Democrat & Chronicle
July 14, 2016
The smell is faint.
The peanut butter creamy.
Its journey through a maze of shiny stainless steel pipes and pumps is accompanied by a chorus of clicks and hisses — even sirens. Out it comes, pressed into 35-pound buckets.
Those buckets will be packaged and sent to retailers throughout western New York and the country, including Lori’s Natural Foods, Abundance Food Co-op and Whole Foods. But before they hit store shelves, they make a stop in a new production facility in a small town of roughly 3,000 people.
Earlier this year, Once Again Nut Butter opened its $13 million, 37,000-square-foot plant near its headquarters and inside an existing plant in Nunda, Livingston County.
The new facility will help Once Again produce as much as 50 million pounds of peanut butter annually. Other operations include sunflowers, honey and tahini, made from toasted hulled sesame seeds.
The growth in organic products, along with greater demand for its own products, convinced the company to build the plant, marking the largest corporate expansion in the community in years.
“When the mainstream supermarkets say that they want our organic peanut butter, we want to be prepared to produce that volume,” said Bob Gelser, general manager and president. “We couldn’t do that with our existing facility.”
Once Again isn’t alone in trying to capture a portion of the growing organic food market.
Fairport’s LiDestri Foods Inc. teamed up last year with a United Kingdom company to make Love Beets products. As many as 3,000 organic products are sold at Wegmans Food Markets and its 89-store footprint. Yogurt, tomatoes, pasta sauce and other specialty food products have also taken root in the region.
Demand for organic products has grown annually by double-digits, from $3.6 billion in 1997 to $43.3 billion in 2015, according to the Organic Trade Association.
“It has also become very competitive so you have to increase your efficiencies and reduce your costs, because it is not such a niche market as it once was,” Gelser said. “You already see it in all sort of stores.”
Butter on the line
Once Again’s new plant will only house its peanut butter operations, allowing its other plant to focus on cashews, almonds, honey and other products.
Peanuts are shipped to the plant in Nunda from Europe, South America and areas of the United States in massive 2,200-pound bags.
The peanuts then begin a much shorter but perhaps equally eventful journey inside the new facility.
One machine begins removing stones and other particles. Another begins the roasting process. A third converts the peanuts to peanut butter before they are packaged and shipped.
Each stop has its own room inside the facility; the peanuts being pushed to each through an intricate piping system that keeps the butter moving constantly to help maintain its viscosity.
Along the way a variety of metal detectors and other sensors constantly probe for unwanted objects and air gaps. The roasting process is relied on to kill any microorganisms.
Workers must wear coats, hair nets and booties, and they must change that gear when going from areas where there is raw product and finished product. The company on its website points to a recent recalls involving another manufacturer.
“This is actually very important in our industry, to separate the raw from the roasted,” Gelser said. “There have been a lot of recalls that have been contributed to contamination.”
In another room, four workers have been working to perfect a two-part labeling and filing process.
It started recently with white 35-pound buckets getting placed on a conveyor and receiving product labels. The buckets then glide down a few feet on the conveyor, where two pumps push out the precise quantity of peanut butter.
A lid is then firmly pressed into place by compression rollers. A pallet of buckets are then wrapped and ready to ship.
Much of this new peanut butter process relieves the physical work once done by employees. There’s less lifting and pounding to get those lids firmly in place.
“It got pretty labor intensive, not to mention one would get tired after a while,” said Bob Clancy, a production manager with Once Again.
Not all of the peanut butter will make it to retailers, or other companies that will use it in their own products. The portions that can’t pass inspections will end up with local farmers and hunters.
“There’s no waste going to the landfill,” Clancy said. “It is all being used secondarily to farmers, or hunters or whoever.”
Incentives to stay
State and county officials were out last month to celebrate the opening of the plant, which they said represents the largest piece of economic growth in the town in the last decade. The peanut plant received $300,000 from a state small business expansion fund and $54,000 from another state program for reducing energy consumption.
The company also received sales tax reductions on equipment and materials from the Livingston County Industrial Development Agency. Property taxes also will be deferred over a 10-year schedule.
Gelser said the company plans to add workers even with the increased automation of the plant and new machinery. Plans are to bring employment up to roughly 90 workers once the new plant is fully operational. Roughly half of its current employees live in Nunda; pretty much everyone is from a neighboring town.
Those employees own the company, receiving what’s essentially a retirement benefit based on the annual value of the company.
“People are wondering how to keep jobs in our own state and country,” Gesale said. “I think sometimes the answer is right in front of us. When you can keep employees engaged and really reward them for their years of effort … there is an extra drive associated with that.”