Long known for farming and livestock, Southeastern North Carolina is increasingly becoming home to large-scale food processors manufacturing brand-nameproductsforgrocerystore shelves across the country and beyond.
Smithfield Foods, Campbell Soup and Butterball are among the two dozen food manufactures with a presence in the area. North Carolina’s Southeast, an economic development organization, is working to attract more processors to a 15-county region stretching from Wilmington to Anson County, just east of Charlotte.
“It’s an industry sector that we can keep here,” said Steve Yost, president of North Carolina’s Southeast. “We can grow it because we have the raw materials, the agricultural base to support it.”
Yost and his staff work to lure food businesses by making contacts at industry trade shows and working with site-selection consultants who help companies find a location.
Economic developers tout the region’s business climate and workforce. But for food companies, proximity to I-40 and I-95 is especially important.
“Transportation access is critical for distribution of their product and to get the raw material into their facility to make the product,” Yost said.
Modernization at the Port of Wilmington and the construction of a cold-storage facility there is also a major draw.
One food processor taking advantage of the port is Acme Smoked Fish, which imports frozen salmon from Chile that is smoked and packaged at its facility in the Pender Commerce Park off Highway 421.
Richard Nordt, vice president of engineering and manufacturing, said the plant’s location, just a 20 minute drive from the port, saves the company and its customers.
“Everything contributes to the bottom line,” he said. “Every one of our costs contributes to what the consumer pays for our products.”
Nordt explained that food safety was a main driver behind Acme’s decision to construct the 100,000 square-foot facility, which the company describes as the world’s most advanced cold smoked fish facility.
It’s making sure that our customers, when they go into a retail market to buy our product, they can rest assured that we’ve invested close to $40 million on the ground for food safety aspects,” he said.
Approximately 140 people are employed at Acme’s Pender County facility, which could receive up to $975,000 in state incentives over 12 years.
The region’s position along the east coast and an available building in Bladen County drew Sue Bee Honey to Elizabethtown in 2008, explained Plant Manager Dale Broeker.
The facility, with seven local employees, imports honey from all over the world - including India, Vietnam and Ukraine - and processes it at its plant off Highway 87.
“Basically all it means is we’re cleaning the honey so it looks shiny,” Broeker said, explaining that natural honey can contain bee parts, pollen and dust. “When you’re looking at it on the shelf, the consumer wants to see something that’s clear, clean.”
The plant produces large containers of honey, as large as 3,200 pounds each, for General Mills, Smuckers, Arizona Tea and Great Harvest Bread Company.
“We don’t do the little bears or little jars that you see on the shelves in the store,” Broeker said. “We’re more of a bulk station.”
Yost says having companies like Acme Smoked Fish and Sue Bee Honey already in the region can help attract more food processors here.
“Likeminded companies can see others that are here, that have succeeded, and particularly if they have a brand name in the food industry, it’s very, very helpful,” he said.
Yost said North Carolina’s Southeast is working with food processing companies that could locate in the region within the next year.
“I think we have some really good opportunities ahead of us,” Yost said.