By John Henderson
Twin Counties has been reeling in an increasing number of food processing and distribution companies.
Economic development officials hope it continues and have been trying to highlight this burgeoning business cluster in marketing campaigns.
The cluster is a bright spot in the local economy that has been losing industries in recent years, including textile and tobacco jobs. The Twin Counties also has the highest unemployment rate in the state in the most recent August numbers at 12.7 percent.
“From 2000 until the current time, this (food processing cluster) has been probably the fastest-growing segment,” said John Gessaman, the CEO and president of Carolinas Gateway Partnership, a public-private industrial recruitment agency. “Despite the challenges we have (with the economy), people are still going to eat. The basic needs are going to be with us. Also, the area has a pretty rich heritage in the way of food distribution and technology.”
The industry employs thousands of Twin Counties residents, and those numbers are growing with recent plant expansions.
The area’s road network, with Rocky Mount being at the crossroads of Interstate 95 and U.S. 64 and half way between New York and Florida, is a major selling point, Gessaman said.
Food processing and distribution companies already employ hundreds in the Twin Counties.
Sara Lee Bakery in Tarboro employs 800. MBM Corp. in Rocky Mount, a food service distribution company, employs 600. McLane Carolina, a grocery distribution company in the Battleboro community, employs 570. IBC Merita Wonder Bakery, a wholesaler of bakery products in Rocky Mount, employs 250. Braswell Foods, an organic feed and egg producer in Nashville, employs 180. Boddie-Noell Enterprises, which has its corporate headquarters in Rocky Mount and owns more than 300 Hardee’s franchise locations, employs 165. The Cheesecake Factory Bakery, located in the Battleboro community, employs 165.
PLANT EXPANSIONS ADD TO THE NUMBERS
Last August, Gov. Bev Perdue came to Tarboro to celebrate Sara Lee’s announcement of its plans to hire 45 new full-time workers as part of an $11 million expansion to the company’s plant. Perdue said no tax dollars or tax breaks were involved in the company’s decision.
Dave Jones, a company senior vice president, said Sara Lee has 142 plants nationwide and could have made the expansion at any one of them. He said they chose the Tarboro plant for expansion of its bakery product line because it has been “stable, efficient and operating for 20 years.”
“We’re very confident in the competency of the facility here,” he said.
He also noted that the Tarboro plant recently was recognized as “supply-chain plant of the year” by Sara Lee.
The nearly 400,000-square-foot Tarboro plant was remodeled to make room for the new equipment, which is producing bread products.
Jones said in 2009, the Tarboro location was named the company’s supply chain plant of the year throughout the company. The company has 142 plants across the U.S.
Jones also said that the Tarboro plant has some of the best trained workers within the company.
Atlantic Natural Foods, a plant in Nashville that produces vegetarian products, doubled its plants size last year, investing $4 million. The company also is adding 70 jobs as a result of the expansion.
The company manufactures Vegan products for Kelloggs.
“It’s vegetarian to the next level, meatless meat,” said
Tim Carper, president of Atlantic Natural Foods. “The product looks like meat, like hot dogs. But there is no pork, no meat in it at all. It’s all kosher.”
He said U.S. 64 and Interstate 95 highways and support the company has received from state and local officials is what has made the area attractive for that company to do business.
“The fact that several interstates are close helps us a great deal,” he said.
OFFICIALS TRY TO MARKET THE CLUSTER
Over the summer, Carolinas Gateway Partnership staff traveled to Chicago to attend one of the largest food expos in the country to try and recruit new industries.
Oppie Jordan, vice president of the Carolinas Gateway Partnership who handles economic development for Edgecombe County, said many suppliers attended the show.
“We got a few leads,” she said.
Gessaman said it makes sense to highlight food distribution and processing when recruiting industries, but that is not the only business cluster being marketed.
“Obviously, in economic development, you want to draw to your strengths,” Gessaman said. “If obviously food processing and food technology is one of our strengths, we have seen growth, and we’d seek more growth. We’d like to see how we can assist (companies) in that growth.”
Gessaman said besides an ideal road network, there are sites in business parks that would allow food processing and distribution companies to easily move in.
“We have great prepared sites,” he said.
Gessaman said companies in this business that have decided to locate here are pleased and doing well.
Poppie’s International, a company in the Battleboro community, is among them.
“Poppie’s expanded in the last year,” Gessaman said. “Poppie’s produces fine Belgian pastries. They have been here a decade.”
Rocky Mount also is attractive to grocery distribution companies. Meadow Brook Meat, also known as MBM Corp., operates the headquarters for one of the largest food distribution companies in the country in Rocky Mount.
Employing hundreds of local employees, the restaurant distributor delivers food to companies like Burger King, Red Lobster and Olive Garden.
McLane Rocky Mount operates a grocery distribution center in the Battleboro community.
McClane Carolina also transports food products throughout the country.
“MBM and McClane are two of the largest (food distributors) I know of,” Gessaman said.
Some of the food processing companies are using high-tech equipment, and their employees require higher education and are better paid.
Ossid Corp. in Edgecombe County has numerous patents on its food processing machinery.
“So you have a wide range of industries associated with food (industry) because of the history (of the area) and because of the natural advantages and because of the work force,” Gessaman said.
SMALLER FOOD COMPANIES GROW IN TWIN COUNTIES
Beth Chappell, owner of George’s Sauces in Nashville, said that the company has grown since it started in 1975 and she took over 18 years ago.
The road networks have been critical to the business expansion, she said.
“We’re really actually an Eastern North Carolina product, so the location is perfect for us,” she said. “We ship (sauces) directly to the warehouses.”
John Bass, co-owner of Bass Farm Sausage in Spring Hope, said the location there also is perfect for shipping the fresh pork sausage that company has produced for more than five decades.
“We work a little over half the state of North Carolina, from the coast to the Burlington area,” he said.
“This is a good location to distribute the product. It is central everywhere where we work.”