Sun-dried bonanza

Mary Mooney’s adventures in refashioning tomatoes

Mary Mooney

Mary Mooney

Photo By Robert Speer

Stories of businesses that started out riding a dream and the dreamer’s credit cards and went on to make it big are legion. But how many businesses started out $30,000 in the hole with an act of desperation and still made it big?

That’s what happened to Mooney Farms 25 years ago. Today the food-production company, which since 1994 has been located in a 100,000-square-foot building at the Chico airport, has sales of nearly $35 million a year, according to Dun & Bradstreet.

It all began a few years after the family moved to Gridley from the Sonoma Valley, explained Mary Mooney, the de-facto CEO of the family-owned business. Their widowed mom, Gretchen, wanted to own a farm, so they’d bought 30 acres of kiwis.

Mary got a degree at Chico State and, following graduation, a sales job she liked. Soon after she started, however, she learned her mother needed to come up with $30,000 in 30 days or she would lose the farm.

What to do? The only capital they had was in the form of lots of fuzzy little fruits. Mary quit her job, packed up a load of kiwis, and they headed off to the Napa Valley, where they set up a fruit stand on a busy roadway. Amazingly, they pulled in the $30,000 in 30 days.

Seeing the potential in food sales, Mary and Gretchen set up a business, with Gretchen making kiwi jam and Mary marketing it in the Napa Valley. But it wasn’t until they started producing sun-dried tomatoes packed in olive oil that the business really took off. Their big break came when Mary convinced the manager of a Price Club in South San Francisco to stock her wares. The first order sold out in four hours. Today, Mooney’s products are in nearly every Costco in the world and major supermarkets like Safeway and Raley’s.

A year after start-up, Mary’s brother, Steven, joined the firm to manage production. Mary continued overseeing all things administrative, including sales and marketing, customer service and corporate sales (Mooney supplies some 40 private labels). Their sister, Kelly Gray, later came on board to handle order processing, and a cousin, Shelly Olson, is now the receptionist and store manager. Mary says she wouldn’t be surprised if her husband, Mike McConnell, who recently sold his Chevrolet dealership in Gridley, gets involved as well. The couple have two college-age sons.

Mooney Farms’ timing was perfect. The company arrived on the scene just as health-conscious Americans were adopting the Mediterranean diet. It was Mooney Farms, as much as anyone, who showed America just how nutritious, flavorful and useful sun-dried tomatoes are.

Today the company markets nine core products under the Bella Sun Luci brand: four types of sun-dried tomatoes in olive oil, four kinds of sun-dried tomatoes in dry packs, and a tomato-artichoke pasta sauce.

And those kiwi plants? They’ve been pulled and replaced with high-density olives trees, whose gourmet oil is being sold under the Bella Sun Luci brand. And Gretchen is still living on the family estate in Gridley.