How a science professor sprouted an organic food enterprise from scratch
Committed to making a positive impact on society, community, and the environment.
It all began a few years ago in the idyllic town of Idyllwild, where Michael Wangler began making sauerkraut and almond milk for a local food market. Michael, who, at the time, was a science professor, wasn’t satisfied with the quality of available raw food products. After the locals got a taste of the good stuff, they began asking for more. Soon, Michael started his own commercial production of living foods using recipes he had perfected to meet his high quality standards and please his discerning palate. “I took a leap and decided I was going to expand my line and create more sprouted products, like the nuts, trail mixes and the crunch line that we have now. And I needed my own kitchen. So, I leased a space on the other side of town in Idyllwild, built a kitchen and went into production without any accounts to speak of, except for the store where I began making the sauerkraut and almond milk,” said Michael.
Three years ago, as more orders came in from stores in the Coachella Valley, Michael began to sell his unique raw, organic, living foods at Farmers’ Markets in Palm Springs, Palm Desert and La Quinta—and that’s when Sky Island Organics was born.
Sky Island Organics started small and is growing fast, however, expansion has happened organically. As product demand grew from farmers’ markets and natural food stores across Southern California, Michael outgrew the kitchen he was using and moved into his own larger kitchen.
Not long after that, in 2014, due to demand for Sky Island Organics products, an even larger kitchen was needed to keep up with growth. “We found a great spot in Palm Springs, near the airport. It’s a 2000 square foot warehouse with a 1500
square foot kitchen. We went from a 150 square foot kitchen in Idyllwild to a 1500 square foot kitchen in Palm Springs. We’re going to be able to expand significantly in the coming months and even years, to meet the growing demand. We have a really good following.”
“We’re well known throughout the Coachella Valley and we’re in several Northern California stores—up around Lake Tahoe, Mammoth and in the foothills of the Sierra. They’re doing very well, and soon, Sky Island Organics will be carried by Clark’s. The main focus of our expansion will be in Orange County, Los Angeles County and San Diego County,” said Michael.
Sky Island Natural Foods in Idyllwild
When the natural foods market in Idyllwild where Michael introduced his recipes went up for sale, he purchased the store and it became Sky Island Natural Foods.
“The store was going to close if I didn’t buy it. That’s what motivated me to finally make the decision. It had been up for sale for a while, and when they put up a sign that said they were closing the store, people were very disturbed by that. So I bought it. Now there are two companies; Sky Island Organics is our wholesale food manufacturing company, and Sky Island Natural Foods is our health food store with groceries and perishables that also carries Sky Island products. We’re very well known here in Idyllwild because it’s where we started.”
The store has had several improvements since it was purchased about a year ago. “We’ve completely renovated the entire place. The floors, doors and windows are all new. The whole front end was torn out and redone. The Café is brand new too. We opened the Café with a simple menu focused on fresh organic healthy foods. The name and artwork for our Café, which is called ‘Meadow Greens Café’, were created by my eight-year-old daughter, Julia, who was seven years old at the time. It’s just been an amazing synergetic experience to go through this remodel.
It was chaotic, but everybody really appreciates it. We’ve had a great response, and we did everything we could to support the local economy during the remodel. For example, the checkout counter at the Meadow Greens Café and the bar, where people can sit at and look out the window—those are locally milled cedar planks. We hired a local company that cut them and used all local contractors,” explained Michael.
Local, Organic & Artisan Foods
“We carry standard organic and natural products like you’d find in any health food store. But, wherever we can, we try to bring in local and artisan products that are really unique. We have several vendors here in Idyllwild. The bread we carry is from ‘Strawberry Creek Bakery.’ It’s the best organic artisan bakery you’re going to find in Southern California. One of my store managers, Ryan Jackson, makes a probiotic tea similar to kombucha, right here in our kitchen. I’m trying to provide an opportunity for people who have unique artisan products, to rent our kitchen, make their products and get them out there, because that’s how I started. Actually, I started in this kitchen in the same kind of way. So I’m trying to return that to the community, for people who want it.”
“Regina, who works here, makes sprouted nut cheeses and an amazing vegan cheesecake—all kinds of good things. We even carry foods from artisans that aren’t here in Idyllwild. We bring them in from the desert. We’re going to be carrying Qué Mami Organics. We’re the first store to carry their organic tamales, and we’re going to have them on our menu. We’re trying to support the local companies, especially those who are just getting started, as much as possible. One of the special things about our store, is we’re not just another generic health food store. We have a lot of really unique products you’re not going to find anywhere else. To be in the industry and really do it right, to be a model for others to follow—it’s exciting!”
The Organic Way is Here to Stay
Organic foods are produced using methods that don’t involve pesticides and chemical fertilizers. The demand for organic foods free from pesticides and chemical fertilizers is primarily driven by personal health and environmental reasons, and the United States has seen organic food sales grow significantly since 2000. Organic food sales in the United States is predicted to generate about 42 billion dollars in 2014, according to Statista.
