If 20 years ago, you had told Kathleen Hamilton that someday she’d be running the biggest online purveyor of organic merchandise in the United States, she wouldn’t have believed you.
Yet somehow, the business grew into what it is today, and with little fanfare in its immediate neighborhood, west of Highway 1 near Moss Landing, California.
Diamond Organics has a modest sign off the road and a curving driveway that leads to a large gray building. Here, in its 33,000-square-foot warehouse, the company packs and ships everything from fresh produce to wine and cookies, all made organically, and often with special features that would be hard to find anywhere else.
First Lady Michelle Obama has ordered from Diamond Organics. So has Larry King. The company’s been written up in the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, and currently has sales of about $4 million a year.
Yet many who live nearest to the facility haven’t a clue about what Diamond Organics is.
“We’ve been flying under the radar for a long time,” said Hamilton, who founded the company with her late husband, Jasch.
It all began when the Hamiltons were living in Maine and growing organic greens, like mesclun and arugula, to sell to restaurants in Boston. They recruited suppliers in California to send out produce during Maine’s frozen months.
This worked fine – until a shipment was held over during a Midwest blizzard and froze. In order to keep their customers happy, the Hamiltons arranged for Federal Express to ship a new supply to the restaurants immediately.
It turned out to be an “a-ha” moment for the couple.
“It was like having a summer garden in the middle of winter,” said Hamilton. “And we thought, ‘Why not supply it to people like us, instead of hotels?'”
She also realized as a consumer herself (at the time with several small children) how much more convenient it would be to have produce come to her, rather that going to the store with all those kids, and braving the icy roads to boot.
“It comes to your doorstep, and no one has to get in a car and spend money on gas,” Hamilton said.
They began Diamond Organics in 1990, and eventually the Hamiltons brought their operation out to California and set up shop, where Jasch had family and contacts in the produce industry. The company soon had an enthusiastic following back East and in other parts of the country where winters were long and bleak.
“We’re more well-known out there that we are in our own neighborhood,” said Hamilton.
Diamond Organics kept growing, expanding and moving. The building in Moss Landing was built to the company’s specifications, with plenty of room for future expansion, and they’ve been there since 2004.
Typically there are about 25 year-round employees plus extra hands during the holiday season, Hamilton said.
The busy operation now includes produce – everything from greens to tropical fruit – which is shipped out as individual orders or in one of several packages offered by the company. There’s a kitchen turning out prepared foods, like soups and pastas, which are then frozen and shipped to those who order them. Fresh foods, including salads, vegan sushi, and quinoa tabouli are also available.
The company also works with local bakeries to supply breads, cookies, cakes and pies, with wheat-free versions offered for those who can’t tolerate that grain. The catalog also includes organic coffees and teas, nuts, dried fruit, salad dressing, flowers, chocolates, even champagne and dog food.
Suppliers ship items to the Diamond Organics warehouse, or it’s made there on site; everything is packed up and overnighted as the orders come in.
The sampler and gift boxes are very popular during the holidays, Hamilton said: “Our sales rise 40 percent between Thanksgiving and New Year’s.”
The Coastal Wine & Cheese basket, for instance, is one of these, including a bottle of red wine, cheese, a freshly baked baguette, and seasonal fruit. All organic, of course.
Those who order the fruit and vegetable samplers will get a selection of the freshest available items, along with several recipes to try.
Hamilton notes that being able to order online or by phone is also a boon for people who aren’t able to go to the grocery store and shop. Some of her customers are elderly; some have compromised immune systems; others are bothered by odors or environmental sensitivities; and some simply don’t drive.
“It’s a convenience for people,” she said. And this way, they know the food is fresh and organic – they don’t have to guess or inspect labels.
She gets to know her customers quite well, too. Many e-mail or write to tell her what they like, what they don’t, and what’s on their wish list.
“Some of them do their weekly shopping with me,” she said.
Local and Bay Area customers who place orders have their items shipped via ground UPS; FedEx is used for further-away customers.
Expanding Diamond Organic’s reach to local customers is now what Hamilton is focusing on. She’s thinking about having a pick-up program at the Moss Landing facility, although this is a year or two off. It’s also possible that Diamond Organic products may be seen eventually in local stores and coffee shops.
The way Hamilton sees it, she’s providing the convenience of one-stop-shopping with the healthful benefits of eating organic – something that is vitally important to many people these days.
“It’s the real deal, without the added chemicals and processing,” she said. “It’s like going back to the old days.”
Interview with Kathleen Hamilton, November 2010