Baking company looks to build its own brands

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At the start of this decade, David Marson played a key role in overseeing about 300 employees of his family's Carson City baking business as they produced oodles of baked organic goodies marketed by Berkeley's Clif Bar & Co. and others.

New Life Bakery generated $24 million in annual revenues and was recognized by then-Gov. Kenny Guinn as Northern Nevada Business of the Year in 2001 for its deep involvement in good works in the community.

And then Clif, which had purchased 18 million bars a year from New Life Bakery, pulled its contract. Within a couple of years, Marson was out of the bakery business and attending college classes toward a new goal of becoming a radiologist.

But the lure of commercial ovens proved irresistible, and Marson is back in the business - smaller and determined to stay the master of his own fate this time around.

The big change: Marson is intent on building his own brands - Bella Four Bakery fig cookies, Fresh Energy bars and Nature's Bakery nut clusters - rather than rely entirely on contract production.

His Sonda Foods continues to bake products for companies that package them in their own labels, but those contracts these days account for about half the company's revenues.

The challenge is building new brands.

"Production is the easiest part," Marson says. "For the past two years, we've been on a huge learning curve about sales and marketing. Our own brands are harder to launch, but we control them."

The company just landed a spot in Costco. It's retailing direct to consumers from a store in south Reno, and Marson figures retail locations in Carson City and the Lake Tahoe region are coming. It's selling energy bars at health clubs in the region.

And while he learns to create brands and open new distribution channels, Marson also battles the recession that has taken a 30 percent bite out of the company's revenues.

Sonda Foods came into the downturn with no debt and cash reserves that Marson figured to be more than ample. Equally important, it carried a 25-year reputation of baking for the healthy-food industry and a fistful of organic certifications. That's allowed Sonda to pick up contracts as other bakers go out of business. The company got its start as a hippie bakery in the Bay Area, moved into contract baking and landed in Carson City as part of a large-scale expansion in 1991.

These days, the 30,000-square-foot plant staffed by 22 employees near the Carson City Airport has plenty of room to grow.

The growth isn't likely to come next year, Marson says, but he figures 2011 will see the start of a solid recovery.

Until then, he says, "We're making it through."


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