WATSONVILLE — When Stephen C. Martinelli was 12, World War II was under way and, with fewer grown men around, he started making boxes for the apples local growers were selling to his dad, Stephen G. Martinelli Jr., to make cider with. It was his first job for the family business, S. Martinelli & Co. Today, he is chairman of the board as the company marks its 145th year, and it’s still family owned.
Saturday it will be recognized as Business of the Year during the Pajaro Valley Chamber of Commerce and Agriculture’s annual awards dinner and auction.
“I’m just amazed we’ve lasted this long, but things are looking good for the future,” Martinelli said during a recent interview held at S. Martinelli & Co. headquarters, still in Watsonville.
It was Stephen C. Martinelli’s father, Stephen G. Martinelli, Jr., who had developed the first non-alcoholic sparking cider, introduced the slogan “Drink Your Apple A Day,” and expanded the product’s brand name and market share after the company was founded by the original Stephen G. Martinelli in 1868.
Decades later, he would recruit his son S. John Martinelli to help him, though as John describes it, it was a pretty soft sell.
“It was uncoerced as could possibly be. I saw my dad going to work … it seemed like he was there all the time. I said what are you doing down there that could take so much time? He said, ‘why don’t you come down and see?’ … So I followed him around for a while. He set up for an office for me and I’ve been at work ever since,” John, who is now the president of the company, said.
Under John Martinelli’s leadership the company has expanded in several ways. It produces much more apple juice first of all. By modernizing equipment and opening a second factory in town, John Martinelli said the company can now churn out about 700 bottles a minute, as opposed to 20 bottles a minute 50 years ago. And the company started producing other types of juice drinks. The newest product will be a pomegranate/blueberry juice that will be available in refrigerated sections of grocery stores.
But John Martinelli said the sparking apple juice is what keeps the company in business and it sells most during the holiday season, when Martinelli’s sparking cider has become a national tradition. He said the company owns 55 percent of the market, with Martinelli’s becoming synonymous with family celebrations. But during the summer time, business drops.
That is one of the reasons Martinelli’s decided to create a whole line of sparkling lemonade flavors.
“There’s a lot of volume opportunities in summer when our business traditionally tapers off,” John Martinelli said. “We came out with a couple of flavors, people loved it, and we came out with more flavors.”
Another reason to make lemonade is the falling acreage of farmland devoted to apples in the Pajaro Valley, where Martinelli’s has traditionally gotten them.
“Most of our fruit still comes from this area,” John Martinelli said. “There’s been a decline in Pajaro Valley apples, but we still have found a way to stay headquartered here.”
Martinelli’s employees 200-300 people, depending on the season, and is responsible for even more jobs on the surrounding farms.
“The apples that are still being farmed in this valley are there because we are buying them,” John Martinelli said. “If those apples are gone, they will be replaced by more berry crops, which not everyone is thrilled with.”
Berries — not only strawberries, but raspberries, blackberries and blueberries — are taking over many apple orchards in the Pajaro Valley, which has consequences. Apples require far less water and labor, so as the orchards have disappeared, the population has grown, the demand for housing, and the valley’s water problems have been exacerbated.
But while so much has changed around it, the company has remained much the same. In fact, the production plant the company built in 1885 is still in operation on East Lake Avenue in Watsonville. The site houses the company’s headquarters, but only produces about 40 percent of the company’s product. The majority of it is made on the other side of town in a larger warehouse.
And, most importantly, the company has remained in family control. Stephen Martinelli said a number of much larger companies have made offers to buy Martinelli’s through the years, but he is glad the family never accepted.
“It wouldn’t be the same if we sold to somebody else,” he said.
His son agreed.
“We could be bigger and have more distribution, but we don’t want to sacrifice any of the quality. They would want to reduce costs, and that would come at the expense of quality. Our name is on the bottle. When your name is on the bottle, you want it to be the best it can possibly be,” John Martinelli said.