If Christian radio personality Harold Camping has his math right — this time — we've all got exactly one month until the end of the world begins. (Huzzah!)
If he's wrong, the Mayans' 2012 death knell will be here soon enough to usher us into the Rapture, or Armageddon, or whatever hellish wasteland that the Cold War, Y2K and all those terrorists have thus far failed to deliver. And all else aside, if The Walking Dead and its ilk have taught us anything, it's that we can't rule out a zombie apocalypse.
The point is, this Earth Day, we should all be scared. Really scared. No bulb or photovoltaic or Smart car or depressing documentary film can save us now. Let's quit pretending we can stave off the unavoidable pandemic super-flu and keep this spiraling Virgin Atlantic airplane from crashing. Let's get real and talk about the options for those lucky few of us who, in the words of the great Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins, will be Left Behind when the shit really hits all our little windmills.
Because really, how fashionable will you be in the new world, assuredly an arid, desolate Mad Max-esque landscape, without a fat horde of cans to protect with a semi-automatic arsenal?
This Earth Day, instead of praising all those idealists who encouraged us to limit oil consumption, plant a garden, and install low-flow toilets, it's time to honor an unsung hero that's been trying to save our asses for more than half a century. It's time to look at a business where the practical and impractical intersect in weird, wonderful ways, where timeliness and timelessness work in perfect harmony and the motto "Life Insurance You Can Eat!" is no laughing matter. (Quit laughing.)
Cañon City-based Sam Andy Foods could be the difference between your starving shortly after May 21, 2011, or two years later, when your $2,995 Safe & Secure Unit finally runs dry. If you're going to go out, you might as well go out in style.
OK, so I'm obviously being a smart ass, but not without reason. After all, you can't really profile a business that warns, "If you're not ready for anything, you may be too late!" without delving into the most obvious demographic to which it appeals: the goofballs, extremists and anyone who refers to their mountain cabin as their "bug-out location."
But that, too, is obvious, and what was actually surprising in touring Sam Andy's production facility with principal owner John Randolph Sauer was how down-to-Earth it all felt. When you get past the spooky literature — see "33 Compelling Reasons Why A Sam Andy Emergency Home Food Storage Program Will Be The Best Investment You'll Ever Make!" at samandy.com — you see it's not much more than a culinary contingency plan with a Boy-Scout pragmatism.
"'Be prepared.' 'Anything can happen at any time.' 'Are you ready?' Those are our basic themes," says Sauer. "People think we're somehow related to survivalists. No, we're not related — we are survivalists. We produce a product that lasts 25 to 50 years."
Stocky and grayed over large tinted glasses, the 68-year-old who goes by J.R. steers conversation away from the cultish side of food stockpiling as much as he can. Though Sam Andy smartly pays for radio advertising on the Alex Jones Show — a conspiracist mecca in the vein of Coast to Coast — its leader says he just wants you to have "a supply of food safely put away."
"Back in the Depression, 95 percent of the population lived on or near a farm," he says. "It was a time in our history when being self-sufficient was a smart thing and the regular thing to do. ... Now, it's just the opposite. We have a lot more vulnerability now."
Mostly he says, that's because the vast majority of us depend on the pipeline between farms and stores. If anything happens to our food chain, your supermarket "gets empty fast — there's not some big old warehouse behind that store."
And if something happens to you, well ...
Take the example of his personal friend Howard Ruff, author of Famine and Survival in America. The way Sauer tells it, Ruff was able to feed his nine-member family mostly off of his Sam Andy supply when one of his business ventures failed and he endured a prolonged period of unemployment.
"Whether you're selling life or medical or car insurance or food insurance, it's all same idea," Sauer says. "It's about how much risk you're willing to take and be exposed to."
Mormons like Ruff make up one of Sam Andy's most prolific customer bases, thanks to the religion's literal doctrines of readiness. But in total, nearly half a million customers of all stripes have shopped Sam Andy since Sauer and fellow investors bought the company more than 30 years ago. And the business' most ringing endorsements have come via the national media, which has dropped in on Sam Andy throughout the past 50 years.
It's for good reason: The company has long enjoyed military, government, international foreign embassy and even NASA contracts, according to Sauer. (Not that he can say where all the food's wound up; though its inspectors have dropped in to oversee the manufacturing line, the government's not always divulged exactly who is requesting the food, or why.) When television cameras panned across stacks of Sam Andy foods during filming of a documentary on the Bunker at The Greenbrier, a Cold War-era fallout shelter for Congress, one of the company's best selling sprees began.
But just as kind as the camera has been, it's also been unflattering. Mention one little word, and Sauer tenses: Waco. Yes, religious fanatic David Koresh was apparently a Sam Andy client, and you can imagine how product placement inside a horrific massacre site went over.
