From mayonnaise jars to major company: the history of Jonathan's Sprouts

By Andrea Ray | Jun 23, 2017
Photo by: Andrea Ray Bob and Barbi Sanderson, in front of the Jonathan's Sprouts Barn, which was previously a dairy barn, on Vaughan Hill Road in Rochester.

Rochester — Jonathan's Sprouts began humbly - inside re-purposed mayonnaise jars in a bathtub, to be precise.

Now the thriving company, headquartered at an old dairy barn in Rochester, is one of the largest sprouts growers in New England, if not the United States.

Jonathan's Sprouts owners Bob and Barbi Sanderson recounted the company's history at the June 21 meeting of the Rochester Historical Society.

Bob Sanderson was running a house painting business in Marion in the 1970s when, he explained, his friend Jonathan started growing and selling sprouts. Bob and Barbi would help deliver the "alfalfa sprouts." Quickly, people began asking about "Jonathan's Sprouts."

Jonathan got out of the business, but Bob and Barbi remained. Initially they took in used mayonnaise cans from Old Rochester Regional High School. They would fill the cans with seeds, wet them, put the mayonnaise jars in the bathtub of their guest bathroom, and harvest the sprouts every few days. They would store the sprouts in the cooler at Gibbs Dairy, which is where the Rochester Post Office is now located.

Demand continued to rise as Bob and Barbi negotiated contracts with several area grocery stores, including Shaws (which was then Brockton Market) and Hannaford's. "We've outlived many of the supermarkets," Bob chuckled.

Eventually a guest bathroom was no longer big enough for the thriving business. Bob and Barbi leased "50 feet of space" inside an old dairy barn at White's Dairy in Rochester, then owned by Jim White. "The dairy business in Rochester was dying out at the time, and Jim knew it," Bob explained.

Fifty feet of space has turned into nearly the entire barn (property owner Frank Cervelli maintains some space), which has now been converted into growing and packing space.

Far from delivering the sprouts to grocers themselves, as they did early on, Bob and Barbi have several delivery trucks, which travel to local grocers as well as to the Shaw's distribution center in Methuen. (Unfortunately, the two original delivery trucks "Petunia" and "Red Dragon" have been retired!)

The Sandersons were also original members of the International Sprout Growers Association, which began life in the late 1980s as the New England Sprout Growers Association. "Sprouts suddenly became popular to eat and grow," Barbi said. "We thought it would be a good idea for all of us to get together and help each other, rather than cut into each other's business."

Today the association includes members from all over the world. The Sandersons said they had traveled to meetings in Winnipeg, Cancun, Paris, Amsterdam and Tokyo.

To Bob, the years of time and effort have been a blur. "Where did those 40 years go?" he asked.

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