The rock-covered exterior of the unassuming factory on East Highway 12 in Lodi is easy to zoom past. The sapphire blue and earthy greens featured on the company's sign are the only features that make the outside of this building briefly noticeable.
But inside the 30,000-square-foot factory, a dedicated team works to make the words "Made in America" mean something again.
They are producing Champion Juicers with the same pride, dedication and attention to detail that they have for more than five decades. And they are doing it in Lodi.
Plastaket Manufacturing Company Inc. has been part the city's industrial base since the 1950s and is the birthplace of Champion Juicers, one of the only juicers designed and built in the United States. The appliances are sold for home or commercial use, both domestically and internationally.
"We are proof that manufacturing companies can survive in the United States and in California," said Richard Radulovich, general manager for Plastaket.
In a society that consumes and tosses aside, Champion Juicers are built to last for generations. Its construction is simple yet durable. There are minimal moving parts. It's simple to clean and easy to use. The plant's 29 employees take pride in knowing that what they create will be used and admired by its owners for years. The juicers end up in kitchens in Washington, Colorado, New Zealand, Germany and France. The Champion Juicer is also a workhorse in commercial kitchens across the globe.
Starting with the motor
It takes collective skills honed over many years — and five days — to put together a Champion Juicer.
It starts with the motor.
The first day includes testing the motor and preparing the base.
A one-third horsepower General Electric motor drives the Champion Juicer. It must be reliable, since it will be responsible for powering the blades used to crush and chew everything from kale to strawberries. The first electrical check is a vibration and sound test to ensure the juicer is no louder than a dishwasher when operating. The motor is run for several minutes to test its durability.
The steel base, designed by the company, is manufactured in Chico and shipped to Lodi. Workers buff out any impurities before bases are placed in an agitating bin to soften the rough edges. The smooth, polished base is ready to be primed for painting.
A classic and sturdy design
Founded in 1950 by Harry Trovinger in a brick factory across the street from where the current plant rests, the company initially produced plastic fruit baskets. It's name was created by combining the words "plastic" and "basket." Harry Trovinger introduced the company's first juicer in 1955. In 2007, Plastaket acquired Big Valley Molds and used its ability to custom mold plastics to enhance its development of the juicer.
Little has changed with the looks of the bulky, 26-pound juicer over the decades, Radulovich admits, but that doesn't mean the company isn't thinking about revolutionizing its signature product.
"Our first juicer rolled off the assembly line in 1955, and it kind of still looks that way," he said.
The exterior of the motor looks like the housing for a jet engine turbine. The base it rests upon is reminiscent of an anvil with edges that slope inward. The detachable exterior assembly that houses the blade and screen looks similar to a countertop meat grinder.
The important thing to remember when designing kitchen appliances, Radulovich said, is that the product becomes part of the owner's decor in the room. Champion 2000+ juicers feature slick paint jobs on par with what you would find on any automobile in a nearby dealership. The juicers come in four colors: white, black, almond and silver, but Radulovich said the paint jobs could become a thing of the past in the next few years.
Because of their ability to make plastic molds, the company could create a juicer with a plastic casing in the coming years. Until then, workers will continue to prime and paint the steel pieces in one of the four colors.
The Champion Juicer 2000+ is a multi-tasker. Besides juicing, it can homogenize cooked vegetables into baby food and frozen produce into sorbet. A die-cast aluminum grain mill attachment is available. It features coarse and fine settings, and can be used to crack peppercorns, make flour from grain or cornmeal from dried corn.
Longtime employees who enjoy their jobs
Forklifts maneuver pallets throughout the factory as sanding tools whir and machines weighing several tons stamp out the juicer's screens, blades and even the rubber feet the appliance rests on. Aromas of wet paint, industrial solvents and rubber waft throughout the plant as blasts of compressed air ring out.
Besides the blades, screens and rubber, the factory also features a machine that hermetically seals pieces of plastic together to create the plunger users will put into service when it comes time to drop fruits and vegetables into the juicer. There is also a section of the plant devoted to drafting and designing accessories for the juicer.
"There's literally nothing we can't do here," said Radulovich.
Working on the Champion Juicer can be a family affair. Plastaket managers are proud of their ability to produce a reliable product and keep jobs in Lodi. The average employee has worked for the company for 15 years, Radulovich said.
Harry's son, Russell, now oversees the operation. For Ken Schmidke, working on the Champion Juicer runs in his bloodline as well. After graduating from Tokay High School in 1985, Schmidke's father landed him a job at the plant. The pair worked side-by-side for 11 years.
"It's a stress-free job," Schmidke said. "The bosses are great."
Having no experience with electrical work before working on the juicer, Schmidke was trained on the job. He skillfully wires the appliance and conceals the wires within the base of the juicer. It takes him 90 seconds to wire a Champion Juicer. He can knock out about 40 in two hours.
Moving into the digital age
The company recognized the changing marketplace due to globalization and embraced the digital age. For years, the juicers were commonly sold at nutrition stores and specialty shops, but the Internet and megastores changed all that.
Champion Juicers` are still available at places like Sheri's Sonshine Nutrition Center in Lodi, but customers can also purchase the juicers online at championjuicer.com or at the warehouse itself.
The overwhelming bulk of juicer sales come from the Internet, said Doug Kirkle, sales manager.
To Poland — or North Carolina
After all the testing, priming, painting and wiring, the juicers are ready to be shipped. Workers lift the appliances and place them in boxes. A final look ensures the product ships with the correct wiring and plugs depending on its destination. An instructional manual featuring up to seven different languages is included as well.
The juicers will be shipped across the country or across the globe. This week, pallets stacked with boxes were being prepared to be sent to locations such as the Czech Republic, Poland and North Carolina. From there, they will begin their life of service making orange juice, sorbets and a variety of other concoctions. The juicer's durability virtually ensures the product will be something the owner's children fight over in a will someday. It's a $255 investment that juices for generations.
"We wouldn't put a 10-year warranty on something that didn't last 20," said Kirkle.
It's been that way for decades. And it's all made in Lodi, U.S.A.
A brief history of Plastaket and the Champion Juicer— In 1950, Plastaket Manufacturing Company is founded by Harry Trovinger. The company's name was developed by combing the material used, plastic, with the merchandise it produced, fruit baskets. Trovinger managed the company for more than 50 years.
— In 1955, the company starts manufacturing its own juicer.
— Plastaket introduces the grain mill attachment for the juicer in 1977. The attachment enables the user to make flour from grains, grind coffee beans, crack peppercorns, make peanut butter from whole peanuts and produce cornmeal from dried corn kernels.
— The juicing industry explodes in the early 1990s and the Champion Juicer benefits from the surge. In 1992, Plastaket sells nearly 90,000 juicers.
— In 1993, a magnetic sensor is added to the juicer to improve safety for the user. The sensor enables the juicer to shut down automatically when its body that houses the blade and screen is disengaged from the motorized base.
— A silver juicer is introduced in 2004 to blend in with modern kitchens.
— Plastaket Manufacturing Corporation Inc. is located at 6220 E. Highway 12. The phone number is 369-2154. For more information on the Champion 2000+ Juicer, visit championjuicer.com.
Source: Plastaket Manufacturing Company Inc