If you’ve purchased canned or frozen vegetables from a grocery store or mass retailer, there’s a good chance those vegetables were grown, processed and packaged by Lakeside Foods Inc. in Manitowoc. “Most people have eaten our vegetables, but don’t realize it,” says Lakeside President and CEO Glen Tellock. “We are one of two major can providers of private label vegetables, producing store brands for major retailers and providing vegetables to foodservice companies.”
Lakeside has seen tremendous growth during the past several years through not only organic growth, but also through the acquisition of other food providers, allowing the company to expand its reach and product offerings. That growth is at the heart of a $40 million expansion of its Manitowoc packaging facility that will be operational by October.
“There has been a dramatic change here,” says Joe Yanda, Lakeside’s senior vice president of operations. While Yanda has worked at Lakeside since 1999, his family has been involved with the business for decades. “We’ve evolved from a company focused on vegetables with just a few plants to one with many more facilities, and we’ve grown into other areas, including whipped topping, beans and appetizers.”
When Tellock joined Lakeside in 2016 after 24 years with the Manitowoc Co., he says the family-owned company’s board of directors challenged him to continue diversifying the business.
“With a focus on canned and frozen vegetables, there would be five to six months out of the year when our facilities would be idle. That led to the question: How can we find something to fill in?” he says.
While Lakeside has added several product offerings throughout the years, including whipped topping, dry beans, canned meats and dog food, 2018 was a big year for the company, with two major acquisitions: Riverside Foods, a Two Rivers-based manufacturer of cheese appetizers, specialty frozen vegetable and seafood products for the foodservice/restaurant industry; and the Arkansas-headquartered Good Eats Food Co., which makes products under the SER!OUS Bean Co. and Ruthie’s Twisted Harvest brands.
“We looked at adjacent markets. With Riverside Foods, we understand frozen food, and they bring us marketing expertise and some innovative product offerings,” Tellock says. “With Riverside and Good Eats, they are all complementary markets that give us product diversity.”
From field to customer
The addition of Riverside Foods and Good Eats to Lakeside’s portfolio marks a long journey from the company’s roots, which began in 1887 in a kitchen in a hotel on the shores of Lake Michigan. Founder Albert Landreth took note of Wisconsin’s rich soil and began canning peas.
That kitchen eventually gave way to Wisconsin’s first canning plant. As the business grew, Lakeside Foods worked with the University of Wisconsin’s College of Agriculture on quality control, helping the company expand into new offerings and establishing it as an innovation leader in the vegetable canning industry.
Today, Lakeside has 13 plants and distribution centers across Wisconsin, Minnesota and Ohio. The company employs 965 full-time workers, plus 1,170 seasonal workers.
A vital part of Lakeside’s success is its connection to its farmers, Tellock says. Lakeside has 85,000 acres of contracted land in Wisconsin and Minnesota. Depending on the soil type, different crops are grown in different locations. Lakeside provides farmers with seed, checks on the crops and handles harvesting.
The company then contracts with truckers to take the crops from the field to a processing facility. Ag managers work closely with farmers to ensure everything is going well and that crops are coming to harvest at the right time to keep Lakeside’s processing facilities busy.
“We have a farmer mentality here. Everyone pulls together to get things done. There was a fire at our Random Lake facility soon after I started,” Tellock says. “It was amazing to see other sites take in the peas that were headed for that facility and figure out how to make sure they all made it through the production process in time.”
From mid-June through October or November (depending on the weather), Lakeside Foods’ processing facilities can run 18 or 19 hours a day, seven days a week, allowing the company to handle, for example, between 300,000 and 400,000 pounds of carrots daily.
To make it all work, Lakeside relies on a pool of seasonal workers who arrive in June as the first pea crops come in before moving on to beans and corn and finishing up with carrots and beets in October or November, depending on the harvesting schedule and weather. The company hires more than 1,000 seasonal workers each year, Tellock says.
“They work at our different facilities so the veggies coming in are done at the right time,” he says. “For seasonal workers, this is their lifestyle. They travel to different locations and work at different companies depending on where the crops are being harvested.
“If you treat your seasonal employees right, they will come back year after year,” Tellock continues. “At Lakeside, I think we do that. We provide them with housing and a safe community to live in.”
In addition to returning workers, Lakeside recruits seasonal workers in the southwestern United States, either using temp agencies or working with employees who have contacts there.
By working with its farmers, truck drivers and production facility employees, Lakeside has perfected the art of ensuring crops go from the field to being processed as quickly as possible. Tellock says people often are amazed at how fast Lakeside’s beans, peas, carrots and other vegetables go from sitting in the field to being frozen or canned.
“Peas need to be frozen or canned within four hours of being picked,” he says. “That leads frozen and canned vegetables to be healthier than ‘fresh’ vegetables since more of the nutrients are locked in.”
And while more consumers are opting for fresh, local food, Tellock says Lakeside has seen little impact from the change in consumers’ buying habits. While canned vegetables have seen a small decline in sales, frozen vegetable sales continue to increase.
Lakeside is known in the industry for the high quality of its products, which can be attributed to its vigorous quality assurance initiative. If peas from a certain field do not meet the necessary standards, for example, they won’t be used. All crops are rated for quality, with different levels going into different products.
For example, many retailers have more than one store brand, so peas with the highest quality rating go into the store’s premium product, while peas with a lower rating may go into a carrot-pea mix. Customers increasingly are also asking for more than just plain veggies and want sauces or seasoning added.
That dedication to quality and providing top-notch customer service is what brings customers back, says Kevin Flanagan, director of business development for Marketing Management Inc., a broker that works with Lakeside’s wholesale customer, Associated Wholesale Grocers (AWG). He says the Manitowoc company is tuned in to customers’ needs and provides them not only with a high-quality product, but also data to make sure the right products are going to the right places.
