Grapes of Wrath: The Story of the Raisin Mafia
Raisins are simple –– they’re grapes that have been sun-dried, deseeded, sorted and packed. So how did this simple snack of dried fruits, known by the iconic sweet looking lady on the red box, get the reputation of being like the mafia?
In the early 20th century, raisins were a big business. In order to better organize and grow the industry, marketing cooperatives were set up to represent the farmers, set prices and grow sales across the country. Farmers “chose” to belong to the collective, but it came at a price. Sun-Maid – the largest collective – wanted to have as much power as possible, which meant convincing more and more families to join the collective. As the collective grew, so did Sun-Maid’s influence and control over farmers.
Collectives became so powerful that farmers who remained out of their local cooperative started to feel the pressure. Night raids to threaten families, cut down crops and destroy farm equipment became a common method to decrease competition from outside the collective. Stories of farmers being tied up and dunked in the water of a nearby canal were even reported. Things got so bad that the federal government had to step in and figure out what was going on. While Sun-Maid denies associating with these actions, they greatly benefited from the decreased competition and control of their supply chain (now we know why the box is red…).
If you’ve ever watched “The Sopranos”, “The Godfather” or any other mafia movies, something might sound familiar – the tight-knit, organized activity controlled by one key actor might sound like how a mafia family works. Mafia families are known for their organized criminal activities (everything from murder to labor racketeering), brutality and sheer influence – all from the shadows.
For most mafia families, it’s their roots and family history that gives them power. Sounds a lot like raisin collectives – violent, corrupt and shady, with everything happening behind the scenes to keep the families who ran the collectives in power.
By the 1920’s, Sun-Maid controlled over 90% of the market. It was the very definition of a monopoly. With control of the raisin supply, it drove up prices so much that Congress had to step in with oversight and legislation to control how Sun-Maid and other cooperatives operated.
In the years that followed, cooperatives continued to work to keep raisins at the front of people’s minds, they just had to work more in-the-lines under the government’s watchful eye. Instead of nightly criminal activity, collectives turned to marketing campaigns and their tight hold on the industry structure to ensure control. Said differently, their tactics became “less dark” and “more shady” – more mafia-like.
At the end of the 20th Century, sales of raisins had been on a steady decline in the US. Sun-Maid – still the powerhouse of the category – held 40% of the $500 Million raisin market. Execs knew they needed to do things differently to retain their control; they hired Harry Overly as CEO, hoping he would shake things up.
Overly hit the ground running, striking out to make changes both at Sun-Maid and in the industry itself. One night, Overly met with the other leaders in the category – both growers and sellers – in the back room of a restaurant (insert scene from "The Godfather"). While his goal was to get “everyone working together”, what he found was “nothing short of collusion” – nothing short of the mafia way.
While technically what was happening wasn’t illegal – the ways of the agriculture industry are very nuanced; cooperatives still work to set prices, control supply and do what they deem is best for the growers and packers (even if that means not following normal practices) – Overly just didn’t like it. He decided to pull Sun-Maid out of these bargaining groups and down its own path.
Unsurprisingly, the families who were part of the collectives didn’t like the industry giant forging ahead on its own. He was quickly met with intimidation, harassment and even death threats. Overly knew the job was a big task. He didn’t realize the job included violence and intimidation (quite the opposite of Tony Soprano who was well aware of what his job entailed).
While tensions have cooled between Sun-Maid and these other groups in the past few years, these stories have revealed that the raisin industry has a pretty sketchy past. It’s never been able to hide from its mafia-like ways.
Like we always say – raisins are the worst.