Jazz is music in hell: Odwalla founder finds second life in Califia almond and plant-based beverages

Geoffrey Mohan of the LA Times writes that Greg Steltenpohl, 63, heads Califia Farms, an almond and plant-based beverage company he co-founded in 2010. With about $100 million in annual sales, the company is something of a redemption for the Stanford graduate, whose first lightning strike in the beverage business, Odwalla, started as a way to fund his avant-garde jazz band, and ended with a fatal food poisoning and recall that eventually left the company in the hands of Coca-Cola.

“Odwalla got started because I didn’t really have a plan. I was focused on music and just thought, ‘Hey, I can make some juice on the side, play music and all that.’”

The band’s eclectic mixtures of unpasteurized juice were far more popular than the band’s music and, by 1993, Steltenpohl and his partners took Odwalla public.

Accidental success met accidental fall in 1996, the year Odwalla hit its peak sales of $59 million. An E. coli outbreak traced to Odwalla’s raw apple juice sickened dozens and killed a child in Colorado. Federal criminal charges, fines, lawsuit settlements and a precipitous drop in sales left the company so short of cash it wound up controlled by new investors who eventually sold the brand to Coca-Cola.

Steltenpohl tried his hand at several other businesses before getting a call from Berne Evans, the head of Sun Pacific packing, who had helped pioneer easy-peeling mandarins — trademarked Cuties.

Steltenpohl blanches at the idea that he has some knack for catching food preference waves just as they crest — with Odwalla, then with almond milk, and now with a line of almond-based cold brew coffee drinks.

“It sounds like that,” he admitted with a laugh. “But you figure I’ve been doing it for 37 years. You could say I hit the waves, but there’s a lot of paddling in there.”

“It’s not always the important thing to be the first,” Steltenpohl said. “I think it’s more important to solve a number of other problems.… The way we talk about it is: something different, something better — that’s kind of the hurdle we have to pass internally. If we can’t answer to ourselves why is it different, why is it better, how does it move the bar higher, then why are we doing it?”

Too bad you didn’t apply that to juice business.

 In late Oct. 1996, an outbreak of Escherichia coli O157:H7 was traced to juice containing unpasteurized apple cider manufactured by Odwalla in the northwest U.S.Sixty-four people were sickened and a 16-month-old died from E. coli O157:H7. During subsequent grand jury testimony, it was revealed that while Odwalla had written contracts with suppliers to only provide apples picked from trees rather than drops – those that had fallen to the ground and would be more likely to be contaminated with feces, in this case, deer feces — the company never verified if suppliers were actually doing what they said they were doing. Earlier in 1996, Odwalla had sought to supply the U.S. Army with juice. An Aug. 6, 1996 letter from the Army to Odwalla stated, “we determined that your plant sanitation program does not adequately assure product wholesomeness for military consumers. This lack of assurance prevents approval of your establishment as a source of supply for the Armed Forces at this time.”