David & Sons, a tiny Fresno company that became one of the nation’s leading roasters of pumpkin and sunflower seeds, is shutting its doors and moving production to the Midwest.
The company, founded in 1926 by David Der Hairbedian, an Armenian immigrant, is owned and operated by Conagra. The food giant bought the company in 2001 from Nestle, USA Inc., reinforcing David’s status as one of the top brands of snacking seeds in the U.S.
But the lucrative snacking industry is also highly competitive. New players have entered the market over the years, including Bigs, Spitz and Giants, and have eaten up market share.
Conagra officials cited a tightening in the industry and a need to reduce costs as reasons for the Fresno plant’s closure.
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“This is a very competitive industry and we need to operate as effectively and efficiently as possible,” said Daniel Hare, Conagra company spokesman. “Following a thorough assessment of our plant network and infrastructure costs, we determined that we must close the facility to remain competitive.”
Production will be transitioned to the company’s plant in Waterloo, Iowa. About 75 people work at the David & Sons plant at Shields and Clovis avenues in Fresno. The plant is expected to close in the spring.
Everyone knows David’s seeds, it has been a part of Fresno for so long. There are so many memories.
William Thompson, former David & Sons president.
The employees were told of the planned closure last May.
“We always want to give employees as much notice as possible once decisions have been finalized,” he said.
One former employee who is lamenting the loss of the plant is its former president, William Thompson. The food executive worked at the plant from 1977 to 1995 after starting his career with the company as director of marketing.
Thompson called the plant’s eventual closure in Fresno an end of an era.
“Everyone knows David’s seeds, it has been a part of Fresno for so long,” he said. “There are so many memories.”
Thompson said many people didn’t know that Der Hairbedian didn’t set out to start a seed company. He arrived in Fresno in 1917 after spending some time in Wisconsin. During his early life in Fresno he ran a gas station and small repair shop at Railroad Avenue and Golden State Boulevard.
The business started in David Der Hairbedian’s repair shop, where he would roast small batches of sunflower seeds, put them in cellophane bags and sell them at his gas station.
It was in that repair shop where he stored a small roaster that he used to make his own roasted sunflower seeds. He sold them at the gas station, packaged in small cellophane bags. The seeds sold very well. And by 1926 David’s sunflower seeds was born.
Der Hairbedian had two sons, Aram and Ara, who did not take over their father’s business. By 1966, David & Sons was sold to Sunline Inc., a division of Sunmark companies of St. Louis.
It remained a Sunmark company for 20 years until it was bought in 1986 by Rowntree Mackintosh, a British confectionery company. David & Sons became part of the Nestle family after Nestle acquired Rowntree Mackintosh in 1988.
Thompson said he is proud of his days working for the company. During his tenure, the seed roaster experienced a seven-fold increase in sales and partnered with Major League Baseball to be the official supplier of seeds.
He also got to know Der Hairbedian, who had long since retired when he joined the company. Thompson remembers meeting Der Hairbedian at his southeast Fresno home, where the company founder showed him a small shoebox of mementos. Inside were old packaging designs, formulas for the product and a matchbook with the company’s logo.
Thompson was also able to get Der Hairbedian to attend the company’s 60th anniversary celebration in 1985. The company founder was then in his early 90s. He died four years later.
“I remember him in his coat and tie and the moment he arrived, he literally ran over to see the plant,” Thompson said. “He was happy to be there. It was a fun day.”