Tucked away in an industrial area of southeast Fresno is a modest-sized company with a growing reputation. You may not have heard of Sunnyland Mills, but you may soon.
The family run company churns out 45,000 pounds of bulgur products a day, making it the largest producer in the nation. The factory turns wheat kernels into bulgur by using a process that cleans, parboils, dries and cuts them into different sizes for use in everything from tabouli salad to vegetarian burgers.
Sunnyland Mills has just 14 employees but has managed to outlast its domestic competitors. Its core customers are national food makers who use the bulgur as an ingredient in their finished products. Among the foods containing bulgur from Sunnyland Mills are meatless patties by Amy’s Kitchen, whole grain rice from Village Harvest, and Bob’s Red Mill pilaf mix. Local companies also buy from Sunnyland — Valley Lahvosh Baking Company in Fresno, for instance, uses Sunnyland bulgur to make its cracked wheat Lahvosh line of products.
“It is a quality company,” says Agnes Saghatelian, president of Valley Lahvosh.
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Steve Orlando, who along with his brother Michael runs Sunnyland Mills says there is a 90% chance that if you eat something with bulgur as an ingredient, it came from his family’s mill.
“We are definitely in a lot of products,” Steve Orlando says. “And interest in what we do keeps growing.”
Annual growth for the company has been about 3% to 5% a year for the last several years. Bulgur, long a staple in Mediterranean diets, is becoming mainstream as consumers seek out healthy foods. Bulgur grains are high in protein, low in fat, rich in antioxidants and full of vitamins and minerals. It’s not for a cook in a hurry, but Orlando is working on shortening the cooking time from about 20 minutes to just 10 minutes.
“It is a niche, but we still get quite a few food companies calling and emailing us asking about our products,” Orlando says.
Helping to drive some of its growth are the new products Sunnyland Mills has developed.
“Our thinking is that if we can cook it, dry it and crack it, then why not try it?” Orlando says.
That philosophy has worked at Sunnyland. The company is using the bulgur process on other wheat varieties, such as freekeh, a young wheat kernel, and a high-protein wheat called Kamut. Sunnyland also makes organic bulgur and bulgur made from farro, a whole grain popular in Italian cooking.
The company also continues to make some highly specialized products such as pearl wheat. The process involves the use of large stone wheels that roll over the tiny wheat nuggets to remove a thin layer of bran.
“We don’t make a whole lot of it, but we are the only ones who still do it,” Orlando says.
To help spread the word about what it does, Sunnyland is taking to social media. It will soon launch its own Twitter, Facebook and Instagram pages. Orlando says he wants people to know about the quality of his products, its food safety record and the source of his wheat, a vast majority of which comes from California.
The Orlandos are also developing their own branded product for retail sale. This month, Grocery Outlet began carrying Orlando’s Bulgur Wheat Pilaf Mix. The 1.25-pound package features an image of Orlando’s late father Carl on the package front. If the pilaf mix sells well, the company will make it available at more retail stores.
Steve Orlando says using his father’s image is an homage to his dedication to Sunnyland Mills. Carl and his brother John bought the company in 1977 from George and Jivon Perch. The Perch family founded the company in 1935 when bulgur was still sun dried.
Steve Orlando says his father would have been impressed with the advances the company has made and the development of new products. Carl Orlando died seven years ago.
“We are excited about our future,” Orlando says.