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Debut of new Hormel plant a 'hit'

by Bryan Salvage
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DUBUQUE, IOWA — Progressive Processing LLC’s grand opening, which took place March 30 at its new facility in Dubuque, was celebrated by a host of visiting dignitaries, P.P. top executives and employees, as well as top executives from parent company Hormel Foods.

P.P., a subsidiary of Hormel Foods, is currently running one line of Hormel Compleats microwave meals in the new facility.

“It’s a very big day for all of us,” a beaming Mike Devine, vice-president of Hormel’s grocery product operations, said to Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) as he greeted him before welcoming remarks.

Jeffrey Ettinger, chairman, president and chief executive officer of Hormel Foods, and Mark Zelle, plant manager, delivered welcoming remarks. Others delivering welcoming remarks included Sen. Grassley, Governor Chet Culver, Congressman Bruce Braley (D-Iowa) , and Dubuque Mayor Roy Buol, among others.

The 348,000 sq.-ft. facility is the first new production facility Hormel has built in more than 25 years. It will cost $89 million when complete and has the capacity to increase its production four-fold and the potential to produce all varieties of Hormel Compleats microwave meals and CHI-CHI’S Fiesta Plates microwave meals.

P.P. LLC’s facility was built according to the Leadership in Energy and Environment Design (LEED) Green Building Rating System, developed by the U.S. Green Building Council for environmentally sustainable construction. Hormel has applied for LEED certification and expects confirmation in the coming months. This facility is expected to be one of the first manufacturing plants — and the only refrigerated food processing facility — to be LEED-certified at any level.

This facility will use 25% less energy and water than a plant built to meet current building codes and industry standards and was constructed using materials with more than 36% recycled content.

Although state-of-the-art equipment is dispersed throughout the plant — ranging from a Raytheon Microwave unit to temper frozen 50-lb. boxes of meat from sub-zero temperatures to 26°F-28°F degrees in minutes to an extensive Raque line, which transports trays from the denester through the fill stations and into the sealing area to Aagard loaders and unloaders among other items — Zelle said, “The human aspect [is what] makes this plant impressive. Team Members are engaged, energetic and eager to contribute to the company.” The facility currently employs about 90 people. At maximum capacity, it could employ up to 300 people.

“This facility is the latest investment to the state of Iowa,” Sen. Grassley said. “[Hormel undertook voluntary measures] and didn’t have to build the plant this way to achieve these [high] standards.

“I thank [Hormel] for its investment and I’ll think of Dubuque when I eat my next Compleats,” he concluded with a smile.

Convenience foods are appreciated by Sen. Grassley, he told MEAT&POULTRY later in the day. “Two nights a month I have a telephone town hall meeting so I don’t go home to eat that night. One night a month, I have a half-hour Mediacom satellite feed back to Iowa where I have a town hall meeting like on T.V. In December when we were in session 25 days in a row, including Saturdays and Sundays, there were a lot of times I’d go to my closet to get something to eat and that’s where [products like Compleats] come in. It’s conveniently packaged and you don’t have to worry about spoilage.”

Hormel is no newcomer to the shelf-stable microwaveable meal category; it is a pioneer.

“Top Shelf was Hormel’s initial entry into the shelf-stable microwaveble meals category that Dick Knowlton [former Hormel chairman, president and c.e.o.] and his team pioneered back in the late 1980s,” Mr. Ettinger told MEAT&POULTRY.com.

The product line was very successful initially, but it eventually hit a plateau, he added. “The marketing teams over time experimented with some different branding and flavor varieties,” he continued. “For a while, the product was named Dinty Moore American Classics, somewhat of a core meat-and-potatoes item. Then as we headed into the decade of the 2000s, the team came up with a couple of key breakthroughs...rebranding it under the Hormel brand, changing a few of the flavor varieties — and probably the biggest one of all, the product was initially sold in a box.

“We got rid of the box and started to use a tray and put it in a sleeve and then consumers better understood the item,” he continued. “They were [initially] confused, it turned out, as to what was in that box. Is it a kit? Do I have to add meat to it? What do I need to do with this item? Once we made those changes, the product line took off.”

In general, the notion of convenience items, especially shelf-stable microwaveable meals, have so many great applications, Mr. Ettinger said. “You don’t have to freeze it, you don’t have to use a community freezer at the office,” he added. “Microwaving an item from the frozen state often takes five or six minutes and you can end up with cold spots in the items. These items are prepared in 90 seconds and you can keep them in your office cubicle or briefcase. They’re very consistent-performing items.”

When asked if there is room for more technological evolution when it comes to producing products in this category, Mr. Ettinger answered: “We absolutely think there’s more room. We think the quality can be enhanced and we experiment all the time with different technologies that might lead to that — and certainly varieties [can be added]. We have a line of CHI-CHI’s Mexican items that are getting us into ethnic offerings in microwaveable trays. There are many other areas we think consumers will be interested in.”
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