SALEM, Ore. — When Chris Sarles joined Oregon Fruit Products as CEO five years ago, the longtime West Salem, Ore., company was already looking to leave its original facility and move into a new home where the business could grow and thrive.
“It wasn’t optimal for food manufacturing,” Sarles said of the original plant, which was cobbled together by necessity over the decades and limited by space.
Oregon Fruit Products officially moved into its new building — the former NORPAC Foods vegetable cannery in southeast Salem — in October. Approximately 200 people attended a ribbon-cutting ceremony Dec. 11 to celebrate the 83-year-old food processor’s fresh start in spacious new digs.
“It allows us to shape and diversify our business so we can continue for another 80 years,” Sarles said.
Oregon Fruit Products operates four processing lines and makes a wide variety of products for consumer retail and the food service industry, such as canned fruit and purees. The company has also expanded in more recent years to provide flavoring and ingredients for craft beverages, including beer and soft drinks.
Sarles said the 165,000-square-foot building is better equipped to serve their needs, and will allow them to keep growing while complying with more rigorous food safety requirements.
“We continue to listen to our customers about what their needs are, and innovate to meet those needs,” Sarles said. “We’re consistently looking to attract new folks to the team.”
Oregon Fruit Products was founded in 1935 by Max Gehlar after working on his family’s cherry and plum orchard in the Eola Hills area outside Salem. The Gehlar family ran the business for three generations before selling to Ed and Cindy Maletis in 2011. At the time, Ed Maletis, a third-generation Oregonian, had just sold his own beer and wine distribution company, Columbia Distributing.
Both Sarles and Maletis said their goal was to keep the company and its 85 year-round employees in Salem. They looked at sites elsewhere, including in neighboring Clackamas County, before Sarles stumbled upon the NORPAC cannery last year.
In July 2017, NORPAC Foods, a local food processing co-op, announced it was selling its canning business to Seneca Foods Corp. Sarles said he reached out to Shawn Campbell, NORPAC president and CEO, and the two began discussing plans for the old plant on Southeast 22nd Street.
“Our goal was we wanted to stay here and retain jobs,” Sarles said. “It’s pretty darn cool to be able to do that.”
City and economic development officials are equally excited about the opportunity to keep a company like Oregon Fruit Products. The Salem Urban Renewal Agency chipped in a $300,000 grant to help Oregon Fruit Products with the $13 million move. Salem Mayor Chuck Bennett spoke during the ribbon cutting, calling the company a legacy business that helped to put Salem on the map as a food processing and agricultural powerhouse.
“This is such an important business here,” Bennett said. “The city continues and will continue to value your contribution.”
Erik Andersson, who took over in November as president of the Salem-based Strategic Economic Development Corp., or SEDCOR, also spoke during the ceremony, highlighting business retention as the bread and butter of economic development.
“This is (a) red letter day for us,” Andersson said. “This industry in particular is fantastic in this region.”
Sarles said it will be a multi-year process to get everything in place, but he expects all lines will be up and running in the new facility by January.
“We’re proud of what we’ve done to date,” Sarles said. “We’re very, very pleased to finally be here, and finally be operating.”