I had the pleasure this past month of attending a plant opening. It wasn't a big company (Reser's Fine Foods), they're not making the next big nutraceutical (their claim to fame is potato salad) and it wasn't in a big and exciting town (Topeka, Kan.). But both the company and the town embodied the simple values that launched a lot of companies into the food business.
"It was 1950. Mildred and Earl Reser left their jobs at Billy Bo's restaurant in Hillsboro, Ore., to try their hand at making potato salad in quantity." That's how Reser's company history booklet starts. There's even a black and white photo of the husband and wife up to their elbows in potato salad.
How many husbands and wives out there started out similarly, perhaps up to their elbows in chickens, fresh milk or pizzas?
Fifty-six years later, Reser's is actually a pretty big ($500 million) maker of refrigerated salads, much of them copacked. The product line has expanded to include frozen burritos and taquitos, salsas and dips, tortillas and starch side dishes.
And the plant is no small potato. It's a greenfield, $36 million plant, Reser's third in Topeka, a total of 200,000 sq. ft., that will make side dishes, especially with potatoes, pasta and rice, including some of the new Shedd's Country Crock side dishes from Unilever. Its designed capacity is 1 million lbs. of product per day and it will employ 300. The mayor and the president of the chamber of commerce turned out for the ribbon cutting.
Last month, our opening news page was full of asset-swapping in the food business. This month it's about astronomical executive salaries. Sure, they're both facts of business life in the food industry. But they sometimes distract us from the simple but real business of making good food.
Many food companies had humble beginnings. J. L. Kraft started out by selling cheese out of a horse-drawn wagon in Chicago. An earlier John Tyson drove truckloads of Arkansas chickens to cities in the upper Midwest. The Kellogg brothers stumbled on the process behind flaked cereal while trying to feed patients in the Battle Creek, Mich., sanitarium.
I have no big message here. None of my usual desk-pounding. Just an acknowledgement that there are many Resers out there, although they go by names like Ruiz Food Products, Herr Foods, Hirzel Canning and Original Juan's. These are companies that were not assembled by Wall Street investors using tired, old assets and brand names or laser-focused market research reports. These are companies that dream big dreams based on a really good family recipe, build plants in communities that need them, create the first jobs for many immigrants, the sons and daughters of whom hopefully will go to college and make an even bigger contribution to this country.
This is what America is all about. All that and making a really good potato salad.