From rags to organic riches: Ukraine-born Jew makes healthy frozen food for kids

Gary Popkoff wanders through his frozen-food factory with a bounce in his step and a smile on his face. It’s no matter that he got to work at 6 a.m. and probably won’t leave until 8 p.m., that he’ll repeat this schedule five days a week, week after week. This is what he loves — food and business.

The Ukrainian Jewish immigrant built a frozen-food company from the ground up, first by selling traditional Russian foods, and more recently by offering a line of children’s organic meals called Kids Organic.

It is hospital-white inside Popkoff’s Frozen Foods in industrial southeast San Francisco. The sounds of mariachi music and Spanish chitchat fill the air.

The idea that the 36-year-old might someday own a food company — or that he could produce enough quantity and quality for Whole Foods to stock his line — was inconceivable two decades ago.

Popkoff was born in Ukraine in 1972, a time when “being a Jew was like a shame,” he recalled. “I was reminded every other day that I was Jewish so I would know my place.”

He was 7 when his family first tried to emigrate

to the United States. They sold their furniture, packed suitcases and organized their papers — only to hit a snag. The war in Afghanistan had just

begun, and officials closed the border, making it impossible for the family to leave. They returned to an empty house.

Nearly 10 years passed and the border reopened. The family finally left Ukraine, first spending eight months in Italy, then a month in New York before arriving in San Francisco in 1989. Popkoff was 16 and didn’t speak a word of English.

He enrolled at George Washington High School. While a student, he worked as a dishwasher at a now-closed Italian restaurant on Clement Street, then as a pizza delivery boy. After he graduated, he went to San Francisco City College, where he studied to be a dental technician.

But he always had a passion for food, so he and his father opened a Russian-European market and deli in 1995. European Food Wholesale on Clement and 31st streets is still open daily. Even today — though Popkoff works 60-plus hours a week — he spends Saturdays helping his dad at the deli.

The line of frozen Russian delicacies began when his uncle Peter decided he was too old to continue making pelmeni and pierogi. Popkoff offered to buy the business.

“So we walked through an alley to the carriage house in the back and he said, ‘This is my factory,'” Popkoff recalled, chuckling at the memory of the shockingly small space. “He said, ‘OK, you want to buy?’ I sell to you for $3,000.’ And we shook hands.”

Popkoff immediately remodeled the space. He bought new freezers and an industrial dough-mixer. He expanded the line from two items to 10, adding blintzes, stuffed peppers, stuffed cabbage and hinkali, a Georgian dumpling.

He got married and had a daughter. By 2002, his business was outgrowing its space, so he bought

a 7,000-square-foot factory in southeast San Francisco. He has no formal business training, only

“a good Jewish head,” he joked.

One day he attended a parent meeting for his daughter’s kindergarten class. He was one of the only dads there. “Everyone was talking about lunch, what it’s like. I’m listening, and I said, ‘OK, maybe I can do something to make it better.'”

The organic food business was booming — but as he scoured the frozen-food and snack aisles in grocery stores and natural food markets, he noticed something missing. “There was nothing [organic] for kids.”

He asked his daughter what she liked to eat. He asked her friends. He did a lot of research, and started making very un-Russian things like chicken fingers, three-cheese quesadillas and spaghetti. He gave away the food to family and friends, and interrogated them about its flavor and texture.

After many mistakes, he felt ready to launch Kids Organic, which offers six meals — all homemade, healthy and never fried.

The additional production required more employees and more equipment. He points to a heavy chrome machine — a special order from Israel, he boasts — that promises to triple his production of Kids Organic Chicken Stars and Pizza Stuffed Pinwheels.

He buys tortillas, chicken, broccoli and giant blocks of cheese from local vendors, such as Strauss Family Creamery and Fulton Valley Farms, and uses the machines to assemble the meals. Everything else — including cheese grating — is done by hand. He employs 45 people.

Kids Organic is frozen in Go Green containers, eco-friendly packaging made in Israel with less energy than most plastic. Instead of placing the meal in a box (“unnecessary packaging,” he notes), each meal is sealed with a Kids Organic label made of “steam film,” which cooks the meal without drying the food inside.

Popkoff estimates the factory packages 3,000 items per day. His goal is to make 10,000, so that his regional West Coast distribution can be expanded nationwide.

“I like to work, and yes, sometimes I want to rest. But the wheel is spinning so fast I can’t stop it right now,” he said. “I’m the first generation. And for my kids, hopefully it can be easier than it’s been for me.”

Kids Organic and Popkoff’s Frozen Foods are available in the Bay Area at Mollie Stone’s, Whole Foods, Andronico’s, Berkeley Bowl and European Food Wholesale in San Francisco.

Stacey Palevsky

Stacey Palevsky is a former J. staff writer.