"It's difficult to wipe that off your reputation," Sauer says. And yet, it's not as if he can control the actions or beliefs of those who purchase his products.
"We want to walk a real fine line right down the middle of the road," Sauer says. "We don't want to be anti- or pro- anything. All of us are glad we're in this country ... the only thing we're extreme about is our customer service and taking care of our people."
Specifically, those people are about a dozen full-time employees and another dozen part-timers who work the canning line. Since 1999, they've toiled inside a 35,000-square-foot facility in a drab Cañon City industrial park. The building bears no Sam Andy signage, and Sauer says it isn't really integrated into the community. (While in town, I ask nearly a dozen locals if they'd heard of Sam Andy, and only one person has.)
"We're just a quiet bunch of people doing their business," Sauer says.
Years ago, he used to provide tours, but it ate up too much time. Now, he prefers that folks don't just show up at his door. Many who used to weren't appreciated: competitors doing reconnaissance, gun people wanting to talk shop, and people he terms religious "converts."
It's never really been a storefront operation. In the olden days, distributors would go into homes and cook Sam Andy products to earn clients. Now, those distributors — an ever-fluctuating list of some 1,000 to 5,000 individuals or dealers — do the majority of their business by phone and e-mail. But Sauer is sure to be clear: It is not a MLM (multi-level marketing) racket. These people are extended Sam Andy family.
And you, should you become a Sam Andy customer, would be in the third tier of kin.
"Everyone knows that if you do business with us, we protect you like family," says Sauer, speaking specifically to their policy of discretion. Savvy survivalists obviously don't want pox-ridden, roving gangs to come after their stash courtesy a post-collapse Rolodex raid at Sam Andy. So in the interest of shredding a paper trail, Sauer accommodates invoices sans addresses and even deliveries to self-storage facilities so that paranoid — er, um ... I mean practical — parties can later secret the goods away to their hidey holes.
Sam Andy carries around 150 items, ranging from dried fruits and veggies to flours, grains, dairy powders, pre-mixed casseroles and soups and textured vegetable protein (TVP) meant to mimic beef and chicken. Much of the food itself, purchased from around 25 vendors in the U.S. (the company won't buy international) doesn't differ much from dehydrated items and camping foods at outfitting shops.
"It's just plain good old-fashioned food that water has been removed from," Sauer says, though he does concede that some items use sulfites, coloring agents and the like.
The difference in making it hold up for long-term storage is the process by which it's canned. Send off for the free, hilariously dated DVD that will help you "be secure in the '90s and beyond," and you'll learn about the canning process that Sauer says was co-developed by the Army Corps of Engineers. Basically, products are dehydrated to a mandatory 3 percent moisture content or below and placed in special enamel-plated cans that are hermetically sealed with a nitrogen blend.
Adequate calorie and protein counts are established by servings — currently amounting to around $1.40 a meal — and most just need to be reconstituted with water and heated to be ready for consumption. Because of its low moisture, a year's supply for two weighs only 600 pounds and can be stacked inside the closet of an average studio apartment.
The cans are guaranteed to last 25 years, but Sauer says they'll likely hold out 50. Page Dexter, a former Sam Andy employee from the '90s, says he recalls cracking open a kit from the late '50s and finding it "as good as the day as it was packaged."
He adds that he's still got his own stockpile, which he assembled from damaged cases.
"It's always peace of mind to have it there," he says, adding that as a former Navy man, he still has that "survival mode" in him (even if today he's a Cañon City mortgage banker).
Another selling point to the cans is that they themselves are sellable: The same unit that costs $2,995 today only cost $1,400 as recently as two years ago. Sauer says he's seen a couple of eBay transactions, and it's obvious that those distributors with enough capital to stock several additional units stand to financially benefit most from future sales.
But really? Food as an investment?
Cue the next Sam Andy catchphrase: "You can't eat gold."
If they hadn't already, Sauer and his fellow investors started thinking this way in 1978, when one of Sam Andy's co-owners called to inquire if they wanted to buy the company, then located in Banning, Calif.
The man's name was Mr. Anderson, and his partner was named Sampson. They were both bishops in the Mormon church, and after having founded the company in the late '50s, they were finally ready to retire. They'd somehow heard about the Sauer Group and a couple of then-recent acquisitions.
"We buy and sell and build companies," explains Sauer. "We're like cattlemen — we get them fat and take them to market. ... If they're really good, we'll keep them."
Sauer says he and Anderson met and hit it off, and within five days, his investor group purchased the established company for less than $1 million.
