By Scott Robertson
John Frostad, president and CEO of Pure Foods told the crowd at the Jan. 29 ribbon cutting for the company’s new world headquarters in Kingsport, “We’re going to make this the healthiest snack food company in North America.” It was not so long ago that the title of healthiest snack food company in North America would have been faint praise, along the lines of “the best hockey player in Ecuador.” Today, however, changing demographics and better education about personal nutrition are making the healthy snack field a rapidly growing segment of the food industry with a constantly increasing number of competing companies and product offerings.
Small snack-makers are sprouting up at a craft brewery-like pace across the continent. Frostad, however, wants Pure Foods to be something more. In addition to creating its own product offerings, Frostad says, Pure Foods will work as a contract manufacturer for some of the other healthy food companies, while also creating products for retailers to sell under their own labels (think Terry’s Chips at Food City, only in the natural food aisle).
Frostad and his team have experience in the Tri-Cities, having operated Snack Alliance in Bristol for many years. They knew the quality of the workforce, and they correctly surmised they would receive a warm welcome from NETWORKS Sullivan Partnership, the State of Tennessee and the Kingsport Economic Development Board.
Another factor was getting the perfect building, brand new and ready to meet the company’s particular needs. J.A. Street and Associates built the 88,000-square-foot facility in less than a year, with special features designed just for Pure Foods.
“We have multi-capability certifications in this plant – gluten-free, allergen controlled – all of that. Not a lot of manufacturers have that,” Frostad said. “If you were to see the engineering diagrams of the flow of air, for instance, you would see that it only flows in one way.” That’s a necessity for being able to tell regulators and consumers that a food that is free of something is, in fact, absolutely free. “You can’t have one little trace of anything,” Frostad said.
The Kingsport facility is built for expansion. The packaging room has three machines, but it’s built to house eight. There are three production lines. The building is ready for two more.
Currently, the company employs about 50 people, most of whom have been working at the two soon-to-be-phased-out facilities in southwest Virginia. The equipment and jobs from those sites will be moving to Kingsport in the next few weeks.
By the time Pure Foods hits its stated employment goal of 275 at the new facility in or before the year 2020, it plans to knock out the back wall and build on an additional 88,000 square feet of distribution center space.
Why the new building matters
It’s not just the moving of air that makes Pure Foods new facility a difference-maker in snack food manufacturing, Frostad said. It’s the processes that can only take place inside it.
“Nobody else can do what we do here, especially on the fresh fruit and vegetable side,” Frostad said. “Our dehydration technology is new-to-world. It’s patented, so nobody else can do it. We’re able to take fruits and vegetables, dehydrate them down and directly integrate them into snacks. In fact, our patented dehydration technology allows us to maintain 95 percent of the nutrition of fresh fruits and vegetables that we then integrate into the snack foods we provide.”
That, he said, translates into demonstrably healthier, tastier food.
“If you look at the snacks that are out there, they’re not as healthy, even though they are purporting to be. Ours will be vegetables or fruit first. Ours will have 20 percent of daily nutrition. Ours will have high fiber. Ours will have protein and be functionally better for you. But the kicker is, with ours, you don’t have to sacrifice taste. That’s the whole goal.”
So what’s actually being made?
The first product line to roll out will be a cheeze puff (not cheese, this is a non-dairy, vegan product). “Today we are making the cheeze puffs as a foundational product from chickpea and lentille instead of traditional ingredients like corn or rice,” Frostad said. “This creates more products with more complex carbohydrates that help satiate and give more protein and fiber.
“An interesting product we have on deck that we will launch in the next few months is called Trail Chip. The concept is taking trail mix and putting it into a convenient chip form without the fat. We integrate blueberries, cranberries and pumpkin and sunflower seeds. It really is a crossover snack. It’s making the migration over what people are actually doing. People might eat a cracker or a cookie or a cheese puff. What we’re doing is giving them choices so that when they snack, they can have a healthy snack whether it’s sweet, salty or whatever.”
“Another product we’re coming out with is the Vegan Bite, which integrates broccoli with a nice cheddar alternative,” Frostad said. “The broccoli is what you taste first. So as snacks go – sweet, salty, savory and so on, we’re really blurring a few lines. And again, what gives us that capability is both the dehydrating operation and the baking operation.”
Following that, Frostad said, a “tsunami” of healthy new products will be produced, some of which will transcend snacking to be served as part of a meal. “We have the ability to produce in extruded form, what almost looks like a rice krispy for bar integration. We have partnered up with some folks here in Tennessee that will take our extruded product and form it into those bars. That’s one example. We can do prepackaged salads. We can do a tortilla strip that’s baked, not fried.”
And retailers whose snack aisle offerings are dominated by Frito-Lay are eager to make room for Pure Foods products in their natural food sections, Frostad said. “Every inch counts in supermarket floor space. The interesting thing is, they want help getting healthier products. So they’re coming to us and saying, ‘Look, we want to support you.’
The same thing that’s driving that eagerness on the supermarkets’ part is what inspired the creation of Pure Foods in the first place, Frostad said. “They’re seeing that people will make a healthy choice themselves because they want to eat something that’s still tasty, but without all those calories and fat and simple carbohydrates and negative stuff. Our whole concept is to give them those alternatives. Our mantra is that better health comes from better snacking.”