NORTHUMBERLAND – Steam rises when a lid is lifted from a kettle at River Run Foods while about 6,000 pounds of spaghetti sauce simmer in it.
“This is cooking real food,” said Roger Hoffman, company president and CEO.
Hoffman estimated that Northumberland-based River Run Foods will cook, pour, and ship 2 million cases of sauce in 2021. He said that number will double with the planned expansion of a second production line for glass products.
Another 30 to 50 million more boxes of shelf-stable products will be manufactured by River Run in a second new facility to be built in the Great Stream Commons business park north of Allenwood in Union County.
The second plant will be the exclusive maker of foods like pureed vegetables, sauces and even meals packed in Tetra Recart paper cartons.
The packaging is marketed by the manufacturer Tetra Pack as environmentally friendly and logistically flawless. The material is lighter than glass or pewter and, with its rectangular shape, is easier to transport and store. Hoffman said that one truck load of Tetra Recart equals 27 loads of loose tin cans.
“The consumer knows it as juice boxes or (boxes for) chicken broth. Although the package is the same, the technology behind it is vastly different, ”said Hoffman.
River Run bought 43 acres of Union County for $ 1.8 million. The local council approved the sale on July 20th.
Hoffman estimated the proposed facility at 300,000 square feet and hopes to break the ground in early September. The new facility will have six production lines and will create 400 to 450 new jobs, Hoffman said. An estimated 50 more jobs will be created in Northumberland, he said.
“We have heard of this major expansion for a long time,” said Floor Supervisor Luke Wolever on a tour of the Northumberland facility. “Then, boom, out of nowhere it’s set in stone. All right, let’s get started. “
River Run opened in 2011 along Route 147 at 50 Spruce Hill Road in Northumberland. The facility measures 40,000 square meters. Wolever, 25, has been with the company for three years. John Rohrbach, 26, is warehouse manager. He’s been there for five years.
“We send, receive, store. We have a third warehouse that handles most of our bulk deliveries, ”says Rohrbach, describing his work. “It’s very different, a very family-oriented company. I love the job, ”he continued, looking back at his previous employers.
“It becomes a cliché very quickly, but we believe in the American dream here. We throw a party when one of our employees gets a mortgage, ”Hoffman said, noting that there have been two such parties in the past few months. “And we’ll fill your shelves, because we’re sure to make enough sauce here.”
Hoffman’s own career in the building dates back to 1999 with another company. He is a trained packaging engineer. He laughs as he reveals that his bachelor’s degree in English is 19th century Lit. He holds a master’s degree in engineering and business administration and began his career in cosmetic packaging in Manhattan. In the late 1990s, he said he got into the food packaging industry developing juice boxes.
River Run’s nature of business keeps Hoffman taciturn when it comes to partner brand revelations. The brand names are easy to spot, some can be seen on supermarket shelves across the country. River Run manufactures and packages grocery products for major and boutique brands along with the grocery chains’ in-house labels.
“We’re in the weirdo world, no question about it,” said Hoffman of Valley residents’ surprise when they heard about River Run and its business.
Most of the tomato sauce is made from imported Italian tomatoes, Hoffman said, with some sourced from the valley. Onions, garlic, peppers, and more are all sourced from the Chesapeake Watershed. Hoffman said the company tends to “follow the Susquehanna River” in finding suppliers.
He also ended up near the river when he decided to build in Great Stream Commons. According to Hoffman, he looked at land all over the valley but liked the location and especially the water. The river valley has people and businesses passionate about food and grocery products, Hoffman said. Companies like Chef Boyardee, Furmano’s, National Beef, and further afield, Land O’Lakes and Bell & Evans. River Run fits in with that, he said.
River Run pays between $ 15 and $ 18 an hour for new production workers, according to online job vacancies. Executive salaries are much higher, as another listing shows. Hoffman said River Run has a diverse workforce and prides itself on being a second chance employer.
As Hoffman walks through the production hall, he skilfully interacts with the men and women who work on the semi-automatic assembly lines – a glass, a box. His familiarity with the product, the devices and the people quickly becomes apparent.
Hoffman likens the process at River Run to making canning on the stove, a skill passed down from generation to generation. Nothing as industrial as what happens in River Run, however, ever happened in Grandma’s kitchen.
Glasses travel on a mechanical line: prepared, filled, sealed and cooled before they are labeled, packed and dispatched. The boxes get a different ride, and the cheese sauce inside is actually wrapped up before being cooked in the boxes with a retort machine – similar to pressure cooking.
“It will run for three weeks,” Hoffman said of the 24-hour operation. “America loves cheese sauce.”
A smaller retort is nearby in another room used for research and development. Hoffman said it was the only one comparable in the northeast.
“Whenever we get new products, we have to prove they are safe to eat,” said Matthew Martin, director of research and development, as he prepared a pack of pumpkin for testing.
The Tetra Recart line will be relocated to the new plant with the construction. It’s semi-automatic. They are accompanied by five fully automatic lines.
“It’s not going to be easy,” Hoffman said of the new facility planned, “to build a building this size, hire so many people to bring this new technology to America, but we believe in it.”