Jammin’ in Chico
Mountain Fruit Co. grows from ‘a few jars of jam’ to 6,000 a week
In the fall of 1980, Allyn Johnston came to Chico State as part of a national exchange program from the University of North Carolina in Charlotte. He was supposed to return at the end of the spring semester, but decided to quit school and stay around Chico; it’s been his home for 38 years now.
In those early days, Johnston got a job selling fruit at San Francisco farmers’ markets for the Goldbud Farm out of Placerville. “I married Joyce while I was working the farmers’ market and it was she who helped get things going—she started making stuff.” One day, in 1996, the owner of Goldbud approached Allyn with an unusual request: the person he’d hired to make a cherry sauce quit and he needed someone new to supply it. “He had met my wife and he said, ‘Can you make this?’ And she said, ‘Maybe.’” Before they knew it, Mountain Fruit Co. was born.
With the next growing season, the couple decided to make jam to sell along with the farmers’ fruit. Goldbud Farm was well-known, so the markets proved lucrative for the Johnstons, helping them to grow their business.
“When we were overlapping, Peet’s [Coffee & Tea] came to us, we started dealing direct with Whole Foods in the mid-’90s; we met a lot of people at that farmers’ market that gave us a good push, that was helpful.”
What started off as making “a few jars of jam” has grown to around 6,000 jars per week for their various distributors. Allyn, 58, says he’d like to continue making jam into his mid-60s, but he is not really interested in growing the business beyond this point. “We’re still very low-tech; the more you make, the more work there is. It’s hard work.”
Joyce isn’t as hands-on when it comes to making products these days, but Allyn arrives at their kitchen at 3 a.m. three times a week to cook and package the fruit with the help of a cooking assistant. They use fruits like strawberries, peaches, Marionberries, figs and apricots to create single-flavor as well as blended jams. The majority of their business is wholesale—Mountain Fruit jams are sold at specialty food stores as well as used by restaurants. Locally, you can grab a jar at Chico Natural Foods, Great Harvest Bread Co., Made in Chico, Maisie Jane’s and S&S Produce.
Allyn’s commitment to his business is fueled by his commitment to his children. The couple have two sons and a daughter, Sarah, who is 17 and helps with packaging and distribution, though she’s not sure yet if she’ll want to take over the family business when her parents retire.
Allyn says he’s grateful to Chico and the community for the life he’s been able to create here. “Chico’s been good to us. It’s been a good place for me. I came here as an exchange student—I didn’t know anybody—and my whole life changed.”