When you arrive in Virginia, it doesn’t take long before you start seeing merchandise with the state’s slogan — “Virginia is for Lovers” — everywhere. Embarrassing confession: I thought this meant Virginia is a romantic destination. A casual poll of the van full of journalists on a media tour of the state’s food industry revealed I wasn’t alone in the assumption.
But one of our tour guides corrected us: Virginia is for lovers of all things active, outdoorsy and fun. It’s not one of the biggest states in the republic, but Virginia packs a lot of uniquely beautiful and inviting landscapes into its borders.
Travel east and a seaboard vibe takes over with beaches, maritime vessels and cities deeply plugged into both current, hipster trends and the grandness of their military history. Fly west over the state’s gently rolling mountains and it almost feels like you’re in the Midwest, with farms and cows dotting the scenery of rolling hillsides that conceal modern foodie haunts, elegant vineyards and quaint getaways.
Virginia indeed seems to have something for everyone. And when it comes to food and beverage manufacturing, the landscape is just as diverse.
According to the latest statistics from the Virginia Economic Development Partnership (VEDP), the state’s food processing industry employs more than 35,000 and is responsible for about $25.9 billion in direct economic output. In addition to its location — the state is within a day’s drive of 43 percent of the country’s population — Virginia’s transportation infrastructure, with busy ports and highways, as well as its highly educated workforce, makes it an attractive destination for business.
Earlier this winter, VEDP invited a group of journalists from the food industry to come see the state’s food and beverage presence for ourselves. For two-plus days we crisscrossed Virginia by air and over land, getting our fill of every taste the local scene has to offer. Here are some of the highlights.
Virginia is home to facilities for many food industry heavy hitters, including Coca-Cola, Lipton and Kraft Foods. It’s also the location of the world’s largest hummus factory.
Hummus seems so common now that it’s hard to imagine how just a decade ago it was still an exotic food for most Americans. Since then, the rise of hummus has been staggering, and there’s no company more responsible for making it mainstream than Sabra Dipping Company.
Sabra opened in 1986 as a small food manufacturer in Queens, New York. But as sales picked up, the company outgrew the space and settled on Colonial Heights, Virginia as its new headquarters.
The main thread in the story of Sabra is the company’s uncanny success with marketing.
Convincing Americans that they should ditch ketchup or ranch for a dip that’s considered peasant food in the Middle East was no small feat. But with clever advertising and persistence, Sabra has helped transform the snacks and dips industry.
Sabra is the best-selling hummus in the country and has been credited with introducing more Americans to hummus than any other brand. Hummus now holds more than 60 percent of the refrigerated dips category and is found in an estimated 25 percent of American homes.
The increase in sales has also impacted chickpea farmers in a big way. All told, American chickpea farmers have reportedly quadrupled their output from 25 million pounds in 2009 to 100 million pounds in 2015.
But there have been a few bumps in the road. In fact, our tour happened to arrive at the plant as the company was grappling with any food processor’s worst nightmare: a far-reaching product recall.
The move was prompted by a positive listeria test in the facility. Although listeria wasn’t detected in any finished product, Sabra chose to recall a large amount of its product line out of an abundance of caution.
Rather than shying from the topic, the recall was addressed right away by Ilya Welfeld, a public relations representative for Sabra, who displayed an “onward and upward” mentality toward the problem.
In light of the event, Welfeld said the company would be ramping up its safety measures even more with additional auditing, increased transparency and testing. These changes will add to the company’s already robust safety protocol.
“The products here are tested [for contamination] every two minutes,” Welfeld said.
It wasn’t all bad for Sabra. In the midst of the experience, Welfeld said that the company received several letters of support from frequent customers who explained how much their products matter in their daily life.
That approach to hummus fits right into Sabra’s quest to pitch the dip not just as food, but as an experience.
Sabra is now expanding its reach deeper into everyone’s kitchen with a widening portfolio of products such as squeezable spreads for sandwiches and wraps, party platters, veggie-fusion dips and even more flavors of hummus.
While it has climbed the mountain and made hummus mainstream, Sabra is just getting started.
One of the biggest surprises on our jaunt around Virginia was discovering how many breweries are in the state. Approximately 145 breweries operate in the state (up from 44 in 2011), and in the capital of Richmond alone — which is 60 square miles — there is now one brewery for every 10,000 people.
The biggest brewer on the block is Stone Brewing. Around 20 states vied for Stone — which is headquartered in California and is the 10th-largest craft brewer in the country — to open its newest locale in their borders, but Virginia got the big win. The company opened its Richmond-based 220,000 square-foot brewery, distribution center and tasting room in March 2016. It was a $74 million investment that created more than 288 new jobs, including 64 current positions at the brewery.
In a statement, Stone Brewing President and co-founder Steve Wagner said the company settled on Richmond because of the city’s “ability to meet [the company’s] extensive site requirements ... We also feel that Richmond’s vibrant energy and impressive craft beer culture, along with the uniqueness of the property, will allow us to create a truly memorable Stone experience.”
Surrounded by green space, the brewery will also capitalize on the scenery to open a bistro nearby in 2018.
There were challenges to moving in, however. According to Juliellen Sarver, Stone Brewing’s community relations manager, some of the tanks inside the brewery were so big that the company had to take the roof off of the building to move them in.
Now, with the facility up and running, Stone cranks out about 2,000 kegs of beer a day. The company’s bottling line, which moves at a mesmerizing pace, fills about 600 bottles a minute. It also uses the industry’s most up-to-date technology, including robots that help move the kegs around.
For other craft breweries, it’s hard to compete with Stone’s size and reach. But if you can create a unique space and make notable flagship beers, newer brewers can still carve out their own corner of the market.
