Champaign's Kraft plant celebrates half-century mark

Champaign's Kraft plant celebrates half-century mark

CHAMPAIGN — Kraft Foods revealed a key ingredient of what has kept its Champaign facility so fresh after 50 years of operation.

Capital investment.

At a celebration Friday marking the plant's golden anniversary, plant manager Christine Bense said the company has invested an average of $20 million to $30 million a year in the facility over the last 10 years.

That investment was as little as $18 million one year and as much as $40 million another, she said.

In a brief interview following the ceremony, Bense told The News-Gazette that expansion onto the vacant HumKo property to the south is "something we're considering."

The site could "unlock" further growth by Kraft, but Bense added there's "nothing to talk about" at this point.

Speaking in a tent on the plant's west side, Bense said the Champaign facility is Kraft's largest, both in terms of square footage and volume of products made.

Its products include Kraft dinners, such as Kraft Macaroni and Cheese, Velveeta, Kraft Singles and Miracle Whip as well as Kraft mayonnaise and salad dressings.

Just this year, Kraft consolidated its Velveeta business in Champaign, making this plant "the home of the loaf" and creating 39 new jobs here, Bense said.

She also cited recent expansions in salad dressing and cheese slices and said the plant is one of the largest pasta producers in North America.

The plant, which has nearly 1,200 employees, produces half of Kraft's dinners and 40 percent of its processed cheese, she added.

U.S. Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., and U.S. Rep. Rodney Davis, R-Taylorville, were on hand for the celebration, as were 87 employees and retirees who worked at least 40 years at the plant.

Following the ceremony, plant officials showed the families of those employees a walkway honoring those with 40 years' service. Employees completing that many years will have their names inscribed on bricks in the walkway.

Steve Yucknut, a Kraft Foods vice president, said it's a major achievement for a plant to be not only operating, but viable after 60 years. He said when he joined the company 26 years ago, Kraft had 136 manufacturing facilities; today it has 39.

Yucknut called the Champaign plant "an American institution to work in," ranking up there with "motherhood, apple pie and macaroni-and-cheese."

Durbin hailed Kraft's reputation for quality and affordability, and Davis said he spotted nine different products at the plant "that are in my cupboard and refrigerator today."

Champaign Mayor Don Gerard said the plant is "bringing dollars from around the globe to our community." He joked about holding "Champaign Golden Noodle Days" as a counterpart to the Urbana Sweetcorn Festival.

A few employees on hand shared their experiences with The News-Gazette.

Daniel Ward of Homer, who started with Kraft in 1973, today works in receiving. Through the years, he worked in the pasta plant and then in processing, where Miracle Whip was packaged.

In the early days, Ward said, he stacked food on pallets manually. Today the plant has forklift trucks that operate themselves, he said.

Working so close to food hasn't given Ward an aversion to it. Kraft products are "in our refrigerator and on our shelves," he said.

"If anybody is looking for work, this is a good place to work," he added. "They take care of their people."

Robby McLemore began working at Kraft in 1972, starting on the cheese side. He later worked in pourable salad dressings and now works in processing, where he's a base cook for Miracle Whip.

McLemore said his stepfather worked at Kraft and helped him get a job there at age 21.

"It's been good money and a steady income," he said, noting the plant employs people from as far away as Charleston, Danville and Newman.

According to the company, Kraft spends about $100 million annually on salaries and benefits in Champaign.

In conjunction with Friday's ceremony, Kraft erected a new sign bearing the company's revised logo and donated an additional six pallets of products to the Eastern Illinois Foodbank to help feed 4,000 people in the area.

Kraft Foods in Champaign

Location: 1701 W. Bradley Ave., C, at the southeast corner of Bradley and Mattis avenues.

Size: 1.2 million-square-foot plant and 430,000-square-foot distribution center. The plant has 38 acres under roof.

Traffic: 130 trucks go in and out from the plant each day.

Historical highlights:

1963 — Construction on original plant completed. Facility originally focused on Kraft's margarine and salad dressing business.

1971 — Processed cheese and pasta added, with expansions for production of those, plus an expanded distribution center.

1977 — "High-rise" product cooler built, allowing storage and retrieval of more than 65,000 pallets of refrigerated products.

1980 — Construction completed on Kraft transportation hub, with fleets of trucks and trailers.

1991 — New recycling center completed. Since that time, the percentage of recycled material has nearly tripled.

2012 — Pasta production for Kraft dinners expanded.