The tiny town of Brundidge is a sleeping giant in the eyes of food services entrepreneur Chuck Caraway, who grew up in neighboring Barbour County.
Caraway, 57, and his partners at Southern Classic Food Group LLC and Magnolia Vegetable Processors, believe Alabama farmers have the ingredients to wake that giant and help it thrive.
“We’re not just making food and generating jobs,” said Caraway, the managing member of the companies. “We’re creating opportunities for farmers and our state.”
Local and state officials joined Caraway in June to announce expansion of Southern Classic Foods and creation of Magnolia Vegetable Processors just north of Brundidge. It’s the latest of several expansions for Southern Classic since Caraway opened the business in 2001, following a successful career for other food manufacturers. The business has grown every year since it began.
Southern Classic produces a variety of products for retailers and food service and industrial markets. Those include mayonnaise, salad dressings, cocktail and tartar sauces, ice cream toppings, flavored syrups, barbecue sauces and marinades. Its expansion will focus on the addition of juices and other beverages.
The steady growth is exciting, Caraway said, but the potential impact of Magnolia Vegetable Processors reaches far beyond the industrial park.
“The majority of fruits and vegetables in the U.S. are grown in California, and that state’s been in a severe drought for several years now, so something has to change,” Caraway said. “We have farmers in Alabama and the rest of the Southeast who can grow a lot of the same crops that are grown there, processed and hauled across the country. Every time a truckload of fruits and vegetables is shipped here from California it adds $4,000-$5,000 to the cost.”
The vegetable processing plant will specialize in pickling, including cucumbers, okra, peppers, green beans, pearl onions, baby corn and relish. Other items, such as salsa, are on the drawing board, too. The company can purchase the produce it needs from other states, but Caraway, whose parents Charles and Ella Caraway are active members of the Barbour County Farmers Federation, said he wants to buy from local farmers.
“We want to build as many relationships as we can with local farmers who are willing to grow the products we need,” he said. “Other areas have buying centers where large amounts of produce, grown by several farmers, are sold to processing plants. We don’t have a system like that here, yet. Until we do, I want farmers to know they can deal directly with me.”
Cucumbers will be a big part of the new business, which is expected to be completed in May 2016. The plant will use fresh cucumbers in season and brine them in large tanks filled with a salt and water solution to preserve until needed. Other produce, such as okra, will be processed within hours of being picked, Caraway said.
Southern Classic also purchases agricultural products, albeit refined before arriving there. For example, the plant uses a rail car of soybean oil every two or three days. Soybean oil is a primary ingredient for mayonnaise and salad dressings. It takes a million pounds of soybeans to make a rail car of oil, he said.
Magnolia Vegetable Processors’ new plant will cost an estimated $5.5 million and will create 22 jobs initially, with a total of 50-60 to be added within 30 months. The expansion of Southern Classic is a $3.2 million project and will add another 21 jobs when completed in early 2016, bringing the total number of workers there to well over 200.
Brundidge was founded in 1854 and has a population of 2,023. The new and expanding food industries have brought the town full circle, said Mayor Jimmy Ramage, not to mention an investment of $8.7 million with the two announcements by Caraway.
“The food processing industry is part of our town’s heritage,” Ramage said. “In the early 1900s, Brundidge had two peanut butter mills, and the peanuts for it were grown by local farmers. I see this new plant as an opportunity not just for farmers in our area, but the entire Southeast.”