by Deanna Reyes
photography by Tom Galaraga
As Cliff Graber II strolls through the old barn-like building just off Ontario’s Euclid Avenue, it is a walk back in time. The same old sturdy machines sit right where they have always sat since the early days of the business. Musty air envelops the room, and the sound of Cliff’s beat-up work boots echo throughout the abandoned warehouse. The now empty, cold building somehow feels as if work had just stopped a few minutes ago. The presence of the hustle and bustle of the harvest season, with uniform-clad workers filling cans and pasting labels can still be felt.
The antiquity of the building reflects the Graber Olive House family business, the oldest business in Ontario. The old-time processing methods of the company’s founder remain the family’s primary method of business, which has defined its success and longevity. In a business where each olive is treated like a rare and precious diamond, the Graber family is as unique as each mouth-watering olive it produces.
In 1892, C.C. Graber left Clay City, Ind., and headed west to settle in the citrus orchard filled city of Ontario, Calif. In 1894, he established the C.C. Graber Co. From the very beginning, he rebelled against the traditional rules of olive growing, allowing the olives to fully ripen on the tree. Although this technique proves to be a time-consuming and costly procedure, it became the defining trait of Graber Olives.
In the 1920s, C.C. Graber moved his ranch to Hemet in Riverside County; however, processing, canning and sales still continued in Ontario. In 1934, Graber’s sons Robert “Bob” and William took over the business in partnership with a brother-in-law. C.C. Graber’s love of the olive business allowed him to remain active in the business until his death in 1955 at age 83. Bob emerged as the sole owner, and in 1963 moved the ranching operation to Lindsay, Calif., located in the San Joaquin Valley. Today, family tradition is in full swing as Bob’s son, Cliff Graber II, now resides as president of the company. Bob currently serves as chairman of the board.
Graber Olives’ reputation as one of the best tasting olives did not happen by pure chance. The process to achieve quality is a lengthy and complicated one. It takes much work to produce this pint- sized appetizer. C.C. Graber’s innovative techniques allow his olives to stand apart from the rest.
The olive’s journey begins on a tree, which is harvested in mid-October and shipped to the Ontario processing plant. “We pick our olives tree ripened. We go back to the tree maybe seven times just picking those that are pink to cherry red in color. All of the olives don’t always ripen like that though. Although it’d be nice if they did; of course we’d be overwhelmed then,” laughs Cliff.
Growers of black olives, known as California Ripe Olives, pick their olives all at once in September when they are still “green” on the tree. Unlike the black olives, which are oxidized with chemicals during the curing process, Graber olives are kept away from any unnatural ingredients.
After the long, tiring truck ride, the olives are poured from their sturdy wooden crates into the separating machine that sizes them into three different containers according to weight. Each olive is carefully measured on a scale of one-sixteenth of an inch, then weighed, sized and made ready for shipment.
The smallest olive, which is about the size of a nickel, is considered a size 12. A medium olive, which is the best selling size, is a 14. However, the largest and plumpest olive is a size 16. Finding a size 16 olive on the tree is like finding a gold nugget during the Gold Rush; they are sought after and treasured as a rarity. During this grading process, workers pick out olives that aren’t ripe enough, too soft or too green. The “bad” olives do not go to waste, however, but are classified as Orchard Run and are sold in stores at bargain prices.
The olives are then poured into large vats and soaked in a special solution of brine–salt and water–plus the secret Graber family recipe. The vat room houses about 500 giant concrete bowls that hold the olives and solution. The solution is changed on a daily basis for two weeks.
The olives’ next stop is the canning machine, which moves an unbelievable 90 cans per minute. The olives are carefully sifted into a large silver bowl with holes in the bottom that lead to the cans. Each can is hand-filled by olive-expert workers who make sure to get just the right amount of olives in each can. Olives are again checked with the workers’ scrupulous eyes for quality, as some may have been hurt during the curing process. The amount of olives in each can is dependent on its’ size and weight.
