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Super-Sizing Freedom Foods: Fast-Growing Randolph Company Expanding Into New, High-Tech Building

  • Sue Hawley of Brookfield, Vt., left, and Terri Conant of Randolph Center, Vt., right, fill bags of granola at Freedom Foods in Randolph, Vt. Wednesday, Aug. 7, 2013. The specialty foods producer and distributor will move to a new 25,000 square foot location in Randolph from its original 7,500 square foot building this winter.<br/>Valley News - James M. Patterson<br/>jpatterson@vnews.com<br/>photo@vnews.com

    Sue Hawley of Brookfield, Vt., left, and Terri Conant of Randolph Center, Vt., right, fill bags of granola at Freedom Foods in Randolph, Vt. Wednesday, Aug. 7, 2013. The specialty foods producer and distributor will move to a new 25,000 square foot location in Randolph from its original 7,500 square foot building this winter.
    Valley News - James M. Patterson
    jpatterson@vnews.com
    photo@vnews.com Purchase photo reprints »

  • Nathan Bacon, left, and Michael Hill, right, pack boxes of granola for shipment at Freedom Foods in Randolph, Vt. where the granola is produced Wednesday, Aug. 7, 2013. <br/>Valley News - James M. Patterson<br/>jpatterson@vnews.com<br/>photo@vnews.com

    Nathan Bacon, left, and Michael Hill, right, pack boxes of granola for shipment at Freedom Foods in Randolph, Vt. where the granola is produced Wednesday, Aug. 7, 2013.
    Valley News - James M. Patterson
    jpatterson@vnews.com
    photo@vnews.com Purchase photo reprints »

  • Cathy Bacon of Randolph started the specialty foods producer Freedom Foods in 2008, doing much of the labor herself to convert the former Randolph Co-op building to suit the needs of her business. Now the business has outgrown that original 7,500 square foot space and is planning a move to a new facility more than three times the size.<br/>Valley News - James M. Patterson<br/>jpatterson@vnews.com<br/>photo@vnews.com

    Cathy Bacon of Randolph started the specialty foods producer Freedom Foods in 2008, doing much of the labor herself to convert the former Randolph Co-op building to suit the needs of her business. Now the business has outgrown that original 7,500 square foot space and is planning a move to a new facility more than three times the size.
    Valley News - James M. Patterson
    jpatterson@vnews.com
    photo@vnews.com Purchase photo reprints »

  • Sue Hawley of Brookfield, Vt., left, and Terri Conant of Randolph Center, Vt., right, fill bags of granola at Freedom Foods in Randolph, Vt. Wednesday, Aug. 7, 2013. The specialty foods producer and distributor will move to a new 25,000 square foot location in Randolph from its original 7,500 square foot building this winter.<br/>Valley News - James M. Patterson<br/>jpatterson@vnews.com<br/>photo@vnews.com
  • Nathan Bacon, left, and Michael Hill, right, pack boxes of granola for shipment at Freedom Foods in Randolph, Vt. where the granola is produced Wednesday, Aug. 7, 2013. <br/>Valley News - James M. Patterson<br/>jpatterson@vnews.com<br/>photo@vnews.com
  • Cathy Bacon of Randolph started the specialty foods producer Freedom Foods in 2008, doing much of the labor herself to convert the former Randolph Co-op building to suit the needs of her business. Now the business has outgrown that original 7,500 square foot space and is planning a move to a new facility more than three times the size.<br/>Valley News - James M. Patterson<br/>jpatterson@vnews.com<br/>photo@vnews.com

Randolph — In November, Cathy Bacon will move Freedom Foods into a new high-tech building with three times the space of the company’s current facility, but she doesn’t think the luxury of having all that extra space will last long.

After all, since its start in 2008, the food processing and co-packing business Bacon founded has grown so fast that she has more than once taken over offices, put up new walls and moved around warehouse stacks to make room for expanding production in the 8,000 square feet of the old Randolph Cooperative Market on Pleasant Street. She’s also had to rent a couple of rooms for her office in another building and has leased additional off-site warehouse space.

In fact, the business doubled last year, and her gross revenue has passed the $1 million mark. The company is getting between two and 10 inquiries a week from new customers, she said last week after hanging up from a call from a potential customer in Atlanta. It was the fifth inquiry she’d had that day.

“We don’t have any room, but I’ve still got to add more equipment now to keep up,” Bacon, the company’s president, said later, while giving a tour of the building, which was stacked high with boxes of artisan organic, gluten-free and kosher products that the company prepares, labels and packages for markets nationwide.

In 1998, Bacon, a Randolph native, started making special artisan cheese spreads and flavor-infused maple syrup in her kitchen her spare time, selling the products under her Hillside Lane Farm label. Although she had a full-time job at the engineering firm Dubois and King, her real passion was making food. Her products sold well — well enough for her to quit her job.

