Lehigh Valley Has Hearty Appetite for Food and Beverage Production

By Colin McEvoy on July 6, 2017

The Lehigh Valley's abundance of resources and access to markets puts food production on a healthy course in the region.

The Lehigh Valley’s abundance of resources and access to markets puts food production on a healthy course in the region.

This story first appeared in the third issue of the Lehigh Valley Economic Development magazine, a publication developed by LVEDC and Journal Communications. This magazine highlights the region’s competitive advantages for targeted sectors, as well as providing an overview of the region’s business climate, livability, transportation infrastructure, and other economic assets.

The Lehigh Valley has a hearty appetite for food and beverage production.

The two-county region’s prime agricultural areas, abundance of fresh water and natural resources, and proximity to major population centers make it an ideal location for food companies that include Bimbo Bakeries, Just Born, SunOpta and Bakerly.

Brands such as Coca-Cola, Nestle Waters, Niagara Waters, Ice River Springs, and Boston Beer have bottling plants in the region, and Kellogg and Coca-Cola operate major distribution centers there.

In 2014, Ocean Spray opened a $110 million, 315,000-square-foot plant in Upper Macungie Township. Nearby is Bimbo Bakeries, producer of brands that include Entenmann’s, Thomas, and Sara Lee.

Norac S.A., a popular French pastry maker, plans a bread and bakery products plant in Forks Township.  The 79,000-square-foot facility will create 62 jobs to the region over the next three years. The plant will initially be a distribution facility for imported pastries and frozen desserts and later expand to onsite production.

Access to Products

FreshPet, which makes fresh refrigerated food for cats and dogs, is opening a 50,000-square-foot facility in Bethlehem that will be used for the development of new products, enhancement of existing products, and development of new packaging. The company, which distributes its products nationwide and in Canada, liked the Lehigh Valley’s location and transportation access.

Its new facility comes in addition to a 32,000-square-foot expansion that FreshPet started last year at its main manufacturing facility, which had been 60,000 square feet when the company moved into it in 2013. That expansion will more than double the company’s capacity and create up to 60 new jobs.

“We located our facilities in the Lehigh Valley because of the region’s excellent access to the foods and resources that we need to make our products,” said Steve Weise, executive vice president of manufacturing and supply chain for FreshPet, which is based in New Jersey.

Lehigh Valley is stocked with homegrown food manufacturing successes. Granola Factory was born from a recipe created at a bed-and-breakfast in Bethlehem operated by the Virgilio family. The recipe proved so popular that guests suggested the family open a bakery to sell it. Granola Factory’s products are now available in more than 80 stores in the Mid-Atlantic, including Whole Foods and Wegmans.

“When the granola market began to grow, we received a lot of encouragement to expand our business,” said Calvin Virgilio, director of operations for the company. The Granola Factory now does private labeling for grocers and hopes to expand its wholesale business this way.

Lehigh Valley Boosts Small Business

Craft brewing has a stout presence in Lehigh Valley. Weyerbacher Brewing Company in Easton started as a small craft brewer in 1995 and expanded to a large warehouse in 2000. The brewery makes 24 different craft beers, many seasonal, and ships about 20,000 barrels annually to distributors in 19 states.

“The Easton community has been very supportive of our business and we hope to keep growing with the community,” said Josh Lampe, chief operating officer of the brewery.

While some regions are seeing a dwindling agricultural presence, the Lehigh Valley is taking steps to preserve and grow its farmland, further aiding a growing interest among consumers and restaurants for farm to table products and locally sourced food.

The region has preserved more than 26,000 acres of farmland over the years. The Seed Farm, an educational organization and training facility in Emmaus, is helping prospective farmers literally grow their businesses.

The Seed Farm helps new and prospective farmers by providing them the important skills necessary not only to operate a farm, but also a farming business, according to Lindsey Parks, executive director of The Seed Farm.

“Because of where we are located farmland is even more valuable to maintain,” said Parks, who explains that the farm was created to also preserve the farmer.

To date 32 farmers have gone through the Seed Farm program. Parks said that the farm-to-table movement has sparked more local interest in farming and what people are eating.

“There is strong public support for what is going on in preserving our farmland and our farmers and it will pay off in the future,” Parks said. “Farming is not only a business but a public service.”

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