Sum of Your Business: Sno Pac Foods / Pete Gengler, President
Interview and introduction by Benji Nichols • Originally published in the Summer 2016 Inspire(d)
The Sno Pac brand of frozen fruits and vegetables is well known here in the Driftless Region. Maybe you’ve made a trek to the Sno Pac factory to stock up on bulk frozen favorites. Or you know a local farmer who has grown organic vegetables for the Caledonia, Minnesota-based business. Or perhaps you’re just familiar with the little rectangular bags of frozen goodness stocked up at your local grocery store or co-op. But what you may not realize is that the owners, the Genglers – four generations of them, in fact – have always been steadfast in their support of good, organic food. That’s right: Sno Pac was “organic (even) before organic was cool!”
Around 1900, Sno Pac started as a lumber and ice harvesting operation. It eventually transitioned to become one of the region’s first refrigerated locker plants, where local folks could rent one of 1,000 freezer spaces to store their food. It was here that Leonard Gengler started raising and processing berries and vegetables to be frozen for sale. From the beginning, Gengler found that his produce tasted best when farmed without commercial chemicals and he embraced sustainable land use, rotation of crops, and soil conservation practices. These values and practices have helped to set Sno Pac products apart, even as organic agriculture has grown by leaps and bounds in the recent years.
Sno Pac now farms over 3,000 acres of their own produce, and also contracts with surrounding organic farmers for certain products. A very few limited items come from outside of the region, like blueberries from Michigan, or cranberries from northern Wisconsin.
Cool Sno Pac Facts:
• In the early Sno Pac days, people had to come directly to the plant in Caledonia to purchase frozen vegetables and fruits – in bulk – and you can still do that today, although bagged purchases are more the norm these days!
• At one time, Sno Pac also processed poultry, which was packed in shaved ice harvested from the Gengler Ice Pond, hence the ‘Sno Pac’ name.
• Through the mid 1900s the Genglers also ran a Land ‘o Lakes route all over the tri-state region. It was through this route that even more customers became aware of Sno Pac frozen products and the quality that they represented.
With the Sno Pac business having been handed down the Gengler line – from founder Leonard, to Ray and Darlene, and now to company President Pete and Vice President Nick – it is safe to say this local processor will continue producing quality frozen organic vegetables and fruits whether its “cool” or not!
Sno Pac President Pete Gengler (pictured above at right – left is Pete’s dad, Ray) was kind enough to sit down with us for a few minutes at the modern packaging facility in Caledonia, Minnesota to tell us what has made this multi-generational business work.
Name: Pete Gengler, Sno Pac Foods President
Age: Sno Pac is – give or take – eight decades old!
Business: Fourth Generation Organic Fruit and Vegetable Processor
Tell us about the “leap” Moment. How did you get your start?
All I ever wanted to do was to work in the business. I grew up riding the Land o’ Lakes route with my Dad, and was probably in the fifth grade when I started picking strawberries for my Grandpa. It was an easy decision to continue working in the business.
What’s the best thing about being the boss?
I like to make things happen – and you have to! Seeing the success, and also the challenges, of the organic market.
How about the worst?
24/7 Responsibility. The financials, weather, finding good help – the same things that everybody deals with.
Was there ever a hurdle where you just thought “I can’t do this?” How did you overcome it?
Certainly there have been times when things haven’t been as good as others, or as much money at the moment, maybe you didn’t pay yourself, or you work so much other parts of your life suffer. But you just have to see the light at the end of the tunnel and do what you have to do.
Any mentors or role models you have looked up to?
My Grandpa Leo – he was the modern start of the company, and my dad, Ray. My mom was also in the offices for years. It’s a family operation.
What’s the one thing you wish you had known before you started?
If you get too busy on the day to day you never make time for tomorrow. Someone once told me that, “Most people are too busy working to make any money.” I kind of like that saying.
How do you manage your life/work balance?
In the past it’s been hard to manage – it can be tough in a family business – seven days a week, 20 hours a day during the season, but you make time when you can.
What keeps you inspired? Any quotes that keep you going?
We’ve always had the idea that we’ll keep the family business going – pass it on to our kids and keep going. Some people thought Grandpa Leo was crazy following the Rodale organic methods back when, but he was really just ahead of his time. We plan to keep on providing the Midwest with what we do well, and we’ve embraced the slogan “organic before organic was cool”!