January 27, 2003 12:00 PM

Frozen pizza was a good one. Cheese in a spray can? Genius. And, of course, sliced bread, the greatest thing since—well, you know. When it comes to clever food packaging, though, few creations have proved as useful as that favorite of harried mothers and hapless bachelors everywhere: salad in a bag. Just how did married farmers Drew and Myra Goodman come up with the idea? “It was an accident,” says Myra. “We had a field of lettuce that was going to go bad if we didn’t do something.”

That happy blunder has sprouted a produce empire that is noticeably changing the way America eats. The Goodmans didn’t just bag any old lettuce; they grew organic produce, harvested without pesticides. Today their business, Earthbound Farm, is the largest grower of organic produce in the U.S., selling 15 million salad servings a week in superchains like Costco, Wal-Mart and even Wendy’s, and generating more than $200 million a year in sales. Along the way Earthbound helped move organic foods into their own sections and even entire stores, contributing to a boom in the organic food market. “They brought a boutique product to some of the biggest mass stores,” says Bob Scowcroft, executive director of the Organic Farming Research Foundation. “It was a chef’s luxury, and now it’s available to all of us across the country.”

Getting their goods into the hands of millions is an even more impressive feat considering that neither Drew, 42, nor Myra, 39, had any background in farming. Drew is the son of noted art dealer James Goodman, 73, and stepmom Kathy, 59; Myra’s father, Mendek Rubin, 78, is a retired jeweler, and her mother, Edith, 74, was a homemaker. Living near each other on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, they attended the same high school but never spoke. “We knew of each other and had friends in common,” says Drew. “We just never met.”

The Grateful Dead took care of that in 1983. Drew, who was friendly with Myra’s sister, a fellow student at the University of California at Santa Cruz, phoned Myra and asked her to get tickets for a Dead concert at Berkeley, where she was studying. They went to the show together and got along like oil and vinegar. Married in ’86, they moved into a run-down house with a few acres of raspberry bushes in Northern California’s Carmel Valley. “We negotiated for free rent in return for tending to the raspberries,” says Myra, who figured they would stay a year before heading back East.

They never left. At first they sold berries at a roadside stand, opting against pesticides because “we didn’t want to breathe chemical fumes,” says/ Drew. Soon they were growing lettuce and got their first big client: the Rio Grill, an innovative Carmel restaurant. “Drew would bring the order and pull it out of the trunk of his car,” recalls Tony Tollner, Rio’s owner. “But they were these beautiful baby lettuces.”

In 1986, a chef at Rio asked them to grow a specific mix of lettuces. But by the time the order was ready, the chef had quit. Stuck with a field of lettuce and no one to sell it to, “we bought a bunch of Ziploc bags,” says Myra. “Then we stapled them shut and took them to stores.” Now, Earthbound has 1,500 workers on some 13,000 acres, cultivated using state-of-the-art techniques developed by the Earthbound staff over the years. “It’s pretty impressive what they’ve been able to do,” says Frank Padilla, the produce buyer for Costco. “To maintain color and taste in every single bag, you have to fight the elements every inch of the way.”

Lettuce isn’t the only thing they raised on the farm: Daughter Marea, 12, and son Jeffrey, 10, are growing up in a modest ranch house not far from the small house the Goodmans lived in 20 years ago. Drew and Myra pride themselves on running a family-centric business: During their first meeting with Padilla, “I was breast-feeding my child,” Myra recalls with a laugh. “Frank never said a word.”

Their innovative spirit has definitely been passed down. At a recent family dinner in Las Vegas, Jeffrey was eager to eat his salad, but the waiter had yet to bring forks. “So he took two bread-sticks and used them like chopsticks,” says Myra. “It worked perfectly!” The Goodmans plan to market the invention, named and trademarked by Jeffrey and Marea as Chompsticks. Chompsticks? Sounds like the greatest thing since—well, you know.

Alex Tresniowski

Maureen Harrington in Carmel

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