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Originally published August 7, 2011 at 6:05 PM | Page modified August 7, 2011 at 10:58 PM

Nalley's food plant closes in Tacoma, workers try to move on

The closure of Nalley's Fine Foods leaves Tacoma's Nalley Valley without its namesake and 160 employees with uncertain prospects after decades of work.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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quotes Nalleys pickles is currently running a radio ad that boasts that the pickles were born... Read more
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TACOMA — Fresh out of high school in 1973, Al Yerbury took a summer job topping pickle jars at Nalley's Fine Foods. His first job turned into a career there.

But when the plant closed last month, Tacoma's Nalley Valley lost its namesake and the region lost 160 stable, middle-class jobs.

"You work at a place for 38 years and then all of a sudden you're being told you are no longer wanted," said Yerbury, 56. "It's a big shock to the system."

Once a leading local food manufacturer employing more than 800 people, Nalley's gradually ceased producing chips, peanut butter and pickles. The plant's owners changed, orders fell off and cheaper substitutes displaced its products on grocery shelves and in cafeterias.

But the plant still produced a veritable pantry, such as canned soups for grocery chains or 30-pound square tubs of mayonnaise for food-service companies.

And it made the famous Nalley's chili, a Northwest brand that will now be manufactured in Iowa. Nalley's parent company, New Jersey-based Pinnacle Foods Group, is looking to expand it into new markets.

"It's what happens as the economy develops and the rest of the world develops," said Bruce Mann, an economics professor at the University of Puget Sound. "It's a shame. It's a great piece of history."

The Nalley's workers recently won a small victory: Through their union, they sought and qualified for "trade adjustment assistance," a federal benefits package that extends their unemployment and health benefits, helps them find new jobs and can pay up to $22,000 per person for training for a new career.

Less than half of eligible workers will take advantage of it, officials say, because for some it's too scary to give up their old line of work and chart a new career. Also, nearly half the unionized workers were eligible to retire with full benefits.

"I'm still afraid," said Gwen Crittendon, 57, standing before two dozen colleagues last month at a meeting organized by Teamsters Local 117. "But we've got to step out of the boat."

Nearly a century of history

The red paint in the Nalley's logo is fading fast at its 22-acre complex southwest of downtown Tacoma along South 35th Street.

Founded in 1918 by Marcus Nalley, a young chef living in Tacoma, the company started making potato chips. In the 1950s it opened a large factory in what was then an undeveloped tract just outside urban Tacoma. Because it was the first plant there, the area became known as Nalley Valley.

Every summer, employees recall, pungent, briny air wafted across the valley from open vats of pickles. Hundreds of seasonal workers showed up to toil on an assembly line from dawn to dusk.

"It was nonstop. The pickles just kept coming," Yerbury said. "You could smell it for miles."

Yerbury and Crittendon both started in the pickling plant in the 1970s. By then, the company was no longer locally owned: In the '60s, Nalley's had sold out to New York conglomerate W.R. Grace and Co.

Then the factory began losing ground: The chips line closed in the mid-1990s. Then the peanut-butter line in 1998 after Smuckers acquired the brand. Then the pickle plant in 2002.

That left the units making dressings and canned soups and stews, including Nalley's Chili and Brooks Beans.

"The big moneymaker in the valley was always the chili," said Yerbury, a machine operator.

In 2009, workers heard their new employer was Pinnacle Foods, which is controlled by the New York private-equity firm Blackstone Group. Pinnacle paid a reported $1.3 billion for Nalley's parent company, Birds Eye Foods.

Then just weeks before last Christmas, Pinnacle executives halted production at the site to bring all the employees to a meeting.

The workers — some of whom speak limited English and immigrated from Asia and Latin America — heard that Pinnacle would close the plant for good the next summer. Gone were jobs that paid $15 to $20 an hour. Some wept.

"They said they could save roughly $7 million a year because they were closer to their raw materials and their distribution centers," Yerbury said. "Economics is generally the culprit."

Mann, the economics professor, said lots of food processors have consolidated plants in the Midwest. The move by Nalley's parent company was "highly predictable," he said. "Being on the West Coast is as far away from the national markets they want to sell to as you can get."

Moving to Iowa

Days after the Nalley's workers got the news, Iowa's governor announced state tax incentives for Pinnacle Foods' expansion of its Fort Madison plant, which produces Armour canned meat and will make Nalley's chili.

The company plans to invest about $18.5 million in the expansion, create 65 new jobs and retain the 431 jobs already there, Gov. Chet Culver said.

A Pinnacle spokeswoman said that plant "has the best production capabilities and is closer to the source of ingredients."

The main market for Nalley's brand products is still the Northwest, according to the company.

Rob DeRosa, a coordinator for Teamsters Local 117, which represents most of the Nalley's workers, said the move "makes absolutely no sense."

The Tacoma plant will be put on the market this fall. The site is served by rail and is close to the Port of Tacoma, making it attractive to manufacturers and distributors.

"It's in a great location to get on the highways," said Dave Zepponi, president of the Northwest Food Processors Association. "That land is worth an awful lot of money for alternative uses."

Imports blamed

Laid-off Nalley's workers recently gathered in Teamsters Local 117's Tacoma hall and listened to state officials explain new trade-adjustment benefits they won because of a Teamsters petition.

The Teamsters blamed the layoffs on rising imports of competing canned soups, citing Commerce Department data. On July 8, the Labor Department concurred, saying the increased imports "contributed importantly" to the layoffs and drop-off in sales.

The department declared all the workers — even temporary ones — eligible for the special benefits, saying a significant share were 50 or older, with skills not in high demand.

For its part, Pinnacle Foods hasn't implicated imports in the decline or closure of the Tacoma plant.

Yerbury and his colleagues know they face the worst job market of their lives.

Sam Ramos, 43, who worked the graveyard shift on the plant's sanitation crew, said he didn't want to have to compete with younger guys for manual labor jobs.

"I'm not getting any younger," he said. "I'd like to do something in the medical field, maybe X-ray technician or pharmacy technician."

Yupin Chianchitlert, 51, a Thai immigrant who was a Nalley's production supervisor, doesn't want to jettison more than 20 years' experience in food manufacturing for a new career.

She also rejected the idea of moving to Pinnacle's Iowa plant because her daughter and grandchild live here.

"I feel really confident I can find something in the area," she said.

According to state officials, roughly 90 percent of workers who enroll in the trade-adjustment program find a new job that pays 80 percent or more of their previous job's wage — like a third-generation logger from Shelton who retrained and became a flight controller in Alaska.

Yerbury said that at 56, he's having a hard time deciding whether to craft his first résumé or go back to school. He is resting at home with his yellow Labrador, Barney, and staying in touch with former co-workers.

"Thirty-eight years was a long time," he said. "I'll just see where it goes from there."

Sanjay Bhatt: 206-464-3103 or sbhatt@seattletimes.com

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