Empire Foods to open in Halifax

Published 10:55 am Monday, September 20, 2010

By Lance Martin

HALIFAX – Empire Foods, a company which will process fruits and eventually vegetables without freezing, announced Sept. 16 it will locate in the Halifax Corporate Park on Highway 561.

Greg Hatem, a Roanoke Rapids native, is chairman of the company, and Michael Drozd is the president. Both attended the announcement by Governor Beverly Perdue about the company locating in the county.

“It’s been tough times in North Carolina, especially in the east,” the governor said at the Halifax-Northampton County Airport, which is near where the company will locate.

With the pending announcement, Perdue said, “What a day in Halifax County.”

She said Empire Foods will invest between $2.5 to $3.5 million in a 35,000 square feet building.

“We’re grateful for this investment you’re making,” the governor said. “We’ve still got a long way to go. Things are getting better in North Carolina.”

Perdue said the technology the company will use was developed at North Carolina State University. She said the company will create 200 jobs.

In a press release, the governor said the project was made possible by a $400,000 grant from the One North Carolina Fund.

“These 200 new jobs are the result of North Carolina’s exceptional ability to bring together innovation, economic development, our renowned university system and local and state partnerships,” she said in the press release. “This creative collaboration will also benefit local farmers, successfully combining new production technology with our traditional agricultural heritage.”

The process the company uses produces shelf-stable food products. The products do not require refrigeration, but maintain the flavor, color and nutrients of fresh food.

It will produce fruits and vegetables with an initial focus toward military and restaurant markets. The company will buy fruits and vegetables from local and regional farmers.

Salaries will vary by job function, but the average annual wage for the new jobs will be $28,418, not including benefits. The Halifax County average annual wage is $25,532.

Hatem told the audience the process, “Allows farmers to grow food the way it used to be grown. It will let us eat the way we used to eat. I can’t think of a better place in the world to have this than in Halifax County.”

While the airport, rail system and interstate are important, Drozd said, “The biggest selling point this community has is its vision. You’ve got some of the best farmers in the world sitting back here.”

“This great news could not come at a better time,” said Senator Ed Jones in the governor’s press release. “In this difficult period, we want the people of Halifax County and Northeastern North Carolina to know that we are working aggressively to expand existing businesses and attract new ones.”

Representative Angela Bryant said, “Our investments in education and our transportation infrastructure continue to pay off. More and more companies are attracted by our skilled workforce and the ease of doing business in places like Halifax County.”

“Many of our friends and neighbors in Halifax County are struggling right now, and we hope this terrific announcement provides them some encouragement as evidence of how hard we are working to bring jobs to Halifax County and the rest of the state,” said Represenative John May.

Following the announcement, Drozd explained the technology the company will use is similar to juice box technology. The fruit is sliced and put in bags which allow it to maintain 98 percent of its vitamins.

The company is expected to start with blueberries and strawberries, he said, and eventually begin processing vegetables.

“There is a market,” Drozd said, including institutional, restaurant and military.

He said the technology was developed by N.C. State over the last 12 years. He said the company wants to do business with local farmers and those across the region.

Construction is expected to begin within the next two months and production will start sometime in the late summer or early fall.

Hatem said he likes the versatile soil and the long growing season the county has.

He was appreciative of the enthusiasm the county has shown for the company. “The community was willing to work with us.”

There was competition from other parts of the country, Hatem said, but the area’s closeness to N.C. State, where he graduated, was a big factor.

The company will start advertising for positions in the spring and jobs range from managerial to food processing.

“We’re very excited about working with the people here,” Hatem said. “There’s so much talent here.”

Hatem is also excited about having a company in his home county. “It’s great. It really feels like I never left.”

(Lance Martin is Editor of rrspin.com.)