IMMOKALEE — At a multimillion-dollar plant off Main Street in Immokalee, high-tech machines spit out fresh-cut green beans that end up at grocery stores and restaurants around the country.
The packaging plant has been operating since March. It’s about to swing into high gear again, with the harvest of fall crops.
Florida Specialties Inc., headquartered in Immokalee, added the 22,500-square-foot plant to support its growing green bean business. Last month, the company received a Business Expansion award from Collier County’s Economic Development Council at its last Industry Appreciation luncheon.
The expansion has created about 50 jobs and that number could double with a second shift, which is expected to be added within a year.
“There’s no single plant in the U.S. the size of this one, or with the capacity of this one,” said Ron Bailey Jr., the company’s chief financial officer.
Building the new processing plant gave the company the ability to triple its yearly production of green beans.
“We’re probably at 20 million to 40 million pounds,” Bailey said.
A few years ago, the company created its own private label, Blue Ribbon, to market its fresh green beans, which are primarily grown locally in fields on the outskirts of Immokalee.
Though the company sells its green beans under its own label, many of its beans are sold under other well-known names. Florida Specialties is a supplier for such major labels as Eat Smart, Mann and Green Giant.
The snipped green beans are found in ready-to-eat microwavable bags at grocery stores such as Publix and Sweetbay. Sometimes, the green beans are mixed with wax beans and carrots, which Florida Specialties doesn’t grow but brings into the plant and processes to create the vegetable medley bags.
The company also has supply contracts with US Foodservice and major restaurant chains. It delivers its fresh beans in larger, commercial-sized bags, which are not designed for the microwave. They end up at such well-known restaurant chains as PF Chang’s and Ruby Tuesday.
The processing plant has 20 configurations, from 12-ounce bags to five-pound bags. The machines can run six or seven days a week, depending on demand.
“Produce doesn’t know any particular day of the week,” Bailey said.
The company brings in green beans from other areas when it doesn’t have enough to feed demand. The turnaround is quick.
“Everything is sold as soon as it’s run,” Bailey said.
Last month, the company received the Packaging Line of the Year award from PMT Magazine, which covers packaging machinery technology.
“Florida Specialties collaborated seamlessly with its packaging machinery suppliers to create a new packaging solution,” said Charles Yuska, president and CEO of PMT’s publisher, PMMI, after announcing the award. “This allowed it to enter an entirely new facet of its industry, taking it from wholesale to retail.”
With the help of state-of-the-art machinery at the new plant, the green beans are washed, trimmed, graded and packaged in no time. They can go from the field to the bag in 24 hours. “Product will turn every day,” Bailey said.
The new machinery even assembles the cardboard boxes that the packaged beans are shipped in. Flat boxes are fed in and standing boxes come out. Then the boxes are automatically sprayed with ink to add a bar code.
The green beans are chilled before they go out, for safety and to give them a longer shelf life. They can last up to 21 days.
As soon as a customer’s order is complete, the packages are automatically added to their inventory online. Buyers can also watch the packaging process as it happens on the web.
Many of the machines in the new plant were built by Salazar Machine and Steel Inc., also based in Immokalee.
Florida Specialities is one of the top companies in the U.S. for green bean production. Its beans are shipped to 40 states and Canada.
The company grows green beans on more than 3,000 acres, starting with seed. There are several plantings a year. The beans are machine harvested. They take 60 to 70 days to grow.
Food safety is a focus at the new plant. The beans are triple washed and the processing plant is so clean the floors and equipment sparkle.
“They’re obviously making investments that they know are going to help their customer,” said Glenn Boyet, a spokesman for the Produce Marketing Association based in Delaware. “Any investment in food safety is a good investment.”
Florida Specialties invested $8 million to $10 million in the plant, including the equipment. New wages per shift are estimated at more than $1.25 million.
Before the expansion the company had 96 full-time employees. That number could touch 150 this season, Bailey said.
Collier County expedited the permitting for the new plant and approved incentives to encourage the company to expand. County commissioners agreed to give the company $75,000 for the first 25 jobs it created and to pay up to $25,000 to help it pay for broadband and video technology, which made it possible for buyers to view their orders as they’re processed.
Bailey praised county staff saying they “got us through the maze” of permitting quickly.
The project was built and opened in nine months. If the county had not agreed to speed up permitting, it could have taken two years to build the plant and the company would have lost its major contracts to a competitor, Bailey said.
The company worked closely with the county’s now-defunct Economic Development Council on the expansion and Bailey credits the council’s leadership for getting the plant up and running so fast. The council shut its doors at the end of last month, as the county looks for new ways to attract and grow jobs.
Bob Mulhere, the Economic Development Council’s former chairman who helped guide the expansion project, said initially he was skeptical about getting the plant through permitting in less than a year. He hopes to see it happen more often with expanding businesses in Collier. “Hopefully, we can replicate that,” he said. “That was the idea.”
It shows the county can be successful in growing jobs, Mulhere said.
Collier County Commissioner Jim Coletta, who represents Immokalee, said it’s great to grow vegetables, but when you add processing that’s even better.
“The fact that they are producing jobs and offering alternatives to working in the fields is a wonderful thing,” he said.
Anytime jobs can be added in the county, he said, it’s “one more step toward the recovery process we are all looking for.”
Florida Specialties has been in business for more than 25 years in Florida and has operations in Georgia. The recent expansion has been driven by Myles Strohl, who bought the company in 2009 after retiring as a world leader in the software business and selling his successful company, Strohl Systems, in Pennsylvania.
Strohl prefers to stay out of the limelight and did not want to be interviewed for this story.
However, in a recent interview with Fresh Cut, a trade magazine, he indicated there’s more growth to come.
“There are five organizations that have purchased the majority of our production capacity, so our next move would be to expand and build another facility,” Strohl told the magazine. “We already have the design, we’d just like to get a return on our initial investment before we build the next phase.”
Connect with Laura Layden at www.naplesnews.com/staff/laura_layden.