Gathered Foods Executive Chair Chris Kerr still hasn't seen the place that has consumed a great amount of his thoughts and actions for the last two years, $20 million of his company's funds and 42,500 square feet in an industrial park in Heath, Ohio.
But the founder and former CEO of the plant-based seafood company that makes Good Catch products will finally see the new custom-built factory next month. The factory, which was designed and built from the ground up for the plant-based company's current and future production needs in the U.S., was completed during the pandemic, and has been making products since the end of May.
"I'm going to be driving to Chicago for a meeting, and I'm gonna stop there with my wife along the way. Crack a bottle of champagne," Kerr said.
The factory, which has plenty of room for expansion, can produce products that earn about $100 million in revenue a year, Kerr estimated. There are currently about 30 employees working there, but Kerr said it will eventually have about 80.
Custom designing and building the factory was a distinct challenge from the beginning, Kerr said. Getting it finished and starting up the equipment for the first time during a pandemic added another dimension to it. And since Good Catch leadership is decentralized — Kerr lives in central New York, the factory is in central Ohio, the chief operating officer lives in North Carolina and the technical team is in Vancouver, Canada — most of the company heads who were intimately involved with the factory couldn't easily get there. The last time Kerr saw the factory in person was for an end-of-February Gathered Foods board meeting in Ohio. He was scheduled to return in mid-March, but in those two weeks, the world turned upside down.
Kerr said that designing and building the factory, getting the equipment, creating the areas needed, hiring the employees, getting the permits and actually making products was a roller coaster ride. But the factory actually started running on its targeted opening day. Gathered Foods cushioned that target with three extra weeks, which Kerr assumed might be needed to reconfigure electricity, do a last bit of cleaning or make final tweaks to operating plans. He was not expecting a pandemic.
However, Kerr and other company leaders have been keeping tabs on the factory just like many companies are keeping up with their employees during the pandemic: through Zoom videoconferencing.
"To be able to have that product come off the line in finished form, let's just say a few of us had tears in our eyes," Kerr said. "The fact that we couldn't be there when it happened was beyond heartbreaking."
Building for the future
The journey to the new factory started several years ago. Gathered Foods was initially hoping to have Good Catch products manufactured by co-packers, but Kerr said there were none who able to do all of the work needed. Gathered Foods wanted to be able to have an on-site extruder to turn plant proteins into ingredients for the products. They company also needed an area for formulating and finishing the products. And since it now has frozen products, a facility for quick freezing was also needed.
Kerr said the company quickly realized that manufacturing would not work well unless the extruding and product processing were all under one roof. And Gathered Foods did not want to invest $3 million in an extruder — which he said is about the going rate — to keep it in someone else's factory, then ship the proteins somewhere else.
Next the company looked at renting a building. Kerr said they initially decided to rent a factory that was 20,000 square feet, but it turned out that with the extruder and other equipment, it wouldn't be big enough. He was faced with a choice: Spend $250,000 to put an addition onto a rented building before it even opens or build from scratch.
At the time, other plant-based meat companies were having well-publicized production issues.
"I thought, 'If this is what's happening, by the time we actually turn on our factory, we will have outgrown it,'" he said.
"To be able to have that product come off the line in finished form, let's just say a few of us had tears in our eyes. The fact that we couldn't be there when it happened was beyond heartbreaking."
Founder and executive chair, Gathered Foods
Constructing its own factory was difficult — and more expensive — but Kerr said he's glad it was done that way. There's ample room in the current building to expand — especially because there's only one extruder right now, and the plant was designed for two. Kerr said the land and building design will also let them build an addition onto the factory if needed, with the possibility of having 73,000 square feet total.
The largely decentralized company chose Ohio as its factory location based on the Buckeye State's Midwestern location, with easy access to much of the United States population. The actual land the factory is built on is part of an enterprise zone with access to the different utilities that a food manufacturing plant would need.
Almost two years ago, in fall 2018, Gathered Foods signed the paperwork to buy the land and start construction. The building itself was standing last October, giving the company time to move in and get everything configured.
