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Mike Roche's Jewel label was a symbol of quality in the tree fruit industry; the Yak label was a play on the name Yakima, where Roche was based.

Mike Roche’s Jewel label was a symbol of quality in the tree fruit industry; the Yak label was a play on the name Yakima, where Roche was based.

The Yak and Jewel brands are among the oldest apple and pear labels from the Yakima, Washington, area. The Jewel brand is still being used today by the fourth generation of the label’s originator, William Emmet "Mike" Roche, who was born in 1880 in Ireland. Mike immigrated to America in about 1900. He landed in New York City on his way to St. Paul, Minnesota, where he secured a job as a footman for the president of the Northern Pacific Railroad.

His principal duties included the maintenance of the family carriages and driving the teams that pulled the carriages, but saw that there might be an opportunity for him in the railroad business with the fruit growers in the Pacific Northwest. By the time Roche arrived in America, the railroads, with the assistance of the U.S. government, had built tracks throughout the West and opened up vast lands to farming and settlement by Euro-American pioneers.

Then, as now, the freight revenue is what sustained the railroad, and the produce grown in Oregon and Washington was a profitable commodity in the rail shipping business. Mike Roche realized an individual could make money acting as a middleman between the grower and the railroad. He approached his employer and asked if the railroad would purchase whatever fruit Roche was able to buy directly from the growers in the Yakima Valley. The railroad did not normally do this, but Roche had so impressed his employer that a deal was struck.

Thus, in 1918, Mike Roche moved to Yakima and rented a small shed adjacent to the railroad tracks. In the beginning, Roche handled primarily soft fruits such as cherries, grapes, apricots, peaches, plums, and pears. He had no cold storage facilities, and thus, all of the produce had to be packed and loaded into iced railroad cars the same day it was received from the orchards.

It was not unusual to work 18- to 20-hour days to accomplish this. Most of his business was based on LCL (Less Than Carload), which meant that shipments to several buyers were loaded into the same rail car. It was at this time that Roche developed his Jewel label, which was to become famous as a symbol of quality in the industry.

The Yak label, which was a playful combination of an image of the large animal and the name of the community of Yakima, was also designed for the company and used in the early 1920s. Originally, the company name was Roche Fruit and Produce Company, but by 1927 labels bore just the name W.E. Roche Fruit Company. The earlier versions of both Jewel and Yak were full-size and much more striking than the redrawn versions used in the 1930s and 1940s.

As the business grew, Mike, who had no family in America, realized he needed help. Therefore, in 1920, Roche paid for his 18-year-old nephew Patrick J. Roche to leave Ireland and join the business in Yakima. Cold-storage buildings were added, and apples became a larger part of the packing operations. The company survived the Great Depression of the early 1930s, and Pat Roche took over the management in 1935. Mike died in 1944.

As apples and pears became more dominant in the Yakima Valley, the company continued to build more cold-storage facilities and changed other operating procedures to accommodate this type of fruit. In 1964, the first controlled atmospheric storage buildings were built. Pat’s son, John Roche, started his career in the company while going to school and went to work full-time in 1963. At the death of Pat in 1971, John took over as president and directed the company in its move into presizing and sorting apples in one of the most state-of-the-art facilities in the state of Washington.

John’s son, Michael, came to work for the company in 1992, and he has led efforts to expand and modernize plant operations even further. In 2004 Michael took over as general manager and has directed the expansion of orchard operations to include 1,300 acres of tree fruit throughout central Washington.

The company now grows, packs, and ships over two million boxes of apples worldwidemany of these boxes are still imprinted with the Jewel label. In addition, Michael has led the company in the formation of a new marketing group that handles the sales and shipments of twelve million boxes of apples, cherries, and pears for several
packing operations.