Since then, the company has hit between $2 million and $24 million in sales annually, with obvious boom years such as around Y2K. Today it's the oldest such outfit around, with few competitors — Sauer's investment groups have bought several of them up. And because of recent economic turmoil paired with events like the Japanese earthquake/tsunami/nuclear crisis, "business is awful good right now."
"Do some people buy because of fear — yeah absolutely, that's why they buy insurance too," says Sauer. "It's a law that you have to have insurance on your car. It's not a law that you have to have food insurance. But it's a very wise thing to do. So yeah, there's fear, but we don't whip that into high gear. We don't fan the flames of a camp fire to start a forest fire — we don't have to."
During the writing of this story, a tremendous amount of concerned calls and a clear demand for anti-radiation tablets led Sam Andy to begin selling two-week supplies of potassium iodide pills for $19.95. ("Hurry ... while supplies last.")
Sauer has taken many of those calls himself — he says he puts in 90-hour weeks between this and other businesses that he and groups of investors own together. This son of a Loveland farmer has carried a plowman's work ethic with him, and still finds satisfaction in an honest day's work. He also serves as a mentor not only to his five living children, but also to the nephews who are still farming in northern Colorado. And he tries to do one nice deed for someone each day, such as slipping elderly friends food, or a gold dollar at church.
But make no mistake: Church is church, and business is business.
"I can't tell another person how to believe in their religious leanings or convictions," he says. "I try to be the Good Samaritan provider of what I do provide for practical and impractical reasons that people might buy it. But everyone's got to eat. I love this business because you can't hurt people — you can only help them.
"We can't solve all the world's problems, but we can provide something that's valuable for people to make it less difficult for them to go through an emergency."
When his days of fielding customer calls draw to a close, Sauer intends for Sam Andy to stay and likely expand in Cañon City. Maybe he'll pass it to one of his sons, who will keep up the work for "well-fed tomorrows." (Yup, another company slogan.)
Because despite the fanatics, the cynics and all the rest of us Rapture rejects who'll likely begin turning into emaciated worm fodder in a bee-less world next month, these damned food stockpiles are going to outlive us all.
Leave it to the Mormons to cheat death, if only for a little while. Let's hope they remembered to pack their can openers in their bunkers.
A taste of tomorrow
Though many food-industry professionals probably hope that a new world built out of the apocalypse's ashes would be devoid of food critics, let's deny them their fantasy and hypothesize that yours truly is the last man alive.
And lo and behold, look who's purchased a Sam Andy food supply, just in case of emergency. Because when faced with the starving doomsday alternative — radioactive rodents or your shoe — canned goods win every time.
It's Day One after said indeterminate calamity, and all the stress and worry has made me hungry. I crack open cans of four products: potato granules, Spanish Rice Casserole, Macaroni & Cheese Casserole and some granola.
Now, in a perfect hypothetical scenario, I'd also have Sam Andy milk and margarine powder for the mac & cheese, and purified water and a camp stove by which to prep everything. But in my less-than-perfect study — as in, I'm actually in my kitchen on a pre-apocalyptic weeknight, with access to a working fridge, stove and faucet — I just reach for my own milk and butter and prep the items like normal.
The above four items are what I could acquire for sampling from Sam Andy on short notice. (Yes, they do sell in smaller quantities than full kits.) And here, in brief, is what I think of each.
• Spanish rice casserole: The best of the batch by far. Indistinguishable from a fine mix you'd buy at the store today. There are long grains of rice, textured vegetable protein and vegetable bits, and a great spice blend with a wonderful aroma. Your bunker has never smelled so good. Or will never smell so good again. Whatever. The only detractor: partially hydrogenated soybean oil. (You've survived the collapse — now contend with trans fats! Bwahaha!)
• Potato granules: In a word, dry. Pretty much like any instant potato powder from the store, except this one has supernatural liquid-absorption properties. We nearly triple the recommended milk requirement to achieve a near-creamy texture. Black truffle salt (hey — I'm a gourmet survivor), sea salt, black pepper and rosemary do wonders, but the vortex of moisture-suck is an ever-present nemesis. Also questionable: BHT, a possible cancer-causing substance that's banned in England, as a preservative.
• Macaroni & Cheese Casserole: Think elementary school cafeteria mac & cheese or dollar-store knock-off brand. It's texturally tacky, carb-loaded, eerily Technicolor neon and, I have to admit, sinfully delicious in a comfort-food way. Cons: more partial hydrogenate, food coloring and artificial additives.
• Granola: A totally decent, honey-sweetened mix of oats, coconut, seeds, nuts and flavorful spices like fenugreek, nutmeg and, as the label puts it, "cardamon." Bring on the Sam Andy milk powder and dried fruit catalog for toppings. Faults: none.
— Matthew Schniper