Published in Food/Agribusiness
A rendering of Request Foods Inc.’s planned expansion in Holland Charter Township. A rendering of Request Foods Inc.’s planned expansion in Holland Charter Township. COURTESY RENDERING

GROWTH CLUSTER: Food processing sector, supply chain ramps up to meet demand

BY Sunday, November 21, 2021 05:20pm

With a $205 million expansion project in Holland Charter Township, frozen foods producer Request Foods Inc. is essentially doubling down on its commitment to the region where it got its start more than three decades earlier. 

Spinning out of Bil Mar Foods in 1988 after that business was sold to Sara Lee Corp., the DeWitt family-owned Request Foods has steadily expanded over the years. However, this planned new expansion project marks an important inflection point for the homegrown company that co-manufactures food products for national brands and private label customers.

“This investment is really transformational and will take us to that next level,” Request Foods CFO Menaka Abel told MiBiz. “A lot of it came from (lessons) from the pandemic and I would say that (the pandemic) kind of thrust us into doing some things maybe a little earlier than we initially planned.”

The large expansion, which adds significant storage and production capacity for Request Foods, is a marquee project for the local industry that is quietly thriving and expanding throughout West Michigan, primarily in Ottawa and Allegan counties. Additionally, as the food processors grow, they’re also bolstering the strength of the local supply chain, including packaging, warehousing, logistics and material handling businesses, many of which are also expanding. 

Backed by more than $10 million in incentives from the state and Holland Charter Township, the Request Foods expansion features a variety of components, including an $81 million expansion planned for the company’s existing 300,000-square-foot facility located at 12875 Greenly St.

Request Foods also wants to expand its warehousing and cold storage capabilities — a service that is in short supply — with 157,000 square feet of additional cold storage space and the potential for an additional 100,000 square feet.

The company also plans to lease an existing warehouse on a nearby parcel and renovate it into a new production plant dedicated specifically to ready-to-eat meals.

The series of upgrades adds production capacity to allow the company to maintain a diverse mix of products and customers, which helped Request Foods weather the COVID-19 pandemic.

“One of the lessons we learned from the pandemic was diversification,” Abel said. “We were very blessed to have thrived during the pandemic because we were diversified in our customer base. We work with food service as well as retail customers.”

As the food service segment of its business came to a near standstill at the height of the pandemic, it was offset by Request Foods’ soaring retail sector, which includes frozen food products available in grocery stores. The sector’s growth has continued, with retail now accounting for about 75 percent of the business for Request Foods, according to Abel.

“In the past six months, we see food service really coming back and retail has not slowed down,” Abel added. “There has been incremental, significant growth coming in (for food service).”

The ready-to-eat production facility will bolster the retail product line, offering single-serve portions of frozen foods that can be prepared quickly in a microwave rather than in a conventional oven.

“A lot of that expanded capacity is going to be used to support retail food sales. A lot of what we call the single-serve option, we find that’s very much in demand,” Abel said.

Growing together

Not only is Request Foods’ rapid growth indicative of what its peers in the food processing industry are experiencing, but also the company is actively fueling the success of local suppliers.

Some of the key local partners included Hudsonville-based beef packing operation West Michigan Beef Co. LLC, Grand Rapids-based dairy supplier Country Fresh, and Hart-based frozen vegetable processor Michigan Freeze Pack Co., according to Abel. 

Coincidentally, West Michigan Beef Co. recently received a $150,000 Food and Agriculture Investment Funds grant from the state to help construct a 70,000-square-foot beef processing facility in Hudsonville. The expansion, which also is expected to create 10 new jobs, will increase capacity for the custom and conventional slaughter segments of its business.

“Our (food) economy is growing,” said Amanda Murray, vice president of business solutions for Lakeshore Advantage Corp., an economic development firm serving businesses in Ottawa and Allegan counties. 

“Companies are connected with each other,” Murray said. “Request Foods, they don’t just buy from West Michigan Beef, but from local suppliers all over West Michigan and throughout Michigan. That’s just an example of how we end up with local employers looking to grow.”

In addition to the West Michigan Beef project, Murray identified a number of recent food-related expansions in the two-county area, including the likes of Hudsonville Creamery and Ice Cream Company LLC and Sprinkles Donut Shop LLC.

Companies are also expanding to meet increased cold storage demand.

Leighton Township-based Classic Transportation & Warehousing announced in 2020 it would construct a 145,000-square-foot warehouse next to its corporate campus at 4729 S. Division Ave.

Similarly, Art Mulder & Sons Trucking in Holland is expanding warehouse and cold storage space, a project that is in progress but has not been formally announced.

“This is a time we are seeing a lot of growth,” Murray said. “I don’t know how widely known it is that West Michigan has a prominent food processing cluster. We do have a competitive advantage here, though. … We’re really poised to support that food processing growth.”

Long overdue

While Abel of Request Foods attributed the company’s accelerated growth to capitalizing on the shifting market dynamics of the pandemic, many food businesses were ready for expansion before the pandemic but lacked the necessary resources to move forward.

Marty Gerencer said that served as one of the drivers behind the formation of the West Michigan Food Processing Association, where she serves as executive director.

“There were a lot of companies waiting to expand and waiting for the resources to help them get there,” Gerencer said. “Lakeshore Advantage, in the midst of Ottawa County, understands that food is one of their economic development drivers. Not all economic development groups understand that. 

“Part of what we’ve done is help put food manufacturers on the map as a force to be reckoned with and supported to grow.”

Like traditional manufacturers, food businesses often require shovel-ready sites, and many need financial incentives that have proven hard to come by in the past. 

However, the state appears to be coming around. Beginning with former Gov. Rick Snyder’s administration, Michigan has started to recognize the industry as a crucial segment of the state’s manufacturing sector, Gerencer said.

Businesses in the local food economy rely heavily on incentive programs created by the Michigan Economic Development Corp. Gerencer pointed to MEDC CEO Quentin Messer’s previous experience serving as CEO of the New Orleans Business Alliance as an advantage.

“The southern states have pretty robust economic development policies to support the food companies,” she said. “I think (Messer) definitely understands it by listening to him speak.”

A range of factors should lead to ongoing growth trends in the sector. While Gerencer could not yet elaborate, she hinted at a number of future expansion initiatives in the works, creating an optimistic outlook on the future of the local food industry.

“The world figured out (during the pandemic) we needed food to survive,” Gerencer said. “The shortages on the shelf at Meijer isn’t because Meijer wasn’t doing their part, it’s because the supply chain was disrupted. The world got a chance firsthand to see where their food came from.”

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