By Tony Lucia
PROMINENTLY SITUATED atop the rise at the east end of the Buttonwood Street Bridge, the Sun Rich Fresh Foods Inc. building brings the promise to the neighborhood of a new day after the long night represented by the decaying, vacant American Chain & Cable Co. plant that had occupied the site for decades.
And, just beginning production of its product, fresh-cut fruit, in Reading, the Sun Rich plant is at the very beginning of that new day.
With about 100 workers, compared with the 250 it plans to have by the end of its first three years, the processing plant – Sun Rich’s largest – is running at about 10 percent of its capacity, said Jim Jaroszewski, facility operations manager.
That status is evident throughout the spotless, 43,000-square-foot facility, which, whether in its warehouse or its processing rooms, clearly has space to grow into. But, said Carl Svangtun, executive vice president and chief operating officer, Sun Rich will get there, and even has room for further expansion at its six-acre parcel in the Buttonwood Gateway industrial park.
“We’re a very driven company,” Svangtun said of the privately held, Vancouver, Canada- based firm. A sweet smell wafts through the processing area, where dozens of workers chatter amiably amid the din of industrial fans and knives clattering on tables as cantaloupes and grapefruit move down the lines.
Food and worker safety, a primary focus at the plant, is evident in the white lab coats and hair nets worn by the workers, the sensor- controlled faucets and sinks for hand washing, the sanitizing foot bath all who enter must step through and the water runoff all over the skid-proof floor from the ongoing washing of fruit.
“We’re actually safer than cutting your own fruit,” Svangtun said, noting the constant cleansing of the product and the use of various types of cutting instruments for different operations performed on the fruit.
Once cut and again rinsed and drained, the fruit is weighed and then placed in pails of various sizes for delivery. Solutions are added to ensure freshness throughout the journey on refrigerated trucks to the ultimate destinations.
Sun Rich sells some fruit through retail channels, and is planning to expand that line. But the lion’s share of its production – more than 40 million pounds per year from its facilities in Vancouver, Toronto, Los Angeles and now Reading – is sold through foodservice channels into family restaurants, airlines, hospitals, hotels and industry.
The fruit – honeydew, cantaloupe, pineapple, oranges, grapefruit, grapes and apples – is sold in a range of mixes and as single commodities.
Sun Rich acquires its products from many sources, and Svangtun said maintaining adequate supplies is challenging in a competitive environment.
“Our melons out of Central America were pressured by wet weather,” he explained by way of example. “If the supply goes down, the price goes up and the quality goes down. And you get less yield.” Other critical factors, such as a dependable work force, good distribution routes and proximity to customers, have been met by its selection of Reading for the facility, which was announced in October 2006.
Svangtun credited retired retailer Albert R. Boscov and his Our City Reading organization, and city officials, for their aid in attracting the firm and helping it get through the various challenges it faced in bringing the vision of the plant into reality.
“There always are challenges, but this was incredibly smooth because we and the community had the same goal,” he said.
That was a reference to job creation, and Svangtun emphasized that Sun Rich’s intent is to have the plant run by local people.
“We want people committed to the community, who’ll therefore be committed to the company,” he said. “They will understand the challenges to the community better than we can.”