Nash County is a sweet spot for food processing and production

Posted April 8, 2021 5:00 a.m. EDT
Updated April 22, 2021 10:50 a.m. EDT

This article was written for our sponsor, Nash County Economic Development.

North Carolina has a food processing and production industry that is one of the most robust in the country. In Nash County, family-owned businesses and international companies are capitalizing on the county's prime location and supportive economic development efforts, making it a sweet spot for food production.

Nash County's successful cluster of food processing companies include those grown both locally and internationally such as the Cheesecake Factory Bakery, Atlantic Natural Foods Inc., Nutkao, Poppies International, Butterfields Candy Company, Braswell Foods and George's Barbecue Sauces.

"We have seen a substantial increase in food and beverage projects over the last year and Nash County continues to serve as a premier location for these opportunities. Consultants and prospective companies see a strong workforce, fruitful community college partnerships and a positive relationship with the local economic development team as reasons why they gravitate towards Nash County," said Mary Lesa Pegg, business recruitment manager for food processing, Economic Development Partnership of North Carolina. "The county has strategically positioned itselves for future projects and continues to attract competitive opportunities to the area."

Poppies has a rich heritage, originating with the authentic artisan bakery traditions of 20th-century Belgium Master Baker Popelier, and growing to produce the delicacies on a larger scale while maintaining their renowned qualities. In 1999, Poppies International Inc. became the first branch in America. Today, the Poppies International group consists of 14 production sites and sells to 57 countries worldwide.

"Twenty percent of the Poppies Group worldwide production is done here in Battleboro, N.C. It's a fairly automated process where we produce frozen desserts — cream puffs, mini eclairs and more to all of our distribution channels and retail clubs. There are roughly 100 employees at our site here," said Willem De Pape, the COO of Poppies International, Inc.

De Pape said being located in Nash County's industrial park is well suited for Poppies due to its geographic position close to ports and highways. It's a sentiment other food production companies and retailers share as Nash County is uniquely positioned between the Research Triangle and I-95, giving businesses easy access to supply chain resources.

"Nash County is a logistically strategic location. It's a good location for us to distribute our products throughout the U.S. and Canada," said De Pape. "And then you have our facility itself. We're not in a big city and instead, in a bit more of a rural area where we have the space to produce and have access to a skilled labor force."

However, Nash County's proximity to the greater Triangle region and the presence of Nash Community College means local companies are hardly wanting when it comes to a skilled labor force.

"When Poppies was thinking about where to expand its production sites, the owners definitely considered how we were going to be able to train and develop our employees. Not only do we have Nash Community College, but we are also near major universities and colleges in the Triangle should they want to develop their skills further," said De Pape.

Additionally, De Pape noted the region's climate, the county's ample resources like water and sewer, and quality of life as reasons why Nash County is a prime place for food production.

"Food production and processing is a focus of industry for North Carolina. We are proud of the strong relationship with our partners in Nash County and the existing businesses, nationally and internationally, that continue to serve as strong ambassadors for the region and industry," said Pegg.

While Poppies has a large number of employees, local companies like George's Barbecue Sauces operate with a much smaller team — but that doesn't mean they don't pack a punch. The family-owned business is headquartered in Nashville and produces a variety of eastern-style barbecue sauces with a crew of just eight people.

"There's no George in our biological family. However, Rocky Mount resident George Stallings and his brother Ed came up with a recipe for this barbecue sauce in 1975 and made it for their friends and family," said Brian Hassell, who owns and operates George's Barbecue Sauces with his wife Ashley. "Mr. George did this for a number of years and it wasn't ever really a business. Ashley's dad was obsessed with the sauce and in 1992, when George was in his seventies, her family bought the recipe from him and brought it back to their family farm here in Nashville."

The rest, as they say, is history. Since then, production of George's original barbecue sauce has grown into a real business, quickly becoming "one of the most sought-after barbecue sauces in the Carolinas."

Ashley officially purchased and took over her family's business in 2017.

"We make the sauce by hand every day on our family farm," said Ashley, who, like her husband, was born and raised in Nash County. "There's no automation — there's no line. It's just people using their hands."

It's the family history and local ties that make George's Barbecue Sauces what it is today. But as Brian alluded, its homegrown roots and local operation haven't stopped the company from making a national impact. Not only can George's Sauces be found in retailers like Walmart, Harris Teeter, Food Lion, Wegmans, Publix, Piggly Wiggly and Target across the state, but celebrity chef and television personality Rachael Ray also named the barbecue sauce "Best in the Carolinas." In 2020, the North Carolina Chamber of Commerce named the sauces "one of the coolest things made in North Carolina."

"Everybody thinks bigger is better. We've been told we should automate or do this or that to produce more bottles, but we like the fact that we're small. We know what's going into our product and our work family is there to love on each other," said Ashley. "I don't really see us ever going the big production route or moving out of Nash County."

"In the South, a lot of our relationships usually revolve around food and fellowship," said Brian. "Our customers are really why we do this because, with George's, we get invited to somebody's kitchen table every night."

This article was written for our sponsor, Nash County Economic Development.

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