Guac is good for growth

Good Foods Group thrives with high pressure

Last updated on July 3rd, 2019 at 07:21 pm

For many people, beer, brats and cheese are the staples of Wisconsin food and beverage manufacturing. Some might add cranberries, kringle or even ginseng or soy sauce, but surely not guacamole, right?

The reality is in just five years in Wisconsin – and 10 years in business – Pleasant Prairie-based Good Foods Group LLC developed a line of healthy dips, dressings and juices – led by its flagship guacamole – that consumers can find at major retailers.

“They kind of came out of nowhere and their growth trajectory has been really fascinating to watch,” said Shelley Jurewicz, executive director of FaB Wisconsin, a food and beverage industry organization based in Milwaukee.

Good Foods moved from Chicago to Pleasant Prairie in 2013, bringing about 50 jobs when it bought a 57,000-square-foot facility in the LakeView Corporate Park. The company received a $127,000 loan from the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. and was expected to create 21 new jobs and make a $7.25 million capital investment. In 2015, Good Foods made an additional investment, adding 40,000 square feet of production space. Through the end of 2017, the company had beyond exceeded the jobs target and invested more than $32 million, prompting WEDC to forgive the loan.

Today, Good Foods has around 600 employees and is considering another facility with additional cold storage and office space to accommodate its growth.

The Kenosha Area Business Alliance named Good Foods its business of the year for 2018. The company will be among those recognized during the annual Ovation Awards ceremony Nov. 1 at the University of Wisconsin-Parkside.

“They know the industry they’re in very well,” said Todd Battle, KABA president, adding the company understands its customers, has a strong team and has successfully introduced new products. “I think all those things have added up.”

Food manufacturers in general have been expanding in Wisconsin in recent years. Eight of the 20 largest tax incentive packages WEDC awarded during the last two fiscal years have gone to food producers. That includes $21 million in tax credits for German gummy bear maker Haribo to set up a production facility in Pleasant Prairie.

“It directly speaks to the fact we have this incredible strength here for this industry,” Jurewicz said.

Growth plans

Even with double-digit revenue growth over the past several years, Good Foods founder and chief executive officer Kurt Penn says the company’s efforts have put the building blocks in place to take its growth to even greater heights.

“I can see within the next 18 months we’ll have another facility internationally and we will be selling to Europe and Asia, as well,” Penn said.

Good Foods already sells into Canada and has a facility in Mexico, where it will also begin selling in the near future.

Danyel O’Connor, executive vice president of marketing and sales at Good Foods, pointed out global distribution is not an easy task for the manufacturer, which makes a perishable product with limited shelf life.

“It’s not like shipping grains across the world,” she said. “This is fresh prepared food that has no preservatives.”

The lack of preservatives is key to Good Foods’ growth. The company uses high pressure processing to pasteurize food without additives, preservatives or high temperatures. It uses cold water at high pressure and proprietary temperatures, depending on the product, to essentially scramble spoilage organisms and kill salmonella, e. coli and listeria pathogens.

HPP is a technology that was first developed for commercial food uses in the 1990s. When Good Foods was founded in 2008, the company was among the first to integrate it into its food manufacturing processes. More recently, Good Foods was among the founding members of the Cold Pressure Council, an industry effort to organize messaging related to the technology and its benefits.

“The nutrition, the kitchen fresh ingredients, all these things resonate with consumers today because people want better-for-you choices, they want clean labels, they don’t want chemicals or preservatives in their food anymore,” Penn said.

Founded with a mission

Penn founded Good Foods, but he was quick to point out he had a lot of support from friends and family. It also isn’t his first experience as an entrepreneur, having previously founded Penn Valley Farms, which specialized in natural and organic chicken sausage and deli products, in 1994. The company was eventually sold to what is now Perdue Farms Inc.

The idea behind Good Foods was to take Penn’s food industry experience in creating fresh products and combine it with HPP technology and a mindful approach to product development.

“Our mission is to, in fact, give people better choices, whether they’re in New York City or in the middle of Kansas,” Penn said. “We’re not the only ones doing it, we’re just part of the movement. That movement is actually going across the entire food industry. We just feel like we’re on the forefront.”

Consumers are expecting more transparency about the ingredients in their food. A 2016 Nielsen survey found 71 percent of respondents in North America were concerned about the long-term health impact of artificial ingredients and 67 percent wanted to know everything that goes into their food.

Good Foods Group founder Kurt Penn and his wife, Heather.

Jurewicz said Good Foods has been in the right place at the right time to take full advantage of shifting consumer preferences.

“I would say it’s baked in at this time,” she said of the healthy eating trend. “People are looking for authentic food.”

People looking for Good Foods’ products can find them at major retailers like Walmart, Target, Costco, Walgreens and Fresh Thyme Farmers Market.

“We’ve been able to convince them that what we’re doing is the right thing for their consumer and for their businesses,” Penn said of major retailers.

The products come in single-serving containers, grab-and-go packages that include chips, and larger party-size offerings. In addition to guacamole, which comes from a Penn family recipe, Good Foods offers dips like artichoke jalapeno, caramelized onion, Greek yogurt ranch and feta cucumber. Salads include cranberry chicken and chickpea quinoa.

“I think a lot of our consumers love, like me, (that) you can cheat, you can put that guacamole or our caramelized onion dip or feta cucumber dip in a bowl and everybody that comes to your house for entertaining feels like you made it because it really has that high of a quality standard to it,” O’Connor said.

