Formula for fries

From field to fryer, McDonald’s general manager Dennis DaRosa prepares the company’s famous Gilroy Garlic Fries.

Closing in on the climax of garlic-mania at the Gilroy Garlic Fest, Christopher Ranch hosted a tour of its fields and processing plants in a tour organized by Bay Area McDonald’s Restaurants. Connecting where the source of their Gilroy Garlic Fries comes from, the four-hour tour lifted the veil from any questions one may have of growing and processing garlic. As it turns out, there’s a lot to it.
“We say it’s like a baby, because it takes nine months to grow,” Bill Christopher said.
In a 40 acre field nearby the Gilroy Outlets, Bill Christopher pulls a bulb of California Early Garlic from one of the long rows of stalks and bulbs, as contract farm workers cut the excesses from the bulbs and fill buckets which are then unloaded into bins containing about one ton each. The workers get paid $2 a bucket and usually harvest 70 buckets a day each.
“McDonald’s asked us if we had enough garlic for every one of their restaurants, so we asked how much garlic they needed and they said they needed two and half million pounds,” Bill Christopher said. “We told them we grow 90 million pounds, so I think we have them covered.”
Complacency is not acceptable when it comes to the future of the garlic crop. Christopher Ranch selects the best bulbs to be sent to labs in Nevada and Oregon to be nursed, later bringing them back to be planted.
“We’re always trying to make it better,” Bill Christopher said. “We’re trying to take viruses out and make the plant bigger so we can get a better yield. We can’t grow the same seed every year and hope for the best. Otherwise, our yields will go down.”
With garlic fields from Gilroy to Hollister, San Juan Bautista, all the way down to Greenfield and King City and over in the San Joaquin Valley, Christopher Ranch is a statewide operation.
“We try to differentiate our garlic in California from what’s grown in China, Spain and Argentina, “Bill Christopher said. “Our philosophy is that California garlic is better. The customer knows how it’s grown and what goes into it. With imports, we don’t know how they grow their garlic or what they put into it.”
Christopher Ranch is no mom and pop organization. They employ close to 1,000 workers in the field, planting in September, October and November and harvesting in June, July and August and another 800 in the packing plant.
“Because of the nature of garlic, not every bulb is created equal; they’re all different shapes and sizes,” Bill Christopher said.
Christopher Ranch employees sort the bulbs by shape and appearance. The first step in the production plant is the fresh garlic graders, where a crew of workers cleans the bulbs with their hands, giving them an appealing cosmetic appearance to be sold whole in grocery stores. For the bulbs that don’t make the cut, off-grade garlic goes to the cracking facility.
“In the cracking facility a series of rubber rollers break apart the bulbs into individual cloves which are sorted by size and sent to the peeling plant,” Ken Christopher, said. “They’re peeled for things like McDonald’s Garlic Fries, or it’s chopped in our puree plant or roasted.”
The entire process, from the field to processing plant is a long, expensive and arduous job.
“We try to find a home for every single pound of garlic,” Ken Christopher said. “Garlic is not a cheap crop to harvest and we have one shot to get it right every year.”
The Christopher family has been farming since Ole Christopher emigrated to the U.S. from Denmark in the 1880s Don Christopher, Bill’s father, founded Christopher Ranch in 1956 and it has been a family operation since. Christopher Ranch is keeping up with the times, however, staying competitive in the labor market.
“We are investing back into our employees,” Ken Christopher said. “In January we decided to raise our corporate minimum wage to $13 an hour and we pledged that in next July, we will join the Fight for 15 movement and pay a minimum wage of $15 an hour. We see that when we take care of them, morale and production goes up and the cost per pound goes down.”
The quality of the product will be on display at the Gilroy Garlic Festival later this month when Christopher Ranch will contribute a ton of garlic for the festival. Area McDonald’s also benefit from the quality.
“We were really excited for the opportunity to develop Gilroy Garlic Fries,” said Steve Peat, owner of 19 McDonald’s franchises, including three in Gilroy. “We had Saka-Bozzo set up in in one of our restaurants and Gene and Sam did a great job zeroing in on the formula of what we have now.”
In addition to shipping Christopher Ranch products all over the United States, they ship to Canada, to Costco’s in Japan and Australia and Taiwan. In the U.S., Christopher Ranch products are sold at Safeway, Krogers, Albertsons and its organic garlic can be found at Whole Foods. The Gilroy Garlic Fries will be available in Bay Area McDonald’s restaurants until approximately the end of August, when their supply of garlic runs out.