Business heats up for small food processors


1211_SmallFoods_02As the state’s economic malaise continues to suck the life out of industry after industry, one sector has withstood the worst of the blows. Food processing in Oregon and the Pacific Northwest as a whole has grown over the last few years, according to industry statistics. The state’s estimated $12 billion food processing industry has its giants but its true strength lies in its small businesses.

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By Dan Cook

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Organic Fresh Fingers founder Evann Remington at the Boys and Girls Club Knudson Branch in Salem.
// Photo courtesy Boys and Girls Club

As the state’s economic malaise continues to suck the life out of industry after industry, one sector has withstood the worst of the blows. Food processing in Oregon and the Pacific Northwest as a whole has grown over the last few years, according to industry statistics. The state’s estimated $12 billion food processing industry has its giants — Reser’s, NORPAC and Truitt Brothers — but its true strength lies in its small businesses.

In a once-vacant building in a formerly bankrupt business park in Salem, all of the strengths of this resilient industry are on display in a collaborative commercial venture featuring two small businesses, one visionary developer and a flexible city government.

The facility, located just off Interstate 5 in South Salem, was part of the Sunwest Corp. real estate meltdown. Today, it’s owned by Wildwood/Mahonia, a below-the-radar diversified group that has been quietly carving out space for itself in the sustainability marketplace. Wildwood purchased out of bankruptcy the building and the surrounding acreage in 2010.

Wildwood partners John Miller and Travis Henry saw an opportunity to do something creative that would not only contribute to their own bottom line, but to the environment and the economy as well. They would create a business incubator with small-business tenants who shared their sustainability values. As the tenants prospered, so would the developer, went their version of the vision. They were targeting food processors because of the resiliency of the sector. “We love ag,” says Henry.

Here’s how the deal was accomplished, according to Henry: The Wildwood partners knew the 14,000-square-foot facility was in a City of Salem Urban Renewal District. They found out there was still $1.4 million in the district’s development account after the city had completed its last project in the district. “We suggested they use it to create a loan program focused on supporting small businesses,” Henry says. The city was willing.


 

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Small food processor Organic Fresh Fingers employs 13 workers at its plant in Salem.
// Photo by Travis Henry

 

Wildwood brought two potential tenants for the building to the negotiating table: Organic Fresh Fingers and Wandering Aengus Ciderworks, small food processors in growth modes. Together, the parties devised the loan program. The city loaned each about $275,000 from the new fund to make improvements to the building that would enhance its sustainability and energy efficiency. Wildwood also offered its fledgling tenants certain incentives to locate there, including a sliding-scale lease deal under which they pay below-market rates now but will pay more as they grow.

Because food processing is so energy-intensive, utility bills comprise a huge chunk of the cost of production. The start-up principals put their heads together with Henry and Miller and came up with a list of energy-saving improvements, including solar heating units, highly efficient heat pumps, energy-efficient lighting, and so on. These improvements resulted in a 23% reduction in energy use compared to a traditionally built facility.

The tenants arrived in September and already they are realizing huge reductions in utility costs, says Organic Fresh Fingers’ president Evann Remington. “I’m shocked at how much it’s saving us,” she says. (A third food-processing tenant that has one employee, Myriad Cake Design, subleases from Organic Fresh Fingers.)

Here’s the kicker: The tenants can have up to 70% of the loans converted to a grant if they meet certain hiring benchmarks. Already, Organic Fresh Fingers, which sells organic lunch items to schools and kids’ organizations, has hired eight more employees since it moved in, bringing its total to 13. Ciderworks, which employed just two prior to the move, now has six employees and plans to hire three more after the first of the year.

Both Organic Fresh Fingers and Ciderworks can already see the time coming when they’ll outgrow their current space. That’s good, Henry says, because the incubator strategy envisions the current tenants succeeding, expanding, and moving from incubation space to new space on the same property.
“We hope our next building on the site is being incubated in this building,” Henry says. And next time, instead of retrofitting an existing structure, Wildwood can build in sustainability from the ground up, and save its tenants even more money.




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