Homegrown salsa plant leaving Eugene

EUGENE — Soon nothing will be cooking at Emerald Valley Kitchen in Eugene. Kettles of the company's spicy salsas and bean dips instead will simmer at a new plant in Kent, Wash.

Monterey Gourmet Foods, Emerald Valley Kitchen's corporate parent in Salinas, Calif., said Friday that it will close the Eugene plant on Sept. 4, putting 25 employees out of work.

Monterey CEO Eric Eddings said the decision was made after two years of careful consideration. The company determined that closing the Eugene plant and shifting production to Kent would be the best use of company facilities and provide customers with more flexible production runs, he said.

Eugene employees were notified in person on Tuesday and Wednesday, Eddings said.

Monterey's decision comes as a battered Lane County economy already suffers from a 13 percent unemployment rate.

"We're sorry to lose any jobs at this time," Eugene Mayor Kitty Piercy said. "And for the 25 who were employed there, it's a hardship."

The move also puts an end to local production of the homegrown, iconic brand, which Mel Bankoff, a Philadelphia transplant, founded in Eugene in 1983.

"The best that I can hope for is that they continue to maintain the quality of the food and the organics and don't, as they say, mess with the thing that's created the success," he said.

Bankoff sold Emerald Valley Kitchen in 2002 to Monterey, then Monterey Pasta Co., for $5.5 million. He stayed on to head Monterey's organics division but said he grew disillusioned as top management changed and didn't exhibit the commitment to organics and employees that he advocated.

Three years later, Bankoff resigned.

Now, as production leaves Eugene, "that's the painful part for me," said Bankoff, 58. "To see something that I dedicated a good part of my life to — it didn't have the level of continuity and future that I had hoped it would have."

That Emerald Valley Kitchen's salsas and spreads will no longer be locally made may cause some area consumers to shun them in of favor locally made products, buyers at Eugene natural foods stores predict.

Dan Beilock, owner of Red Barn Natural Grocery in the Whiteaker neighborhood, said he has contacted De Casa Fine Foods, maker of Salsa De Casa, offering some of Emerald Valley Kitchen's shelf space.

Customer demand will determine whether he continues to carry Emerald Valley Kitchen products, he said.

"People that are in the know will want to support more local products," he said.

Tom Kay, a buyer at the Kiva, said the natural foods store in downtown Eugene probably will continue to stock Emerald Valley products, "but we'll just have to see how things shake out."

"This is a fairly political town, and we do have a certain number of customers who will make that decision not to buy it because it's no longer made here."

The company's roots and legacy will continue to be in Eugene. "They stand out as one of those companies that you think about when you think about natural foods in Eugene, Oregon," said Alan Turanski, operations manager at Glorybee Foods, a distributor of natural and organic foods.

"I think that legacy will always be there, even if the facility is moving. They can't change where their roots are. The product will be made in a different place, but the roots are still in the same place."

Glorybee, which supplies legumes and spices to Emerald Valley Kitchen, and Springfield Creamery, which supplies yogurt and sour cream to the salsa and dip maker, expect those supply arrangements to remain intact.

"We will still consider Monterey Pasta as a customer," said Sue Kesey, co-founder of Springfield Creamery. "We will ship product to them."

Nevertheless, Kesey said, "We kind of like the local feel of all our friends here (at Emerald Valley Kitchen in Eugene), and it's sad that they'll no longer be there. They've been a very efficient production plant over here, and it's always sad to see a production plant torn apart and not used anymore. But we're glad the brand and product is continuing and we're glad we'll be able to continue to participate in providing products for their company."

The 20,000-square-foot facility might not remain vacant as long as some other larger industrial properties have, some speculate.

"I've heard a lot of people surprised about the lack of food processing facilities here, so I'd be somewhat optimistic that we could find a good use for that," Piercy said.

Monterey officials said the company will continue to support the local Eugene community and its charitable organizations. Since 1984 Emerald Valley Kitchen has donated a minimum of 5 percent of profits from the Emerald Valley Kitchen brand to ecological and humanitarian projects in the Eugene-Portland area.

"The needs in Lane County are important to us because they're consistent with our values," Eddings said. "They've been great supporters."

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