Marian Harris always had a knack of being one step ahead of the times. When starting her downtown Seattle restaurant several decades ago, she focused on homemade food crafted with real ingredients, well before everyone else. Back then, people had steaks and martinis for lunch. Going to a restaurant and buying something that’s freshly made like cinnamon rolls, baked cookies and fresh soup was a novel concept at the time.
Unable to find quality crackers to accompany her signature soups, Ms. Harris did what came instinctively. She made her own, eventually leading to the startup of Partners, A Tasteful Choice Company, which became a pioneer in the specialty cracker segment. The company has been riding the tide ever since 1992.
“When we started the cracker business, there were very few specialty crackers and almost no flavored crackers. Now that seems like it’s so obvious, but there was nothing out there at the time,” recalled Cara Figgins, Ms. Harris’ daughter and president of this specialty cracker producer, located just outside of Seattle. “We’re really about products that are flavorful and high quality. That artisan segment in the cracker category is going to stay. People are always looking for artisan crackers. If we can provide these products at a more cost-effective price, we have a lot of the market segment to still capture before we run out of people who haven’t tried these specialty products.”
Over the years, the company has rolled out wave after wave of premium entertainment and snack crackers sold under the Partners, Wisecrackers, Blue Star Farms and All-American brands, as well as supported a burgeoning co-manufactured crackers and baked goods business for the retail, foodservice and private label markets.
But success had its growing pains. Since the company began automating production in 2000, Partners quickly outgrew its Seattle facility and moved to Kent, Wash., in 2006. Capacity there ran out in half the projected time, and the choice became to either expand the Kent facility or find a new one.
“We did the evaluation of staying in the old place and how much it would cost to upgrade there, and it was about the same as us moving, but we wouldn’t have given ourselves the runway if we just stayed where we were,” Ms. Figgins explained.
When the company finally moved in 2017, they found their field of dreams in Des Moines. No, not in Iowa. For them, Des Moines (some locals pronounce the second “s” in the name) is in Washington state right near the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. Today, the built-to-specification plant houses two distinct production and three packaging lines that generate about 11 million kosher, gluten-free, organic, non-GMO and other types of wholesome crackers and crisp flatbreads each day.
Moreover, sensing an impending workplace gap shortage even before the pandemic hit, the company installed labor-saving equipment. Most significantly, the 150,000-square-foot facility features two robotic systems that tirelessly pick, place, stack and package crackers at a much faster rate than dozens of people had done semiautomatically. In all, the bakery now relies on eight people to operate its packaging department compared with 40 at the previous plant.
“We have the equipment to grow and the space to expand, and with only a few not-major investments, we can increase the capacity over time,” Ms. Figgins said. “It was a two-fold improvement. It added more capacity and greater efficiency so we can make a larger amount of products per person per hour but we can also produce more overall volume. With this bakery, we can get up to somewhere in the $100 million range in sales if we really were pushing all of the areas we have for production.”
However, another reason for building the new bakery involves a practical one that everyone understands.
“We do not want to move for a very long time,” said Greg Maestretti, chief operating officer and Ms. Figgins’ brother, who had been designing and refining the bakery of his dreams since 2014. “The goal for us was to build a bakery big enough so that we would not have to move from here.”
Overall, the bakery produces five cracker sizes in more than 20 flavors sold in at least six different packages. Ms. Figgins noted that the square or rectangular products are designed to be carriers that are a “perfect partner” with appetizers and meals. In fact, that’s how Ms. Harris came up with the name for the company.
The top-selling flavors include Olive Oil & Sea Salt, Traditional Butter, Olive Oil & Herb and a Roasted Garlic & Rosemary variety. Sesame seeds also abound in the popular product portfolio.
“Aside from the All-American brand, which is more of a snack cracker that you eat out of the box, everything else has been made to accompany other foods. We’re not a saltine or cracker with strong flavors,” Ms. Figgins explained. “Our products are developed to go with dips, cheeses, spreads or charcuterie. They’re lightly salted and lightly flavored with that intent in mind.”
Each brand has its own personality and product characteristics. Partners Artisan Gourmet is an hors d’oeuvres cracker for cheese boards, upscale lunches and entertaining. Wisecrackers addresses the better-for-you category with grain-free, vegan, low-fat and no sugar for the health-conscious consumer. Blue Star Farms focuses on whole grain and organic, heartier products. The All-American brand is a retro, comfort cracker made with clean ingredients found in a pantry or kitchen cabinet.
“The All-American brand is new for us, but it’s not novel when it comes to ingredients,” Ms. Figgins observed. “It’s novel in that we are making cornbread into crackers.”
That’s how the company as become a perfect partner for all eating occasions.
This article is an excerpt from the February 2022 issue of Baking & Snack. To read the entire feature on Partners, A Tasteful Choice Company, click here.