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Bonduelle highlights local investment in food processing plants, plans for growth

If you're a vegetable processing company, "growth" better be your favorite word.

It's a word tossed around dozens of times today during an open house for local officials and regional media at Bonduelle's facility in Bergen.

The family-run, France-based firm purchased the plant, along with plants in Oakfield and Brockport, from Allen Foods in March 2012.

It was a strategic purchase. Bonduelle, which specializes in packaging frozen vegetables under the labels of retailers, sees the United States as a place to grow and the Northeast as suitable target market.

Company executives made four trips to Allen's facilities and decided the plants were under-utilized but were in great locations with great employees, said Daniel Viefaure, CEO of Bonduelle Americas.

"When we visited the plants, what we saw were people eager for improvement," Viefaure said. "They were working under a company that was not as eager for growth as we were and the employees realized that. When they saw we were visiting, they were really interested and I got the feeling that they were the right people to do what we really wanted to do."

To date, Bonduelle has invested for $5.5 million in the four former Allen plants (there's also one in Wisconsin), including $3.5 million in the Bergen facility.

Bonduelle was so eager to grow in its first year that it applied for -- but didn't use because the timing wasn't right -- a $250,000 state grant through the Genesee County Economic Development Center.

While Allen was reportedly losing money on the facilities it sold to Bonduelle, Viefaure said his company was profitable its first year of operations.

The company plans to continue growing its WNY operations and Vielfaure said Bonduelle will likely seek out future assistance from GCEDC to assist with that growth.

Steve Hyde, CEO of GCEDC, said Bonduelle is a great success story for Genesee County, helping to shore up the vegetable end of the county's food processing industry.

“This is a game changer,” Hyde said. “The companies that owned this plant previously were really allowing it to decline and they weren’t investing and they weren’t growing, and now what you see is a 180 (degree change).”

The move into WNY by Bonduelle has certainly had a big impact on its employees in Bergen and Oakfield, who were on the cusp of unemployment under Allen. Bonduelle made a point of retaining the 69 year-around employees at the two plants.

The facilities also employ 188 seasonal workers.

Currently, the Bergen facility processes 107 million pounds of corn, carrots, beans and peas, said James Newcomb, facilities manager for Bonduelle.

Newcomb has 42 years experience working for the companies that roll up into the history of the Bonduelle plants.

On one of the tours today, Newcomb repeatedly emphasized the great care for quality Bonduelle has instilled in the plants, making equipment upgrades, improving training and ensuring only the best produce is purchased from family farms within 75 miles of the plants.

"Our customers were asking for more product, but we didn't have the capacity," Viefaure said. "Our customers are very happy to buy more product from us. They are experiencing growth and they needed more vegetables."

Among Bonduelle's clients is Wegmans, which Viefaure said is a great customer for Bonduelle because of Wegmans insistence on quality vegetables for its brand-name frozen foods.

"Wegmans is a state-of-the-art company," Viefaure said.

While Viefaure did not discuss today the specific expansion plans for his company, he did make clear the company is looking to grow its market share in the Northeast and that will mean expansion in Bergen and Oakfield.

James Newcomb demonstrating how corn kernals are stripped from the cob.

A worker sorting through kernals of cut corn, picking out imperfections. Newcomb said this was his first job in the industry and said it's one of the hardest jobs in the plant.

Doug Yeomans
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I had a job 32 years ago similar to picking out imperfect corn product. I worked in a vending distribution warehouse and part of the job entailed bottling pop. They offered no hearing protection, hard hat, gloves or eye protection and I had to sit in front of a blinding back-light picking out "imperfect" bottles as they went by on a conveyor. They were extremely hot because they'd just come from a caustic bath and sanitizer unit. The noise was incredible and when the bottles went through the turret style filling machine, if one of them had a cracked neck, the bottle would explode during the carbonation charging cycle sending glass and pop everywhere. Those kinds of jobs are monotonous and can really get to you.

Ed Hartgrove
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You had a job 32 years ago?
32 years ago??
What were you? Like, 3-years old?
Smile

Have a good weekend, Doug!

Doug Yeomans
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Lol Ed, thanks, It's time to mow my hay field of a lawn. A pinion shaft bearing shattered in the tractor and I had to fix that before I could use the mower deck. It has been mowed once in 6 weeks Smile

Billie Owens
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The first real job I ever had was - get this - rolling posters. The company I worked for, which is still around, had metal stands in stores and on top was a sample book of posters available for purchase. So, if you wanted to buy poster #23, you'd look below for the rolled poster with sticker #23 on the end of it.

Someone had to roll thousands of those posters to fill up these little kiosks. My coworkers included a couple of unorthodox nuns who had just spent a few years in some place like Bolivia, and several fresh-off-the-boat immigrants from Laos, who would always bring in smalls containers of rice, vegetables and fish for lunch. Of course, they used chopsticks, so adeptly they never seemed to drop one morsel.

We each had a work station, comprised of a metal chair, a side table with a stack of unrolled posters, numbered stickers, plastic sheaths, and a small machine that held a metal pole with a slit across the length of it. It spun around when your foot pushed a pedal on the floor - like the kind available on sewing machines. Then there was a big empty box on the other side.

From 6 a.m. sharp until 2:30 p.m., Monday through Friday, I sat there and picked up a flat sheet of paper, slid it into the pole, stepped on the pedal, rolled up the poster, slid a plastic sheath over it, pulled the poster off, tucked in the extra plastic at the end and stuck the numbered sticker on it, and threw it in the box. Fun stuff.

Would you believe I did that for 18 months and went to community college full-time carrying 12 units? Came home in the afternoon, did homework, napped, ate, took classes until 9:50 p.m. Slept until 5 a.m. and started again. Fun stuff.

I finally, and quite mercifully, got fired for coming in one too many times at 6:02 a.m.

The company's owner was a frumpy fellow named Mr. Lorsch and several years after I left he created the "Baby on Board" caution sign that was found on every other car in America in the '80s. He made tons of money on little gimmicky things like that.

He was a nice guy who always looked at the world over his drooping eyeglasses and he reminded me of a harried grocer, with his tie askew, his hair in need of a fine-tooth comb, and near his wit's end as he dealt with the details of a growing empire.

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