Michael observes,“Organic has become more and more important, because people are recognizing what our conventional agricultural practices are doing to the planet, to themselves, the land, the air and the water. And it’s getting more and more toxic all the time.”
“A segment of the population believes that in the 60s we took care of that when DDT was banned. DDT is one of the most well known synthetic insecticides that kill by acting as a nerve poison. There are chemicals being used today that are worse than DDT.
“More and more people are eating organic because they know it’s the right thing to do. But it doesn’t always fill their needs for a diversity of flavors and experiences with food. That’s one of the things we’re trying to change, by providing a high quality experience for people who eat here or buy our products.
“Now, many avoid heavily processed food and understand that the less you do to the original product, the more nutritional value you’re going to get out of it. That’s why the raw food movement is really taking hold. If you’re not cooking it, you’ll get the maximum nutritional value out of it.”
“Most processed foods, whether in a bag, a can or a box, has been cooked until it’s dead. There’s very little nutrient value left in it. People are becoming aware of that and are seeking minimally processed or truly raw products.”
“There’s a growing awareness about organics, and if you make it taste good, people will buy it. That’s the key. So for both Sky Island Organics, our commercial production company, and our Sky Island Natural Foods store, we make the best tasting food out there. Nobody even comes close to what we’re doing.”
Committed to Healthier Living and a Healthier Planet
In 2013, Sky Island Organics became a benefit corporation—a corporation committed to positive impact on society, community and the environment.
Michael is clearly dedicated to providing people with healthier and tasty food choices, and he’s equally committed to protecting our environment and the planet. He explains, “You can’t add artificial fertilizers if you’re farming organically. Organic soils, by their nature, are healthier. They’re alive, full of nutrients, and the plants are going to take that in. So you’re getting more nutrition because there are more nutrients in the soil for the plants to take in and pass on to you. It’s so multifaceted. You get a better nutritional product, and you’re doing better for the planet. Organic farming is about building and nurturing soil rather than just taking from the soil, making your money and moving on. It’s about farming in a way that reduces erosion, provides habitat for wildlife, treats the planet with respect and treats people with respect. Organic farming is really tough work. You have to be very mindful and very devoted to it. It has a good payoff if you can have that focus. But, it’s very challenging work—very physical.”
“Organic growers tend to be more socially, environmentally and economically responsible in every way. If people don’t buy organic, farmers won’t grow organic. One of the most significant things you can do to help the planet in every way possible, is to be eating low on the food chain and eating organic. Meaning, not eating a lot of meat, because producing meat requires a lot more energy and resources than producing vegetables.”
Sprouting and Fermenting Make a Difference
Sky Island Organics Nut Butters, Nut Milks, Trail Mixes & Crunches are all “sprouted” as in; soaked in filtered water to release the phytic acid and bitter
alkaloids, while activating the living enzymes and enhancing their natural sweetness. Although the term “sprouted” is being seen more often on healthy food product labels, many don’t know the significance of this attribute. Michael states, “Eating sprouted foods is so much better for you.”
“All seeds, whether from a pine tree or a bean plant, have to survive out in nature sitting in the soil for possibly months or even years, before the right conditions are there to germinate. Well, there are chemicals the plant produces that helps to protect itself and will keep it from germinating until there are water and nutrients available. Those chemicals are difficult for our bodies to digest. So, if you eat raw nuts straight off the tree, or wheat that has been grinded into flour without sprouting first, those chemicals are going to get into your system and it’s going to make it harder to digest that food. Sprouting’s just about soaking—you soak it overnight, wash the wastewater away, and you’re done. The key is to get water into the seed. It then goes through a chemical reaction that releases those chemicals, allowing your body to more easily digest the food. Most raw nuts and seeds have a little bit of bitterness, and those chemicals are what’s causing the bitterness. So you get a much sweeter, more flavorful product as well.”
There is high demand for Sky Island Organics Cultured Sauerkraut and Cultured Olives. Naturally fermented sauerkraut is
ripe with probiotic power. It’s a product brimming with healthy properties that will help ensure good health.
“Our fermented foods have healthy bacteria—probiotics, that you’ll find in yogurt and cultured products. They’re alkalinizing foods. You can’t get more of an alkalinizing food than sauerkraut. With the environment we live in, we’re constantly being bombarded with pollution and we’re all very acidic. You want to alkalinize your system and add healthy bacteria so they can balance the other bacteria that are trying to challenge your immune system.”
“We have six flavors of olives and they’re the only truly raw, live-cultured olives in California. They have to be refrigerated because they’re alive, and they’re going to continue fermenting at room temperature. Same with the sauerkrauts. The healthy
bacteria are still alive in there. It hasn’t been cooked. It hasn’t been killed.”
Locations that carry Sky Island Organics are expanding.
Visit: www.skyislandorganics.com to find a location near you.
For more information about Sky Island Organics products, and to find a location near you, please visit their website: skyislandorganics.com.
Sky Island Natural Foods is located at: 54423 Village Center Drive, Idyllwild CA 92201