The entrance to Kettle Cuisine on April 3 in Everett. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

The entrance to Kettle Cuisine on April 3 in Everett. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Food manufacturers shift into overdrive to keep shelves full

Nobody but nobody is questioning food manufacturers’ inclusion on the list of essential businesses.

EVERETT — Your grandma knows that chicken soup is essential and so does the governor.

There may be quibbles over dog groomers and yacht sellers, but food production? No one’s questioning its place on Gov. Inslee’s sprawling 14-page list of essential businesses.

Snohomish County is home to some large-scale food manufacturers, including Kettle Cuisine in Everett and Pacific Seafood in Mukilteo.

Kettle Cuisine is making 80,000 gallons of soup — including 25,000 gallons of chicken noodle — each day it fires up the burner at its factory at 1200 Merrill Creek Parkway in Everett.

A few miles away, Pacific Seafood is helping grocery stores keep their shelves filled with yogurt and other food items with its fleet of 24-foot box trucks.

Kettle, a national soup and sauce manufacturer, has shifted into overdrive to keep grocery stores stocked, said Liam McClennon, the company’s CEO.

The Boston-based company bought the former Everett StockPot facility a year ago.

Until the COVID-19 crisis, a big helping of Kettle’s fresh and refrigerated food products supplied the food service industry.

That changed almost overnight, McClennon said.

“Food service, restaurants, hotels, cruise ships — there’s now zero demand,” he said.

So the company switched to supplying grocery retailers, offering smaller portions and packages.

Gone are the eight-pound bags of soup that stocked the serve-yourself supermarket bars, replaced by 24-ounce cartons.

“It’s been a pivot,” McClennon said. “On the retail side we have had record demand and we’re trying to respond to that demand faster than we normally do.”

“We make all the old favorites — chicken noodle, broccoli cheddar, lentil — that’s pretty popular,” he said.

Sales of chicken noodle soup, in particular, have bubbled up in recent weeks.

“We also make a lot of the cheese sauce that goes in mac and cheese and Alfredo sauce — comfort foods,”McClennon said.

You won’t, however, see the Kettle Cuisine brand on the shelves. More than 90% of the items it manufactures are for grocery chains under their private labels.

Kettle sources most ingredients regionally, including meat and dairy, helping trim transport times and costs, McClennon said.

Kettle’s facility, which employs more than 100, spans an area the size of four football fields.

“The food supply chain is critical,” said McClennon. “It’s a balance between keeping people safe, complying with Centers for Disease Control guidelines and making food for all these retailers.”

Bob Simon, regional manager at Pacific Seafood, also saw restaurant sales evaporate.

Pacific operates a 24,000-square-foot plant at 4520 107th St. SW in Mukilteo. It employs about 180 in two shifts.

Fresh and frozen seafood, including salmon, halibut, prawns, scallops and prawns, account for about three-quarters of its sales, the rest is beef, pork, chicken and poultry, Simon said.

To aid its retail partners, Pacific has been delivering yogurt and other perishables to their grocery outlets.

“All of their trucks are semi-trucks,” Simon said. “Instead of having to fill up a semi-truck, we can move product from their warehouse to their stores in our fleet of 24-foot box trucks.”

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Pacific’s business was split between restaurants and retail. Then restaurants closed and sales plummeted.

“Volume was way down, so we have focused on the retail side,” Simon said.

Retail grocery sales and sales to restaurants offering take-out have offset some of the volume, “but they don’t offset it dollar for dollar,” Simon said.

Still, Pacific continues to deliver to restaurants that offer take-out.

“It’s hard to do those smaller orders profitably,” said Simon.“But they’re our partners and we’re there for them.”

In the weeks ahead, Pacific and partner AB Foods, a regional meat producer, plan to donate 41,000 pounds of beef “cut into upscale steaks, the kind you’d find in the best restaurants” to nonprofit distribution groups.

There is, however, “one condition,” Simon said. “We want our donations to go to all the nurses, doctors and first responders.”

Janice Podsada; jpodsada@heraldnet.com; 425-339-3097; Twitter: JanicePods

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