You don’t interview Patricia Bragg.
You sit in your chair trying to take notes while she tells stories and delivers a lecture or two or four on healthy living.
“Sit up straight, don’t slouch, suck in your gut,” she says. “And never cross your legs.” With that, Bragg walks up and down the floor of her crowded office telling stories. How her father helped Conrad Hilton recover from a debilitating illness. How she grows macadamia nuts in Hawaii. Why the diminutive daughter of the man who coined the term “health-food store” wears a pink hat.
Calling him “Mister Hawaii Five-0,” she recalls that actor Jack Lord taught her the trick. “Patricia, you may be only five feet tall, but if you wear a hat, you will be six feet.”
These days, the woman in the pink hat sits astride a fast-growing health food empire that boasts dozens of products and has seen sales double in recent years.
Founded by Paul Bragg in 1912, with the launch of his first products, the 102-year-old company’s signature apple cider vinegar has broken out of the specialty-store niche and is now being distributed though Whole Foods Market, where Bragg’s is a top 20 product line.
A new generation is growing up on Bragg products and using its certified-organic line of ciders, drinks, salad dressing and seasonings. Sales of its flagship Bragg Apple Cider Vinegar are so strong that organic apples are in short supply, causing prices to rise substantially for Bragg, Patricia said.
Undaunted, the company is forging a new research partnership with Arizona State University and rolling out a line of drinks that mix its signature vinegar with honey and other natural ingredients. It has begun distributing organic apples to schools throughout the region to promote its pesticide-free, GMO-free ingredients.
Bragg products are one of the clearest forms of evidence for the cyclical nature of business, and the bottom line here is that a well-established brand can endure through good times and bad.
Although Patricia Bragg doesn’t like to talk about the details of the business and revenue remains as closely guarded a secret as her age, her helpful staff and the many articles written about her help fill in some blanks.
Paul Bragg was an early advocate of physical fitness, organic foods and regular fasting. A self-proclaimed “health crusader,” he lectured extensively and helped celebrities wean themselves off of Hollywood’s fast life.
He hit a home-run when a 15-year-old named Jack Lalane attended a lecture in Oakland and became a Bragg devotee. It was Lalane who emceed Paul Bragg’s 1976 funeral after he died from injuries suffered in a surfing accident.
The early 1970s were boom times in health food and Bragg helped many people launch health food enterprises — companies from GNC to Gardenburger trace their roots to early interactions with Bragg. The company moved from Burbank to Orange County and finally to Goleta.
Eight years ago, Patricia purchased a sprawling ranch in Winchester Canyon that today houses the company’s test kitchens, a fragrant rose garden, apple orchards, hand-built cabins filled with her massive doll collection and a lake with clubhouse. The decision to buy the new farm and quit the earlier headquarters on Hollister Avenue was made in eight minutes, according to company legend.
But the Bragg brand did have its share of hard times. At one point, Patricia Bragg cut the product line from a peak of 365 to a single offering — the company’s “Liquid Aminos” soy sauce substitute. But it turns out demand for hand-crafted organic apple cider vinegar, books about fasting and healthy eating with the Bragg brand did not fade away.
John Westerdahl, a Newbury Park resident with a Ph.D. and a master’s degree in public health, joined her team to help with new product development. Salad dressings and drinks soon joined the lineup, and two more drinks are in the test phase.
Although her father favored distribution through health-food stores, Patricia saw the need to reach new consumers via Whole Foods and other chains such as Safeway. The company believes it is the No. 1-selling organic apple cider vinegar nationwide. That means 2 million gallons are produced each year on contract with plants in Los Angeles and the Bay Area.
Meanwhile, Bragg personally owns a farm in Hawaii and another in Australia that operates “off the grid” on solar power. She’s a very hands-on manager, huddling briefly during an interview to talk to a ranch staffer about the status of a welding project.
Distribution agreements have placed her products in Canada, Europe, Australia and Asia, where her Hong Kong distributor is translating Bragg labels into two versions of Chinese.
In a world where consciousness about health and healthy living is beginning to take hold, the future, one might say, is something to Bragg about.
• Contact Editor Henry Dubroff at [email protected]