Market forces stymied the envisioned ramp-up to 1,000 employees in the years that followed the Nestlé plant announcement in July 2001. But these days that number looks more attainable than ever.
Prepared food sales are on the upswing at the international food giant thanks to a revamped product line and tweaked recipes. That means more jobs at the Jonesboro facility, known for making Stouffer’s and Lean Cuisine goods.
The plant is gearing up to add 100 line workers in 2016. That will push the head count of hourly employees to 850, plus 72 salaried staffers.
Nestlé executives haven’t forgotten those expectations of reaching 1,000 employees when the plant was fully operational three to five years after its opening in 2003.
“We made some commitments to the community, and we’re getting back to that,” said Corey Dye, a 28-year veteran with Nestlé who came to Jonesboro as plant manager in September. “Business has come on strong.”
The company’s frozen foods business is on the ascent after a franchise makeover that is winning more millennial consumers and expanding market share. The formula for newfound success included recalibrating the balance of healthy and flavorful to include variables such as organic ingredients, gluten-free, high protein and a cup of vegetables.
Nestlé noted in its quarterly report: In North America, the relaunch and repositioning of Lean Cuisine and Stouffer’s gained further traction. The new Lean Cuisine Marketplace and Stouffer’s Fit Kitchen lines have delivered growth for several months now, outpacing the market and driving recovery in the frozen meals category.
“It’s nice to see the store shelves empty, because that means we’re doing our job,” said Kaysaundra Shelton, technical applications manager at the Jonesboro plant. “But we need to keep those shelves filled.”
The Jonesboro plant is a really big cog in an enormous Nestlé wheel, which produced worldwide sales of nearly $90.3 billion during 2014.
The Arkansas facility is one of four meal plants that include locations in Ohio, South Carolina and Utah. This quartet is among eight plants in the company’s prepared foods division that are among 23 plants operated by Nestlé USA, which are among 77 Nestlé factories in the United States employing 50,000.
Those American operations are among 442 factories in 86 countries supported by a 339,000-member workforce producing goods that are sold in 197 countries around the world under the Nestlé banner.
At the top of the corporate organizational chart is Nestlé S.A. of Vevey, Switzerland, touted as the world’s largest food company.
Back in Jonesboro
During a late-morning visit on Nov. 6, three of the four production lines are running at the 375,000-SF Nestlé plant in Jonesboro’s Craighead Technology Park. The lines are manned by workers clad in white smocks and hard hats accessorized with hair and beard netting along with product-handling gloves and sporting protective gear for the ears, eyes and feet: headphones, safety glasses and black steel-toed rubber boots.
Three lines are operating 24/7 with workers pulling 12-hour shifts to keep up with increased demand. The fourth is rotated in as necessary, often to replace a line that is closed for cleaning or maintenance.
One line operating around the clock became two in March and three in September. The facility, expanded by 50,000 SF in 2009 for a planned bakery that was shelved, has the capacity to accommodate double the current workforce.
“More lines were planned and not installed,” Dye said. “We’d love the opportunity to expand. The building is big enough to handle additional lines.”
What is on today’s menu at the Nestlé plant?
One line is making six-serving portions of Stouffer’s lasagna with meat and sauce: freshly made pasta layered between a rich meat sauce and topped with real mozzarella cheese.
Stainless-steel vats of hamburger meat and sauce are cooking, and wavy-edged lasagna noodles are rolling out nearby. The appearance of the pasta and other ingredients is scrutinized as part of the quality- and consistency-control process.
“We want people to have the homemade feel,” Dye said of the attention to detail to the large-scale food preparation and cooking under way. “It’s like a really big kitchen.”
Cleanliness is a huge deal in this kitchen. Before entering the production floor, everyone passes through a multistation air chamber that blows loose particles and vacuums them up, hands are washed and footwear is machine scrubbed. Electronic eyes are on constant vigil for anything that doesn’t belong as the dish assembly progresses down the line. Instead of plating meals at the end, the food is boxed and time stamped.
The refrigerator-freezer for the ex-tremely large kitchen is an adjoining 200,000-SF cold-storage and distribution warehouse.
When the Jonesboro project was an-nounced in 2001, the $260 million complex was the single largest investment ever by Nestlé and remains among its biggest.
Another line is dishing out Lean Cuisine’s wood fire-style barbecue recipe chicken pizza: white meat chicken, red onions, cilantro, reduced-fat mozzarella cheese in a tangy barbecue sauce on a thin crust.
The third is making Lean Cuisine’s gluten-free chicken teriyaki stir-fry meals: white meat chicken, snap peas, carrots, water chestnuts, pineapple and long grain rice in a teriyaki sauce. The chicken teriyaki is one in a string of new dishes Nestlé began rolling out in earnest earlier this year that are helping crank up sales.
The Jonesboro plant is contributing seven other big-hit products for the company: four Lean Cuisine meals (asparagus and cheese ravioli, three cheese stuffed rigatoni, grilled chicken primavera and sesame stir-fry with chicken) and three Stouffer’s cups: classic mac and cheese, lasagna bake and loaded cheddar potato bake.
If shopping for groceries on an empty stomach is top on the list of things not to do when hungry, touring a Nestlé meal plant before lunchtime can’t be far behind.
Each hour samples are pulled off the line and taken to the taste-testing kitchen, stocked with a battery of microwave ovens. Four hours of sensory training are required to become part of the crew.
“We sometimes spike samples to make sure they’re using their training,” said Shelton, the technical applications manager.
Jonesboro beat out more than 700 communities competing in the site selection process for the Nestlé plant. The company held several job fairs in 2002 that attracted about 8,600 applications for the first 300 jobs.
Based on projections, Nestlé officials intended to employ 1,000 in short order with the possibility of doubling that down the road.
“We had high hopes of reaching the number,” said Roz O’Hearn, corporate and brand affairs director for Nestlé.
However, the projections proved to be inaccurate.
The company misread where consumers were heading as eating habits started to change with consideration to new variables such as low-carb, whole-grain and no preservatives.
“We weren’t as closely monitoring those trends and learning that people’s tastes were changing, and it wasn’t a fad,” said Michael Nelson, vice president of technical and production for baking, pizza and snacking and prepared foods at Nestlé.
“Our portfolio didn’t expand where consumer trends were going. Other people’s new stuff was more exciting than our stuff.”
After slowly catching up with consumers, Nestlé officials invested $50 million to keep pace and not fall behind again.
The company held a July 22 grand opening of its new 144,000-SF research and development center in Solon, Ohio, dedicated to keeping its frozen and chilled foods on the cutting edge of tastes and technology.
The Jonesboro plant is among the beneficiaries of this corporate retooling that has resulted in contemporized packing and an expansion into ethnic cuisines.
“We have been committed to Jonesboro and Arkansas since we set up our factory, and that commitment is still very, very strong,” said Nelson, who helped set up the plant and manage the facility until 2005.
“For me, that is one assignment that will always be with me. All of the local folks were super, super supportive. It was a nice welcoming. They bent over backwards to help us.”