Five years ago, she took over the old Randolph Co-op building and set up a little retail shop and production facility.

“This place was cavernous,” said Bacon. “There was nothing in here — no walls, just space. I thought, I’ll never use all this room.”

For the first two years, things were slow. The retail shop, which sold Vermont artisan food products made by others as well as her own, didn’t make a lot of money. That’s when she started producing and packaging for others who had products to sell.

“It dawned on me that I could make a lot more money just helping other people get their products on the market (and putting her own items on hold), and that’s when the business started to take off. Now, it’s growing so fast that I have customers that I can’t get to until I have more room.”

To meet the demand, she closed the retail shop and moved her office in there to free up room for production and warehousing. The succession of other moves have kept her in business and helped her grow, but she’s out of options now.

“She is in a niche that is sorely needed in Vermont, and she’s created something from nothing,” said Joan Goldstein, executive director of Green Mountain Economic Development Corp. in White River Junction.

“She does more than just co-packing. She does all the things that small producers have a hard time doing themselves, and she clears the way for them to grow and succeed,” Goldstein said.

Vermont produces more than 1,500 food products and generates more than $1 billion in revenue, according to the Vermont Specialty Food Association.

Many of those producers are customers of Freedom Foods, but Bacon also has expanded her client list outside of New England, thanks primarily to the Fancy Food Show in New York City each year. She’ll have a large booth there in January, exhibiting the products she produces and gathering future customers.

“I don’t do any advertising or the Internet or social media like Facebook or Twitter. My website is pathetic. It’s all word of mouth,” Bacon said.

Goldstein worked with Bacon and Randolph officials to land $424,000 in Vermont Community Development funds. The money is allowing the town to run water and sewer lines out Beanville Road to the new Freedom Foods building. Those lines also will serve the other industries that locate in the area in the future, and could lead to future job creation, the application says.

Part of the money — $150,000 — will be a revolving loan fund for Freedom Foods to use as working capital and for expansion.

In addition, Goldstein helped Freedom Foods qualify for the Vermont Employment Growth Incentive, which, if the company meets its predicted performance goals, will provide cash installments over five years. When she qualified for the program, Bacon had 17 full- and part-time employees. She now has 22 workers and has set her five-year goal at 36.

“I think we’re going to hit 36 pretty quickly,” she said.

Bacon’s economic impact also reaches beyond just creating new jobs, because she uses mainly locally sourced ingredients for everything she produces, Goldstein said.

And she hires area shippers, and some of her national customers have flown into the Lebanon airport, stayed overnight, rented cars and eaten in restaurants, Bacon said.

Freedom Foods is clean and orderly, the air fragrant with the welcoming smell of baking granola, but its growing pains are apparent, and where there was space to be had, Bacon has installed commercial baking ovens, packaging and labeling equipment, and an extrusion machine that she acknowledges cost more than most people’s houses. Stainless steel prep tables and sinks line the walls where hair-netted and gloved employees move from task to task dodging equipment, boxes and visitors in the crowded space.

The new 25,000-square-foot building — now just a steel skeleton on 7 acres next door to Applied Research Associates — will be different, Bacon said.

The company will have room to grow, room to handle the new customers who are on a waiting list and a proper conference room for client meetings to plan their strategy for achieving their goals, she said.

There will be abundant production and packaging rooms, allowing the company to do flash freezing of frozen food products, and there’s a federal Food and Drug Administration approved and inspected processing and packaging area for meat and fish products. There will be state-of-the art test kitchens, LED lighting that will turn on and off as rooms are occupied or vacated, and the building will feature the latest energy-efficient equipment.

The contractor, Neagley and Chase, is known for its eco-friendly construction. For the planning, Bacon landed her father, Bill Baumann, an engineer and the former president of Dubois and King, who came out of retirement to do the volunteer job.

She takes a different approach with customers than many other co-packers, Bacon said.

“We are partners, and I have to know all about their business. We have to have a relationship built on trust, and other co-packers don’t do business that way.”

For most, the first step to becoming a Freedom Foods customer is a lengthy consulting session to establish goals and a plan for achieving them. After the meeting, some customers may decide to drop their business idea, go in a different direction or sign up with Freedom Foods, Bacon said.

“I really want them to succeed, because if they’re successful, so am I.”

For the next few months, Bacon will be focused on keeping the business moving forward and getting into the new building, something she does with about five hours of sleep a night. “I’m a type A person, but when I sleep, I sleep really well.”

Even with the full plate before her, Bacon also is thinking about the future.

“We’re already talking with Neagley and Chase about where to add the space for the next expansion,” Bacon said.

Warren Johnston can be reached at wjohnston@vnews.com or 603-727-3216.