years. There used to be five big players in the American Dehydrated Onion and Garlic Association, she said, but now it's just Gilroy Foods and Flavors, with nine facilities across the country, and Turlock-based Sensient Dehydrated Flavors, with four California facilities and six others throughout the world.

Earlier this year, ConAgra sold Basic Vegetable Products in King City after absorbing the competition in 2000. ConAgra also bought Gilroy's Gentry Foods Plant when it acquired Gilroy Foods in 1996 and re-opened the former three years ago as an onion plant. And then two years ago, Firebaugh, Calif.-based De Francesco & Sons closed all its operations.

"Now all that's left is us, and that business had to go somewhere," Torres said.

Before the desiccated garlic and onion ends up on a dinner plate, though, it must be conveyed, washed, sliced, heated, diced and inspected with the utmost care. From the funnel-like "hopper" outside, where the bulldozers dump the garlic, the bulbs go inside for a hot bath, twisting and turning throughout the rhythmic bowels of an enormous thumping washer. After the cloves are sliced, a 300-to-100-degree dryer that resembles an industrial printing press spends 10 hours sucking just the right amount of moisture from the garlic so that the resulting "crude" flakes "retain the good stuff," Marte said.

Employees donning long white coats sit in ubiquitous rooms, inspecting the dehydrated flakes under large, fluorescent-lit magnifying glasses and running color and moisture experiments once every four hours. Tweaking is done accordingly, and as the final steps ensue -- and the tears become fewer and farther between -- the onion and garlic dust thickens, covering the floors of the five-story onion mill and the four-story garlic mill with a pale yellowish powder.

The vast majority of the diced, chopped vegetables end up in 55-gallon drums before fork lifts whisk them away to storage. All this goes on non-stop from the first onion run in May and the first garlic run in July until both conclude in December.

Business has been good enough for the company to add about 145 jobs since September 2005, bringing the plant's total to 675. Three shifts of inspectors, fork lift drivers, engineers and maintenance workers shuffle in and out of the plant around the clock, and 75 administrative personnel keep tabs on them all. In 1985, though, a whopping 1,800 employees worked at the facility, according to Marte.

Still, Gilroy Foods and Flavors' current size makes it one of the city's largest employers, if not the largest. Its roster rivals Gilroy Gardens' seasonal workforce of 650 people and certainly puts it in league with Gilroy's other major employers. Those include the Gilroy Unified School District, Christopher Ranch, Saint Louise Regional Hospital and Gavilan College, according to Larry Cope, director of Gilroy's Economic Development Corporation.

"Gilroy Foods is one of the more important businesses in the city. There are a key group of individuals who have worked there for probably 30 years, sustaining families and paying taxes," Cope said.

With recent growth and a steady work force, Gilroy Foods and Flavors officials dismissed any notion that they were eyeing greener pastures or had any plans to move, which was rumored a few years ago.

"We don't invest millions of dollars if we're not going to be here for years to come," Plant Controller Rosie Carrasco said, partially referencing the company tearing down portions of the old Gentry building in 2005 and installing modern equipment.

That investment has come at the same time as rising energy and fertilizer costs and increased garlic competition from China, but being one of America's top two -- rather than five -- producers has helped Gilroy Foods and Flavors weather the economic storm, Torres said.