"It was a long journey, but the investment and the risk will be worth it, given what we're trying to do," Kerr said. "And I'm really glad we ended up going with the bigger building."
The sheer magnitude of the factory project, Kerr said, often reminded him that he was doing something massive that many CEOs don't attempt.
"When I walked into that factory the first time and they had installed the refrigeration equipment, I just thought to myself, 'I approved this? Are you kidding me? I don't even know what I'm looking at right now,'" Kerr said, laughing. "And so it was kind of a 'meet your ... maker' moment."
Kerr said he had many teams working with him that knew a lot more about building and commissioning a sophisticated food factory, and he leaned on them for their expertise in designing and outfitting the facility. It all worked well throughout the entire process, though the coronavirus outbreak and the related slowdown of activity made things more complicated.
The Gathered Foods team, which is located across the United States, had been accustomed to more remote contact prior to the pandemic — even though they all came together at a small hotel close to the plant on a regular basis when travel was easier. From the start, the factory was equipped with cameras that tie into Zoom, which can be monitored remotely by the technical team in Canada to ensure things are running smoothly. There are also cameras that some employees wear for more remote monitoring.
"Thank God technology exists," Kerr said. "It allowed us to keep it going."
Kerr said Gathered Foods had actually hired most of the team for the factory at the end of 2019, starting with the general manager and expanding from there. From the beginning of the pandemic, there was knowledgeable staff on hand to get things moving and teams who were ready to clean the plant, install equipment to the right specifications and get permits in place.
As the threat of coronavirus first shut down schools, offices and restaurants across the country in March, Kerr also shut down construction and setting up the new plant for two weeks.
When the site reopened, Kerr tasked the quality assurance manager with keeping a close watch on access to the facility. The QA manager, who had experience in microbiology and what needed to be done to keep food manufacturing spaces safe, became the lifeguard, Kerr said, with authority to stop anything that wasn't being done in a manner that would ensure health and safety. The facility quickly instituted temperature checks and contact monitoring for everyone who came in. One-way walking paths were established to minimize employees congregating in any spaces. And, since much of the factory is under surveillance with cameras, the remote executives were also able to monitor the safety measures firsthand — and remind workers to put on their masks from afar.
It also helped that a lot of the equipment setup and commissioning work was done by small teams in enclosed spaces. A food plant needs to be able to shut down small areas for general safety mitigation reasons, so the company took advantage of that feature.
"Nobody wants a factory sitting idle because they can't get Purell, and we were literally looking at that for a while. We scrounged around and we were able to get enough of a supply to get things going, and now we're OK, but it was tough."
Founder and executive chair, Gathered Foods
The biggest problem with getting the factory up and running, Kerr said, was actually the one that would have been simplest to solve in normal times. They had a hard time getting the sanitizers they needed. While people all over the country — factories included — started buying more sanitizer in bulk, the supply that Gathered Foods would have normally easily tapped into quickly ran dry.
"Nobody wants a factory sitting idle because they can't get Purell, and we were literally looking at that for a while," Kerr said. "We scrounged around and we were able to get enough of a supply to get things going, and now we're OK, but it was tough. These are things that should be readily available within a day, and we were looking at a month-long lead time."
While the coronavirus has forced many factories to retrofit their facilities to add more space and barriers between employees, Gathered Foods was setting up its factory in that environment. Kerr said not much more needed to be done to spread employees out. Plant-based meat factories are large and don't require a lot of employees. The only place currently where employees may congregate is the packing area, so everyone keeps an eye on that. Meanwhile, Gathered Foods' long-term plan is to add more equipment, employees and shifts in the future, as demand grows and the pandemic threat lessens.
Kerr said his background gave him some relative peace of mind about starting production in a new factory amid a pandemic. Years ago, when the SARS outbreak began in Asia, he managed a company that handled medical waste for the state of Maine. Through that experience, he knew how to deal with virus-related risk management and mitigation for employees.
"And so when this hit, I wasn't this fearful," Kerr said. "I was fearful for our society, but it wasn't that fearful for our plant. I knew that there were ways that we could make it a very safe place to be."