Once canned, 3,600 cans at a time are placed on a cart and taken to the boiler room, where a machine called a “retort” boils them at 242 degrees. This process sterilizes the cans and olives, since they contain a low acidic level, like peas and beans. Cans are then labeled with the special Graber logo, put into boxes and are ready to be shipped and enjoyed by discerning customers around the world.
Despite all of the new technological advances since the Graber Olive business started, the family has refused to buy into doing things the easy way. They would never sacrifice the quality of their olives for quantity, sometimes even running out of the popular olives because they refuse to sell a product less than the best. The only change that has been made to the process over 107 years of business is a reduction of the amount of salt they use in the curing process.
“Our business is a hands on business. We’re about keeping the quality,” smiles Bob. “I learned a lot from my father, and one of the things he taught me was to keep the quality, so that’s what I’ve stood up for all of my life.”
Bob Graber, who has recently handed over the reigns to his son Cliff, has a presence that seems to speak quietly and humbly about his life. In his gleaming eyes one can see years of wisdom and experience. Every wrinkle on his face seems to reveal the successes and hardships of the business. An olive is not just an olive to Bob, but a jewel, an object so precious and important that it has become an everlasting part of him. The Grabers’ morals and values have been passed down generation to generation; they have always packed as many olives as they could as long as they were the best quality. “We’ve ended up with a product with no other producer like us. The way we grow them, harvest them and handle them cannot be done in a huge factory. It takes the personal attention away.”
Personal attention remains a top priority within the Graber business. They not only pay special attention to the olives, but also to their customers, who they consider family.
“We’re very complimented that people drive out of their way to come out here and see us,” says Betty, Bob’s wife. “We really appreciate our customers; in fact, we tell them they sort of own the place.”
Bob learned about the importance of customer relations from his mother, Georgia Belle. He recalls how his mother faithfully kept a stock of olives in the garage. Customers would stop by after hours to purchase olives on their way out of town. She would correspond with customers and send them postcards and letters thanking them for their purchase.
The gift store in Ontario is considered a recent addition, even though Betty established it 40 years ago. In order to make the olives last longer, they searched for other products to sell. They traveled all over California’s coasts, deserts and forests looking for quality items, such as almonds and dried apricots, to include in their gift baskets.
The relatively humble business only produces about 100 tons of olives annually, which is minute compared to the 90 to 100,000 tons other growers produce. However, despite their success, the genuineness of Bob and the entire Graber family remains true and contagious. The “niceness” mingled into every word they say rubs off onto everyone they encounter. “Money isn’t everything – I discovered that along time ago,” says Bob. “The real satisfaction of being in the business is to do things that people like, to have a product they like. The idea was just to grow and pack olives, and that things would just take care of themselves-which they did.”
Although Bob said he did not have much of a choice of whether to take over the business, he said he does not regret not having graduated from college or doing something else with his life. “I’m not a college graduate, but [I’ve] learned a lot in the last 89 years. In my case there wasn’t really much of a choice to learn the business, but I accepted the idea that this was my future,” he says.
Nevertheless, he made sure his son would experience the world and take any direction with his life that he chose. Cliff graduated from the Colorado School of Mines with a degree in engineering. The Graber Olive seed must have been planted deep within him, though, because after working overseas for more than a decade, he finally returned to his roots at the ranch. “It’s Cliff’s choice to be here,” said Betty. “He’s seen both worlds. It’s important to be happy in life with what you do.”
The future of the Graber business is still unknown, however, Betty feels fate will surely take charge. It is too soon to tell if a future Graber will eventually take over when the time comes. Bob says it would be ideal to have a family member involved in the business in some way, but that if someone from the outside were to come in, they would need all of the necessary characteristics to run the business successfully. Bob says it would take dedication, business knowledge and someone who cared; a person of “many talents.”
The Grabers boast many famous customers, but in typical Hollywood fashion, do not feel it appropriate to name names. Betty let it slip that the Ambassador of Sweden was a mail-order customer who would have packages sent over on a monthly basis. Their olives have been sent as gifts to U.S. presidents, including former President Eisenhower when the first air express was installed. “These are the things that make a business fun,” said Bob. “And it’s been a fun business.”