FOR SANTIAGO CUENCA-ROMERO, “the daily grind” is not just a cliché – it’s what he does every day.
Cuenca-Romero – or Santi as he is best known – is the founder and president of Premier Organics, a food products firm in Oakland, California that specializes in nut butters.
Born in Spain, Santi is a biochemist (with a Masters in Food Sciences) and he was working in the meat industry in his native country when he first had the idea to create his nut butter business.
“I was always curious about peanut butter,” he says. “At home we would see peanut butter and jelly sandwiches in American movies and it intrigued us.”
He realized that his work in the meat industry was similar to making peanut butter – “they’re both grinding industries” – and he wondered how he could go beyond the peanut, which many people are allergic to.
After moving to Northern California, he saw the growth in the healthy, organic, raw foods sector and started experimenting. He began with almonds, pecans, cashews, and other nuts, perfecting the manufacturing process along the way.
Using his savings and money from family members and friends, Santi rented a corner space in a cheesecake factory and went into production.
“I said ‘let’s just try it.’ I’m an adventurous person. I had faith in the product and I’m not scared of risk.”
The risk paid off.
Within one year, his business had grown to the point that it needed to move to a larger space. He also had to become more financially sophisticated in managing his company’s rapid growth.
In 2005, Premier Organics began working with the Oakland Business Development Center. By 2009, the company had grown to the point where Santi needed to relocate the operation to a 23,500 square-foot facility in Oakland’s manufacturing district.
Soon thereafter, as Premier Organics’ financial needs became more extensive and complex, it entered into a relationship with New Resource Bank.
Early on, Santi realized that New Resource Bank could provide a strong financial partnership — that it was a bank that was willing to work with a young but rapidly growing company.
Additionally, Premier Organics’ business and operating model — producing organically-grown goods in a sustainable fashion — complimented New Resource Bank’s mission: to be the bank “for people and businesses leading the way to a more sustainable world and ways to live.”
In late 2011, New Resource Bank teamed up with the State Assistance Fund for Enterprise, Business and Industrial Development Corporation (SAFE-BIDCO) to provide financing to support the rapid growth and working capital needs of Premier Organics.
SAFE-BIDCO’s ability to assist with the growth of Premier Organics – and similar businesses that may not fit the typical bank-friendly mold – is becoming a more important driver of small business growth in California.
“Around the country and in California, small businesses generate the largest number of new jobs,” SAFE-BIDCO Executive Director Mary Jo Dutra says. “It’s our business to help those businesses grow and prosper and to drive California’s economy forward.”
Santi’s certified organic and (and certified kosher) facility cranks out thousands of jars of almond, cashews, macadamia, and other nut butters and products under his Artisana brand. All products are certified Organic (QAI), Gluten Free, Vegan and certified Kosher (KSA).
Even with all that to watch over, Santi is thinking about expanding into the non-dairy ice cream business.
“Nut butter bases are superfoods – they are full of anti-oxidants and minerals and are a very versatile product,” he says. “We’ll create the demand and see what happens next.”
It’s no surprise that Santi’s customers rave about his products.
Rayna Appenzeller of Mill Valley, California says: “I’m nuts about raw nut butter and coconut — raw, organic, local nut butters and coconut oil – and divine crushed fruits and seeds. It’s fantastic if you are raw food’n it or eating for energy.
“I like it ‘Raw.’ This stuff will make you primal – minus the meat,” she adds.
Premier Organics is not inexpensive, but customers say the prices are reasonable – and worth it – because of the superior quality.
“I keep a stock of their raw cashew butter, raw almond butter, raw macadamia nut butter, raw coconut oil and occasionally the raw pecan butter,” Appenzeller says. “My only issue is that you really have to use them because they don’t keep beyond the date.”
Coconut Oil: “You will never find a better virgin coconut oil in a jar – I dare you to challenge me,” she says. “Living Tree Foods Community and Berkeley Bowl are fabulous alternates, but I am totally hooked on this [product]. I’m not an expert, but raw coconut oil is part of my daily routine. I eat at least two tablespoons every day – mostly straight up. This stuff is amazing. I never get tired of this scent either, because it’s fresh and gentle tasting. It’s awesome as a supplement.”
Raw Almond Butter: “It’s less decadent than the other butters but great on crackers, and also delicious in smoothies. I don’t buy milk, but I like to blend this with water and banana when I run out of almond and rice milk.”
Raw Cashew Butter: “Super creamy and it makes an excellent secret ingredient for thickening. I add a tablespoon or two to my post-cardio smoothies in place of dairy. It’s super yummy. It’s also great to enhance creamy soups or incorporate in your favorite dessert. Try vanilla cupcakes with raw cashew butter and lavender frosting – it’s awesome.”
Raw Macadamia Nut Butter: “Sin sin sinfully fatty,” she says. “It’s like the best nut oil on the planet just floats to the top. It’s expensive but absolutely amazing. Drizzle a little on a plate before serving a delicate dessert or smear on a plain cracker with a drop of agave. It’s bang’n.”
For women, here are some other uses of Premier Organic nut butter products:
Makeup remover: It’s gentle on the eyes and has anti microbial properties.
Body moisturizer and post-waxing: It’s smooth, quick-dry skin solution and cost efficient since a little goes a long way. It goes on faster than lotion, absorbs quick, makes skin smoother, and it smells great.
Pre-shampoo hair mask therapy: For women using chemical free high heat styling, this may help keep you from balding.
Santi believes in “sustainable living, minimizing our collective impact on the Earth, and through our community, supporting the organic and living foods movements, farmers, producers, the Earth and her resources.”
He and his company support small, Organic, family farms. The farmers from which the company buys, grow their produce “in harmony with the land,” he says.
“They pledge to treat and to compensate their workers fairly and use sustainable practices that do not damage the environment.”
For more information on the company, please visit www.artisanafoods.com.
Rick Weinberg is Editor-in-Chief at California Business Journal. He is a well-known journalist, writer, reporter and on-air talent who has worked for the New York Times, FOX and ESPN. He launched CalBizJournal.com to focus on California businesses and business professionals as well as California business news and information. Contact: Rick@CalBizJournal.com / 949-648-3815