Upper Macungie, Pa.--March 17--Though its official opening isn't until next month, the new Ocean Spray plant in Upper Macungie is already humming with activity.
The employee parking lot is nearly full, and workers inside are busy testing and fine-tuning production lines that will mix and bottle enough cranberry juice to satisfy most of the Eastern Seaboard.
"There is a lot of automation in this plant, a lot of technology," Ocean Spray Vice President Erich Fritz said during a recent visit to the gleaming facility. And he should know.
Fritz was handpicked by Ocean Spray, one of the nation's leading juice-makers, based in Lakeville and Middleboro, Mass., to oversee the design and construction of the $100 million, 300,000-square foot facility in the township -- a job that began with picking the location.
"I spent a lot of time combing the hills of Pennsylvania looking for the right spot," he said.
The new plant's 44-acre lot at Schantz Road and Route 100, on former farmland sold by developer David Jaindl, had a lot going for it. It promised a reliable source of clean, affordable water from the Lehigh County Authority, easy access to the highway and close proximity to a skilled workforce.
Ocean Spray, a cooperative of 700 cranberry- and grapefruit-growing families in the United States and Canada, announced its decision in early 2012: A new Lehigh Valley mixing and bottling plant would replace one in Bordentown, N.J., just outside of Trenton. Site preparation began later that year, and construction continued through 2013.
"It's terrific for the Lehigh Valley in general, and Lehigh County in particular," Lehigh County Executive Tom Muller said. "Manufacturing plants have a lot more jobs than distribution centers ... Obviously, we've lost some manufacturing over the years, so it's terrific to see some manufacturing come back."
Once fully operational, the plant will reconstitute cranberry juice concentrate extracted at other Ocean Spray facilities that specialize in the production of dried cranberries.
Dried cranberries, once a byproduct sold as a cheap ingredient for cattle feed, have become in recent years a popular snack food and salad garnish. Cranberry juice itself didn't become a staple until the 1960s. Before that, cranberries were mostly relegated to canned sauce that consumers tasted once a year -- at Thanksgiving.
Trucks will enter a receiving garage and pump the concentrate into exterior silos, some more than 40 feet tall and capable of holding up to 50,000 gallons, on the north side of the plant.
Inside, four production lines will mix the concentrate with filtered water and other ingredients, turning out scores of products. Ocean Spray sells a variety of drinks -- from 100 percent cranberry juice to blends made with blueberry, grapefruit, pomegranate and other juices -- all of which are packaged in different-size bottles and boxes.
On the southern side of the plant are 14 dock doors where the finished product will be loaded into trucks and shipped. When it opens, the plant will operate on a 24-hour, five-day schedule. Eventually, it will ramp up to continuous operation. About 120 truck trips are expected each day.
The whole operation will employ about 180 line operators, technicians, forklift drivers and other workers, not including those working for Ocean Spray's third-party logistics provider, NFI Industries, which is moving into a separate 980,000-square-foot warehouse and distribution center under construction in nearby Weisenberg Township.
About 100 employees from the Bordentown plant decided to relocate to the Lehigh Valley. Of the remaining 80 openings, all but a handful have already been filled.
Fritz said leaving Bordentown, where Ocean Spray has had a presence since the mid-1940s, was not a decision the company took lightly. The owners and management felt a sense of loyalty to the workers there, and to the community, he said.
"Think of the values we have" as a farmer-owned cooperative, he said. "Those are the values that permeate our organization.
But Ocean Spray -- which has annual sales of $2.2 billion, processing plants in six states and some 2,000 employees -- also was concerned about its bottom line. And the aged Bordentown facility -- whose infrastructure, some of which dates to the Civil War era -- could not be retrofitted cost-effectively.
Moving to Pennsylvania, which compared with New Jersey generally has lower wages, taxes and other operating costs, made more sense than staying put, the company concluded.
It didn't hurt, also, that Pennsylvania promised a $4.52 million incentive package that included money for construction costs and job training, as well as a low-interest loan through the Pennsylvania Industrial Development Authority.
The addition of Ocean Spray firmly establishes Fogelsville as a beverage hub. Also in the area are Boston Beer-maker Samuel Adams and bottled-water company Nestle Waters.
From a second-floor conference room, Fritz pointed through an interior window with a view of one of the plant's production lines.
"That," he said, pointing toward a machine of some sort, "used to be a person turning a wrench to open a valve. Now, it's a computer."
At old the Bordentown plant, which Ocean Spray plans to decommission in August, nearly 250 workers produce 32 million cases of juice a year. In Upper Macungie, fewer employees -- 165 -- will maintain the same output thanks to the new manufacturing processes.
Ocean Spray plant
-- What: A juice mixing and bottling facility, employing 165
-- Where: Schantz Road and Route 100, Upper Macungie Township
-- When: The official opening of the plant, now in the "commissioning" stage, is set for April 29
-- Ocean Spray was the first company to sell fruit-juice blends.
-- It invented the rectangular juice bottle for more efficient distribution and storage.
Copyright 2014 - The Morning Call (Allentown, Pa.)