Eat Local? Try Locally-Processed Food
To "eat local" typically means dining on fresh produce, meat and dairy from nearby farms. But WFAE's Julie Rose discovered another way to "eat local" that is a thriving industry in the Charlotte region.
The Charlotte Regional Partnership estimates there are more than 200 companies processing food locally with some 15,000 employees and $5 billion in yearly sales.
Let's dine on the fruits of their labor.
First to the meat counter. Perdue and Tyson have huge poultry processing plants in our region.
As a side, we've also got here in the meat counter a cup of Ruth's Salad.
"Pimento cheese, chicken salad – coleslaw especially, you know sales have increased drastically over the 40 years that I've been here," says Ruth's Salad General Manager Bill Rudisill.
Ruth's Salad started 50 years ago in one Charlotte woman's kitchen. Now it's found in grocery stores across the South. On the day we visit, a crew is packing coleslaw.
Compressed air forces the slaw through a pipe into individual tubs bearing the same Ruth's Salad logo the company started with. Many of the 30 workers in the kitchen have been with Ruth's for years – if not decades. The 1950's era paneling and drapes in the front office haven't even been updated.
Rudisill says that's the secret to Ruth's success.
"We just believe in keeping everything the same – the ingredients, the people, the recipes - it's still exactly the same as it was," says Rudisill. "People developed taste for it, and therefore, there's still a customer demand."
Ruth's Salad is an example of many local food processors that started in Charlotte because it's an ideal location if your target is Southern stomachs. Also, it helps that a number of major grocery chains are headquartered in the region – Harris Teeter, Food Lion and Bi-Lo not far away.
Back at the grocery store, let's stop off in the deli for a sausage, pepperoni and cheese stromboli from Stefano Foods.
You can smell pizza cooking form the parking lot at Stefano's in West Charlotte.
"One of the huge advantages to being here in Charlotte is our access to Johnson and Wales (University)," says Alan Hamer, the vice president of sales and marketing at Stefano Foods, which has about 160 employees – including two chefs from Johnson and Wales University.
About half of Stefano's business is pizzas that grocery stores and food service companies sell under their own brand name. The rest is calzones and other Italian specialties sold in the refrigerated deli case under with the Stefano label.
The dough is made from scratch here in Charlotte – using flour from another local food processor – Bartlett Milling. Spices come from McClancy Seasonings in Fort Mill. Stefano's is actually a Long Island transplant that came to Charlotte in the mid-90s because the state offered a nice incentives package and electricity was cheap.
"Because this business is very, very energy intensive," says Hamer. "We bake the product, cool the product, we freeze the product – all of that uses a tremendous amount of energy."
Economic incentives and low electricity rates have played a role in attracting many of the food processors in Charlotte. Another plus is the easy access to major trucking routes like I-85 and ports in Charleston and Savannah.
Back to our grocery shopping, we'll make a run down the snack aisle Lance Crackers – they're by far the biggest food processor in Charlotte with about 4,700 employees.
Kellogg makes Animal Crackers and Famous Amos cookies here. Carolina Foods makes sticky-sweet honeybuns in Charlotte. A company called Tropical Nut & Fruit makes little tubs of trail mix.
Now to the beverage aisle – Cheerwine and Sun Drop are made in the region. Pepsi and Coke also bottle here, so we're safe picking just about any soda on the shelf. More and more beer and wine is being made in the region, too.
Okay. We're set for a locally-processed food feast. But looking at our cart, a preemptive strike might be in order: some antacids made in Mooresville.
Richard Zulman is the CEO of BestSweet, which was founded by his grandfather in South Africa. Zulman's father moved the company to Mooresville in the 1980's. State incentives played a role in that move, as well as a recent expansion.
Today, just about any cough drop, throat lozenge or chewy antacid you find at the drugstore - including big brand names – is made by BestSweet.
"Instead of taking our supplements or your antacids as a chalky, horrible-tasting product, it's now a pleasant experience," says Zulman.
BestSweet's expertise is the proverbial "spoonful of sugar that helps the medicine go down."
Imagine a candy factory that smells faintly of menthol. Cane sugar from Savannah and corn syrup from the Midwest bubbles in hot vats before being stretched, cooled and shaped into lozenges that clatter off conveyor belts.
Zulman points to one conveyor belt churning out 5,500 menthol lozenges a minute.
BestSweet makes 20 million cough drops a day. Antacids, calcium chews and chewy vitamins add to that number. Gleaming, computerized machines do most of the work, monitored by about 400 employees. They are the reason Zulman says BestSweet has stayed in the Charlotte region – which is not the cheapest place in terms of taxes or wages.
"It's a great environment, good schools, good weather - it's just an easy place to get people, whether they're coming from up North or the West Coast," says Zulman.
And that makes the Charlotte region as good a place as any to make antacids, or pizza, or coleslaw.
More than 200 companies process food and beverages in the Charlotte regions. View all companies by category below.