An update on Lawrence’s major new snack food manufacturer, plus how it helped the state win nationwide eco devo award
photo by: Chad Lawhorn/Journal-World photo
I’ve never won an award for bringing peanut butter-filled pretzels to a Lawrence party. (Now, if there was an award for eating them in the car on the way to a party, I would be a strong contender.) But the state’s economic development leaders have landed a prestigious award, and it does involve peanut butter-filled pretzels and Lawrence.
The state of Kansas this week was awarded one of the top economic development awards in the country based on the number of new, large business projects that have landed in the state in the last year. And while it may surprise some folks, one of the largest was in Lawrence.
The Pretzels Inc. plant that is being constructed near 23rd Street and O’Connell Road in eastern Lawrence is the third largest economic development project underway in Kansas, by one key measurement. With $88 million in total investment, it ranks third in terms of total dollars, trailing a massive $600 million frozen pizza plant in Salina and a $400 million Urban Outfitters distribution center in Kansas City.
Those projects and others helped Kansas win a 2021 Gold Shovel Award from Area Development, one of the larger magazines covering the economic development industry. Only eight states won the award, and Kansas was the lone winner in the category of best state with a population of 3 million people or less. It is the first time the state has ever won the award, and state leaders say projects set a new Kansas record with about $6 billion of new business investment since 2019.
News of the award is all good, and definitely worth passing along. But I figured it was a great excuse to find out even more about pretzels. We’ve reported several times on the Pretzels Inc. project coming to Lawrence. With an expected workforce of about 280 people, it is one of the larger economic development wins for the city in a while. Despite the company choosing Lawrence back in October, I had not yet been successful in actually interviewing a Pretzels Inc. executive.
But that changed when I got ahold of Paul Schaum, chief technical officer for Indiana-based Pretzels Inc. Schaum already is in Lawrence and was a major executive involved in the decision to locate the plant in Lawrence. So, here are a few tidbits about one of Lawrence’s major new employers.
• First, peanut butter-filled pretzels, because why would you start with anything else? No, the Lawrence plant is not going to produce them. But they did play a role in creation of the plant. Schaum said the company’s success with peanut butter-filled pretzels, and more recently with almond butter-filled pretzels, had created capacity issues at the company’s two Indiana production plants. The Lawrence plant is being constructed to take some pretzel products off the plates of those two plants.
• Hiring is really ramping up for the plant. We’ve frequently reported the facility will employ about 280 people. That’s true, but initially the plant will start with about 75 employees. Expect fairly rapid growth after that, though. The company is building the plant to house six separate production lines. When it opens, however, only two lines will be installed. Thus, the 75 employees. The plant will grow to nearly 300 employees when all six lines are operating.
“I’m pretty sure it won’t take us too long to fill this place up,” Schaum said.
He didn’t provide me a specific time estimate, but did say the new lines probably would happen “as soon as we can get the equipment ordered and produced.” In the meantime, the company is hiring for the 75 positions. He said numerous management positions already have been hired, and some have started work. Among the hires made include a production manager, a safety manager, and four production supervisors.
Schaum said by the end of the month the company expects to make a large number of hires for production workers, which will include bakers, packers, warehouse employees, forklift operators, machine operators, maintenance workers and several other positions.
As part of its application for tax incentives from the city, the company previously said the overall average wage at the plant was expected to be just under $43,000 a year.
The company hopes to begin production at the plant on Sept. 1, Schaum said.
• Lawrence beat out 27 other building sites in the Kansas City area to win the project. Schaum said the fact the Kansas City-based development company VanTrust Real Estate already had a shovel-ready site secured in Lawrence VenturePark was a big factor in Pretzels’ decision to choose Lawrence.
Schaum said having the site ready to go was important, but more so was the fact that VanTrust already had completed one project with Lawrence City Hall. VanTrust is the developer of the building just west of the Pretzels plant. It commonly is known as the “spec building,” because it was built on speculation without a tenant ready to move in. Much of the industrial building currently remains vacant, but it appears the building has paid some dividends nonetheless. Schaum said the company wanted to avoid surprises on the project, and figured working with a company that already had built a project in the business park would help eliminate them. Thus far, that’s been the case.
“We’ve truly enjoyed being here,” Schaum said. “The build is going very smooth. We are looking forward to more and more contact with the community. Both the city and the chamber of commerce have been very welcoming, and Peaslee Tech (Lawrence-based vocational and technical training school) has opened its arms to us.”
• The project is a bit of a reminder that while Lawrence sometimes tries to distance itself from Kansas City, the rest of the world often sees us as connected to the metro area. That was a good thing in this case. Pretzels had honed its search to the Kansas City area. Schaum said that was because of Kansas City’s reputation as one of the prime trucking hubs in the country.
“It really makes it easy for us to sell product from coast to coast,” Schaum said.
• Pretzels Inc. is what’s known as a co-packer in the industry. That means instead of producing pretzels and selling them under their own brand name, they make pretzels for other brand names or store brands. As a result, a lot of times co-packers don’t spend any time or money on developing new products. Rather, they just wait for somebody else to come up with those innovations.
But Pretzels Inc. has taken a different approach, Schaum said. He said the company has developed an innovation and product lab/kitchen in Indiana. That’s helped with products like the almond butter-filled pretzels, and he said other flavored pretzel products are in development, which should spur more growth.
“The market is growing at about 3%,” Schaum said of pretzel sales in general, “but we are growing significantly faster than that.”
The company, however, doesn’t generally publicize which brands it produces pretzels for. I thought it might be good information to have in case you want to support a Lawrence venture, like buying a Hallmark card or Kibbles ‘n Bits dog food, both of which are major products produced in Lawrence.
But then I thought, we can still do our part to promote Lawrence pride. To be safe, we’ll just simply have to buy every brand of pretzel at the store. When a certain someone at my home questions why I’ve bought so many pretzels, I will say with a healthy dose of indignation, “Because I love Lawrence.”
In case you are wondering how the Pretzels Inc. project stacks up with some of the other big projects Kansas has landed recently, here’s a look at the top nine projects that Kansas officials highlighted as part of their Gold Shovel Award:
• Schwan’s Co. pizza plant, Salina: $600 million and 225 new jobs
• Urban Outfitters distribution center, Kansas City, Kan.: $403 million and 1,734 jobs
• Pretzels Inc., Lawrence: $88 million and 281 jobs
• Amazon.com warehouse, Kansas City, Kan.: $75 million and 750 jobs
• Amazon.com warehouse, Park City, $75 million and 700 jobs
• Kubota/Great Plains Manufacturing tractor production plant, Salina: $53 million and 130 jobs
• Nor-Am Logistics South cold food storage facility, Dodge City: $44.8 million and 50 jobs
• Thermo Fisher Scientific Co medical device plant., Lenexa: $40 million and 300 jobs
• Amazon.com warehouse, Shawnee: $30 million and 200 jobs