In addition to major retailers, the company also sees opportunities with food service providers and meal kit companies. 

Penn’s previous experience gave him a blueprint for growing Good Foods and he knew he needed the right products, but he also needed the right people. He’s often turned to people with industry experience to fill out the team.

Having a mission focused on healthy foods means many of the people who come to work at Good Foods embrace healthy eating in their own lives. That, in turn, helps spur innovation for the company because the team has a passion for that lifestyle. Most recently, the passion has shown up in a line of plant-based dips launched in October.

“When we talk about transparency and being authentic and being reliable, that’s something we live and breathe and do here across all levels of the company,” said Mandy Bottomlee, Good Foods creative director. “I think as we grow, those values just continue to grow.”

O’Connor said even with its rapid growth, Good Foods has been able to retain Penn’s entrepreneurial approach, while Bottomlee added Penn has empowered employees to take action throughout the organization.

“Where I’m excited about the future is we’ve already done the hard work of building the organization and now we’re building a brand that people will continue to hopefully support and appreciate,” Penn said.

Good Foods has been developing a marketing campaign in recent months to help amplify the work it does to develop quality products, including vendor visits and other due diligence with suppliers.

“It’s a story that we’re finally getting to tell,” Bottomlee said. “It’s a practice that’s been in place from the beginning and now we’re actually telling people about all those things we’re doing on their behalf so that they can feel good about what they’re eating and what they’re feeding their families.”

While Good Foods is looking to grow its brand, don’t expect to see commercials for the company popping up on television. O’Connor said Good Foods has been a grassroots company and will use digital platforms to talk to consumers where they are comfortable talking back to the company.

A safety focus

Growing the brand is important as more peers see the competitive advantages of healthy food. As the company’s profile and size has grown, Penn said it has also been important for Good Foods to continue to meet customer expectations with a product that tastes good.

“That’s not easy to actually do across a wide variety of products that are so sensitive because they are in fact so fresh,” he said.

When Good Foods moved to Pleasant Prairie, the company was using basic food safety practices. Penn said the company’s managers made a decision “to be the best in the world at what we do.” Two years later, Good Foods achieved SQF Level 3, the Safe Quality Food Institute’s highest standards.

Food Packs are loaded into high pressure processing equipment at Good Foods Group.

“I think for all food companies, food safety is job one; otherwise, people aren’t going to come back for your products,” Jurewicz said.

Mistakes happen, even with high standards, and in April of this year Good Foods issued its first product recall. About 130 pounds of 32-ounce deli cups filled with curry chicken salad were mislabeled as artichoke and jalapeno dip, meaning the ingredient label did not disclose the presence of cashews.

“It’s that simple and that silly, but it is real,” Penn said. “In the grand scheme of things it’s like, ‘Man, I can’t believe that just that one little mistake costs you a little bit of your reputation.’”

Jurewicz said it is important that food producers have the processes in place to conduct a recall within hours and to also have a full contingency plan. The Good Foods recall was issued by the U.S. Department of Agriculture a day after the issue was discovered and less than a week after the products were packaged.

“We evaluated how that happened and put new controls and new processes in place and retrained employees to understand the severity of such a simple, small mistake,” Penn said.

Investing in training

Like any fast-growing company, Good Foods has run into challenges as positions evolve and formal business structures develop. Penn’s response to overcome those challenges “was to invest in our people and invest in our processes.”

“We’ve invested a lot of time and effort and money in our training programs, from the very top through our managers down to the leads and supervisors,” Penn said.  

Good Foods partnered in late 2017 with Gateway Technical College on organized training first for a group of eight managers and directors, and then for 10 leads and supervisors. The goal was for employees to learn to trust each other and work cross-functionally to have more visibility across the business and push towards collective goals.

“The more visibility that you have cross-functionally with each other, the more you respect and appreciate the tasks that everybody is doing,” O’Connor said. “It’s easy when you’re very busy and wear a lot of hats to get kind of tunnel vision and feel like you’re working really hard and working alone, but having that cross-functional visibility really brings people together.”

Kurt Penn meets with farmers who supply vegetables to Good Foods Group.

Penn knew he needed to put the right team in place for Good Foods to execute on its mission, but he’s also not disengaged from the business.

“You recognize your strengths and you understand some of your weaknesses,” he said. “I know that my strengths are really about leadership and are about vision and driving the messaging through the business from a culture standpoint. Then, ultimately, I do understand the food production systems and what you need to advance to the next level.”

Part of the next level includes international growth, based on the idea that people everywhere want healthy food.

The same Nielsen survey that found North American consumers seeking transparency and expressing concerns about artificial ingredients found similar results around the world. In Asia-Pacific, for example, 80 percent of respondents were concerned about the long-term health impact of artificial ingredients and 77 percent wanted to know everything in their food.

O’Connor said the sizing of products might need to change to reflect different shopping habits, but Good Foods doesn’t anticipate changing products to accommodate international opportunities. Penn said large customers with international footprints are already pushing the company to sell beyond the U.S. and Canada.

“We’re seeing that there is demand for these products just beyond our borders,” Penn said.

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Arthur covers banking and finance and the economy at BizTimes while also leading special projects as an associate editor. He also spent five years covering manufacturing at BizTimes. He previously was managing editor at The Waukesha Freeman. He is a graduate of Carroll University and did graduate coursework at Marquette. A native of southeastern Wisconsin, he is also a nationally certified gymnastics judge and enjoys golf on the weekends.

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