How Sunrise Fresh produces consistently excellent all-natural dried fruit products

Like any family business, Sunrise Fresh values its traditions. Fourth-generation farmers Case and Jake Samuel, the current Sunrise Fresh team, are building on the small, family-owned brand their family established before them.

“We’re not large and laborious,” Case Samuel says. “We’re little, likable, and lovable. We’re a small family company, putting our heart and soul into our products.”

But even tradition-based family businesses must continue to innovate. On that front, the Samuel brothers have discovered the magic of measuring water activity in their products—a tradition their family will probably carry for generations to come.

“There are so many variations and different ways of doing things,” Case Samuel says. “If the whole industry switched to water activity, that would make our lives a lot easier, I think, and also make our specs much more accurate.”

Technology and the Consumer Foods Industry

While measuring water activity is a relatively new practice, technological advances have been an integral part of the food industry for centuries. Recently, online stores have instigated a trend that has disrupted the food industry. Where food producers like Sunrise Fresh once brought their products to food shows in the hope of selling them to big stores like Costco, Walmart, and Target, these channels are not the only options anymore. 

“Now you have Amazon; you have eBay, ThriveMarket.com,” Case Samuel says. “These disrupters have changed the industry. We’re not in any brick-and-mortar store yet, but we’re the No. 1-selling dried fruit on Amazon for the past four years running. Selling on Amazon has allowed us to bring a different aspect to customer meetings. Instead of just saying, ‘Hey, we’re the new and unique products,’ now I have analytical data from Amazon’s analytics of who buys my products, how old they are, what their annual income is, where they live, how they found us, and what they’re using the product for. You have complete control over that and can go around [distributors] directly to consumers. And it’s looking pretty positive.”

During the COVID-19 pandemic, while many small businesses were struggling to remain open, Sunrise Fresh saw a significant increase in sales. The Samuels attribute this to the growing popularity of online grocery sales, which increased significantly during the months most people spent in isolation.

Modern Measurements: Water Activity

In family businesses, there’s a fine line between family tradition and business strategy. For Sunrise Fresh, one historically tricky aspect of running the company was accurately measuring moisture in their products. 

Decades ago, their grandfather essentially “tossed some cherries in a dryer and dried it down to where he likes it, and that was about all she wrote,” Jake Samuel says. 

But today, Sunrise Fresh has expanded into commercial markets. As a result, their grandfather’s “feel-it-out” methods for determining moisture content were no longer enough. Fortunately, it was no longer the only option. 

After using a moisture meter from the Dried Fruit Association with mixed results, Peaceful Fruits purchased an AQUALAB from METER Group in 2013 and started measuring water activity instead.

“In doing that, it opened our eyes to what water activity is,” Jake Samuel says. “We had no idea what water activity was before meeting and talking with [METER Group’s R&D lab]. Over the last couple of years, we’ve noticed water activity is even more important than moisture.”

“[Water activity] has been vital to our new projects,” Case Samuel says. “METER technology has been pretty impressive.” 

Developing New Snack Combinations

Once they started measuring water activity in their products, the Samuels were able to improve longstanding product lines and develop ideas for new snack combinations. With the ability to accurately measure water activity in different ingredients, the brothers experimented with new ingredient combinations. 

“For the last 60, 70 years, my mom and grandmother have been eating cherries and walnuts together,” Case Samuel says. “We’ve been drying cherries in our family for a long time. They’ve always just ended up on our family table, just mixed into a bowl. California walnuts and dried cherries go hand in hand together; the walnut’s starchiness and the cherries’ sweetness meld really well. My dad and I were eating it one day at my mom’s kitchen table, and I was thinking, ‘We need to make this. More people need to eat this.’”

The product, named “San Joaquin Blend” after the county in which both the walnuts and the cherries are grown, owes its commercial viability to the AQUALAB. The homemade version only ever lasted a few hours on the Samuel family dinner table, but making the product shelf-stable over extended periods took a little more science.

Simple Solutions

“If I’m going to combine a dry roasted California walnut—which has a high oil content—with a dry cherry, which has a lot of moisture in it, it’s going to be difficult to give it a six-month shelf life,” Case Samuel says. “It took us a long time to figure out where we need to be [water activity-wise].”

The variable moisture content in each ingredient complicated the problem, but measuring water activity made the solution simple.

“Whatever our moistures came out to—they never were the same—that 0.5 water activity worked out beautifully,” Case Samuel says. “Now we have a six-month shelf life on all of our nut snacking products.”


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