“Lakeside is diligent with supplying AWG with analytics to verify we have the right items in the right consumer sizes to compete,” Flanagan says. “Competition in private label frozen vegetables is both internal versus the national brands and external versus other best-in-class retailers.”
Flanagan says Lakeside constantly reviews SKU selection to seize opportunities with flavor trends, size changes and customer purchasing behavior. “Lakeside remains a strategic business partner for AWG to grow sales,” he says.
With so many variables involved, such as weather and crop yield, Flanagan says Lakeside keeps its customers well informed about any changes to supply availability and cost. That allows AWG to anticipate any issues it may have meeting and exceeding retailers’ expectations, he says.
Lakeside cannot always name the companies it works with, but it has received multiple awards for service and quality, including Sysco’s Gold Supplier Excellence Award in the frozen/canned fruit and vegetable category, which the company won this past fall.
Yanda says consolidation among foodservice companies and retailers has dramatically changed the frozen and canned vegetable industry.
“The accounts are much bigger, so there’s more at stake. Customer relationships are more important,” he says.
Lakeside employees have a long tenure, and customers know who they can call about any issues that arise, Tellock adds.
When he joined Lakeside, Tellock admits he knew little about farming and food processing, but that he’s quickly caught up to speed. Before joining Lakeside, he worked 24 years at the Manitowoc Co., working his way up to becoming chairman, president and CEO. He left those roles in late 2015 as the publicly traded company planned to split its foodservice and cranes divisions into two separate companies.
“We have great employees here who introduced me to how the different aspects of the company work, whether it’s out in the fields, in the processing plant or packaging area,” Tellock says. “I am more tuned into the weather than I used to be since it can affect production levels and schedules. My friends sometimes laugh at me when I start talking about the weather.”
Planning for the future
To handle its increased growth, Lakeside announced plans last year to build a $40 million, 100,000-square-foot addition to its packaging facility in Manitowoc. The project includes the redesign of processing operations to meet the highest food safety industry standards and the addition of automated packaging equipment.
“We need to expand capacity. Right now, we’re struggling to keep up,” Yanda says. “The expansion will make us more efficient and allow us to be best in class when it comes to food safety.”
Construction should be complete this summer, with production lines moving into the space in stages and anticipated completion by October.
The Manitowoc plant packages hundreds of millions of pounds of products annually for more than 100 private label customers. When complete, the packaging facility will add about 40 new permanent positions and will allow more flexibility to meet customers’ custom packaging needs while providing space for future expansion as Lakeside continues to grow and innovate new frozen foods, Yanda says.
“Technology has changed the industry, with machines sorting vegetables instead of people doing it by hand,” he says.
When the vegetables leave the processing plant, they are either already canned or frozen. They are then placed in storage until Lakeside’s customers need them. When they’re needed, the vegetables receive a label or are placed in the correct package.
“We have a lot of different customers who want a lot of different things — whether it’s a certain mixture or size — and we have to be ready to meet their needs,” Tellock says. “Our expansion will allow us to provide a greater variety to our packaging so we can meet our customers’ needs even better.”
Food safety is the top priority for Lakeside Foods — and all food manufacturers — since a recall involving its products would not only be financially damaging, but also harm the company’s reputation with its customers.
“There have been changes in food safety regulations, and food safety is No. 1 for us,” Tellock says. “The changes at our packaging plant will make it more efficient and food will be handled less, which reduces the chance of contamination.”
While some jobs will move from being done by hand to automation, Tellock says current employees — and new ones hired — will be trained to manage or run lines. “These are jobs with a higher skill set.”
With its expanded packaging facility, Lakeside is poised for more growth, Tellock says.
“The growth we’ve seen since adding the SER!OUS brand and the rest of the Good Eats brand and the Riverside Foods products has exceeded our expectations,” he says. “As for future acquisitions, you have to be opportunistic and take them when they come along. We also see more potential with our own products to better align with customers’ buying habits, such as adding sauces to some of our vegetables.”
At the end of the day, however, it’s all about the customer. “Customers want the best quality at the best price, whether it’s buying a car, a washing machine or a can of peas and we want to produce the product they’re looking for,” Tellock says.
Whether it’s donating canned food to food banks and pantries in the communities where Lakeside Foods has facilities or donating on a larger scale during a natural disaster, such as Hurricane Harvey in 2017, giving back is a part of the Manitowoc-based company’s DNA, says Joe Yanda, Lakeside’s senior vice president of operations.
At more than 130 years old, Lakeside is one of the oldest businesses in Manitowoc and has donated to various community and ag-related projects through the years, such as the new Farm Wisconsin Discovery Center located just outside of Manitowoc.
Lakeside President and CEO Glen Tellock says the company has “a humble, quiet presence. It’s important to be a good corporate citizen.”
During the past 20 years as Manitowoc lost several large employers, including the Mirro Co. and the Manitowoc Co., Yanda says Lakeside’s size is more noticeable.
“People may not have noticed how large Lakeside is,” he says. “As we have expanded and others have left, it makes sense to step up and play a bigger role.”
Lakeside Foods Inc.
President and CEO: Glen Tellock
Number of facilities: 13
Employees: 965 full-time, plus more than 1,100 seasonal employees
What they do: Produce frozen and canned vegetables and whipped topping for the private label market and foodservice companies. Also manufactures cheese appetizers, specialty frozen vegetable and seafood products for the foodservice/restaurant industry under its Riverside Foods subsidiary and manufactures products under its Good Eats Food Co. unit, including Ruthie’s Twisted Harvest brands and the SER!OUS Bean Co.