Growth Intensifies for Southeast’s Consumer Foods Cluster

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The arrival two years ago of Colorado-based Steven Roberts Original Desserts highlighted Southeastern North Carolina’s appeal to companies in the consumer foods industry. Since then, the region has built on this momentum. The recent selection by fast-growing Trinity Frozen Foods, LLC, of a site in Robeson County and an innovative product development initiative in Columbus County offer compelling evidence of a booming regional agribusiness and food-processing cluster, which already boasts names like Campbell Soup and Smithfield Foods.

In April, Governor Pat McCrory joined a host of state and local officials in announcing Trinity’s choice of Pembroke for a sweet-potato french fry plant that will bring job growth to Robeson County while also opening exciting supply opportunities for the region’s farmers. The company, which is headquartered in Charlotte, is moving its production to Pembroke from Canada in a $15 million investment. Its facility will be home to 149 jobs, though the indirect employment impact will be much greater. “Once you consider the farmers, transportation workers and others needed to support an operation like this, you’re looking at another 350 jobs,” says Greg Cummings, director of the Robeson County Economic Development Commission.

Mr. Cummings says Trinity’s site search led to Robeson County as a result of contacts made with company officials by N.C. Southeast’s Joe Melvin and him during the Steven Roberts project two years ago. Trinity supplies sweet-potato fries to restaurant chains and commercial buyers around the country. Its plant in Pembroke, which is being developed in three phases, will clean, cut, blanch, batter-coat and fry sweet potatoes. The product is then quick-frozen and bagged for shipment. Boasting a high nutritional value that includes beta-carotene, sweet potato fries are growing rapidly in popularity with health-conscious consumers around the world. “The sky is the limit for this company,” says Mr. Cummings.

North Carolina leads the U.S. in sweet potato cultivation, possessing nearly half the nation’s total sweet potato farm acreage. But until now, much of the state’s crop has left North Carolina for value-added processing. Trinity’s choice of Robeson County will yield additional economic dividends in the form of major new infrastructure. Natural gas and wastewater-treatment capacity will be extended to the site, which adjoins COMTech, the county’s technology-oriented commerce park. Mr. Cummings says, “Now we really have a unique industrial and technology park.”

Neighboring Columbus County also is forging ahead in the development of new product tailored for the consumer foods cluster. County leaders are working with Garner Economics, LLC, and Primus Builders to certify a property and draft designs for a “virtual” building specifically for use in food processing. The two Atlanta-based firms are surveying 160 available acres at Southeast Regional Industrial Park for the ideal food site. “We’ll have a computer-simulated spec building,” explains Gary Lanier, director of the Columbus County Economic Development Commission.

Garner Economics developed the food-processing site certification three years ago. It complements the basic stamp-of-readiness the park already holds through its certification by the N.C. Department of Commerce. Food production sites call for their own technical and engineering requirements, explains Jay Garner, founder and presidents of Garner Economics. “We're going to be looking at everything from the utility infrastructure to the topography of the land,” he says. “We also look at the availability of industry-specific labor within a 45-minute commute.”

The certification process typically takes about ten weeks from start to finish assuming the survey team finds no unforeseen obstacles. The distinction includes a special logo the county can place on its marketing material. Primus and Garner will also promote the site on their websites. 

The Southeast Regional Park sits amid vast agricultural communities capable of ensuring reliable supplies of farm commodities. “When you consider all of the agricultural production in this region, we already grow a lot here and have the ability to grow just about anything a food processor would want to package,” says Mr. Lanier. Such companies would also benefit from food-savvy workers coming out of the Culinary Arts and Food Processing curriculum at Columbus Career and College Academy, a partnership between Southeast Community College and Columbus County Schools.

If approved, the Garner/Primus Certified Food Site at Southeast Regional Industrial Park will be the first of its kind in North Carolina.