Both of the other brewery stops on our trip showed how their own distinct approach is propelling their success.
O'Connor Brewing Co.
This isn’t to say that the market isn’t getting crowded. In fact, Kevin O’Connor, the founder of O’Connor Brewing Co., was quick to point out on our tour of his company’s facility that “There could be a storm coming in the market.”
To make sure O’Connor Brewing — which is located in Norfolk — can weather that storm, O’Connor said the company is being careful to not grow too quickly.
O’Connor went from brewing beer in his backyard to scoring a job at a brewery before venturing out to fulfill a beer lover’s dream: opening his own digs in a space with a rustic, hipster vibe. O’Connor’s 35,000 square-foot brewing facility feels pared down compared to Stone’s manufacturing center, but its impact on the surrounding community is notable. In addition to its brewing capabilities, O’Connor’s tasting space — which can fit about 700 people — is a regular hotspot for local events and weddings.
O’Connor Brewing, which employs about 35, also sticks with what it’s best at: ales. In addition to its flagship brews, O’Connor makes a variety of seasonal flavors and other limited edition beers.
The company also isn’t afraid to play around with offbeat ingredients. One of their most popular beers is an agave IPA that encapsulates O’Connor's approach to finding the right flavor in a beer.
“It should always have a balance between sweet and sour,” O’Connor said.
The weirdest ingredient he’s ever tried? A Carolina Reaper pepper. It didn’t go very well.
“We’ll never use those peppers again,” O’Connor admitted with a laugh. “It was way too hot.”
Pale Fire Brewery
About three hours away from O’Connor and in the central part of the state, Pale Fire Brewery has taken its own unique approach, as well.
“I think the world was crying out for a Russian literature-themed brewery,” Tim Brady, the founder and general manager of Pale Fire, joked.
He may have been sarcastic, but the formula seems to be working. Its urban space in Harrisonburg has become a popular neighborhood hangout, with a cozy couch, fireplace and walls lined with books.
All of Pale Fire’s brews take names related to music and/or literature. They taste pretty great, too. In 2015, an industry publication named Pale Fire one of the best new breweries in the country. The company has also won medals for two of its beers at the World Beer Cup.
Pale Fire’s capacity is about 7,000 kegs per year, and the company employs 13. Even though it is one of the newer breweries in the state, Pale Fire has already made its mark on the scene and is continuing to work on increasing distribution.
Massimo Zanetti Beverage USA
Even if you don’t recognize the name, there’s a good chance you’ve had coffee recently made by Massimo Zanetti Beverage USA. As one of North America’s largest coffee manufacturers, Massimo Zanetti Beverage coffee can be found everywhere. The company’s brands include Chock full o’Nuts, Kauai Coffee, Hills Bros. Coffee and Cappucino, and Segafredo Zanetti Coffees and Espresso.
Parent company Massimo Zanetti Beverage Group is based in Treviso, Italy. The North American operation is headquartered in Suffolk, Va., along with marketing and warehousing in nearby Portsmouth, Va. Part of what makes the company unique is its vertical integration from farm to cup — the company operates the largest coffee farm in the U.S., located on the Hawaiian island of Kauai.
The roasting facility we visited in Suffolk has 12 roasters. All told, Massimo Zanetti Beverage Group sells about 120,000 tons of coffee every year.
Wanchese Fish Company
I’m not going to lie: I expected the smell in this fish factory to be a little challenging. But stepping in the front doors, we were greeted with the overwhelming aroma of air fresheners. In fact, it smelled great.
This shouldn’t have been a surprise, though. The folks at Wanchese Fish Company are old pros in this business.
Founded in 1936 in a small, North Carolina fishing village, Wanchese has grown to become one of the country’s top seafood companies. The company primarily targets the foodservice industry and its core items include scallops, shrimp and crab. Wanchese, headquartered in Suffolk, is also the largest producer of Atlantic salmon in North America.
As we got a tour of the company’s production area and walked through rooms that ranged from cold to freezing, we saw how the company uses a mix of cutting-edge tech, like a deboning machine, and bundled-up workers who sort and clean at an impressive pace.
Many of the other tech advances the company uses can be found on the high seas. Like Massimo Zanetti, Wanchese is a vertically integrated company and has its own fleet of 16 vessels. According to company representatives on our tour, their fleet is equipped with the latest technology to help track fish and improve traceability.
Improving processing at sea is in line with the latest trends in the fishing industry, which also include healthy eating, an emphasis on freshness and more interest in sushi.
Sustainability is also an important part of the company’s operations at sea and in the plant. In addition to efforts to reduce the company’s carbon footprint, Wanchese sources about 50 percent of its fish from farms.
“We don’t want to overfish because we want our jobs to last,” a company spokesperson said.
Growing crops may be one of the oldest of human inventions, but it’s an industry that’s always evolving. At Shenandoah Growers, an organic herb farm tucked into Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley in the northern part of the state, staying on the cutting edge is a prime mission.
Shenandoah Growers started as a small family owned herb farm and has since become one of the biggest suppliers of fresh herbs in the country. On the day of our visit, the folks at Shenandoah were finishing a large order for a major retailer that included gift pots of rosemary.
In addition to the necessary manpower of keeping the farm going, the company uses the latest tech including automated planters, a proprietary closed-loop system for their nitrogen cycle and an innovative growing system with LED lights.
“LED is the future of growing,” company President and CEO Timothy Heydon said. But some of the company’s solutions are effectively low-tech as well, including giant sheets of tape used for catching critters — a must-have in an organic facility that’s avoiding pesticides.