The Ferrara gummy bear factory that shut in Winona a year ago, displacing 125 workers, will soon reopen as a maker of gummy vitamins for cats and dogs.
Chicago-based Midwest Co-Pack plans to begin manufacturing pet goods inside the factory by the end of the month, it announced last week.
Midwest Co-Pack’s owner, Amy Paris, bought the shuttered Ferrara Candy plant in October and began converting it from a facility that makes sweet gummy candies for people into a maker of savory gummy vitamins and medicinal gels for pets. The company rehired 12 of Ferrara’s laid-off workers and plans to hire 25 more by July, said Midwest Co-Pack public relations director Kat Olewinski.
City officials are thrilled.
“The whole thing has just gone to the dogs,” quipped Steve Sarvi.
Sarvi had been Winona’s city manager for just one week when Ferrara announced its plant closure last year.
“So we were scrambling about what to do with all the people impacted here,” he said. “But fairly quickly we heard rumors that someone was interested in the factory. The city started working with Amy for several months. And now it’s refreshing to see how this has come about. She has this exclusive agreement with PetSmart and she puts people in there to service her products. Just the whole marketing piece and the R&D that she has done is impressive. Her business plan is rock solid.”
Paris currently is using the Winona plant to bottle and ship her Licks brand of pet supplements, which are sold to PetSmart. In a few weeks, the manufacturing of Licks products will shift from contractors in Wisconsin to the Winona plant, Olewinski said. A ribbon-cutting ceremony is set for April 11.
Licks products include “pill-free” gel and gummy supplements that are used to treat hair balls, allergies, urinary tract infections and digestion and heart problems. The items are currently made by several contractors for Chicago-based Pet Health People, a separate company Paris founded in 2010. Pet Health People has 25 employees in Chicago and 500 independent sales reps across the United States and Canada.
Finding the Winona plant and its gummy bear operations proved a stroke of luck for Paris, Olewinski said. Paris has been looking for a chance to consolidate the number of contractors she works with. Ferrara’s old candy plant and its experienced workforce gave her the chance to manufacture pet supplements on her own.
Paris’ plans for the Winona plant also include using the factory to provide packaging and distribution services to third-party businesses in the animal health arena, Olewinski said.
Midwest Co-Pack now runs one work shift a day, five days a week in Winona, but, if successful, the operation will grow. The old Ferrara Candy plant used to run three shifts, seven days a week.
But Paris doesn’t want to expand the operation too quickly, Sarvi said.
“It’s important to grow at the right speed,” he said.
The Winona Port Authority worked with the state and Paris to retrain laid off Ferrara Candy workers, he said.
While officials are excited about the opportunity Midwest Co-Pack brings, “we have warned her that finding workers is not a sure thing,” Sarvi said. We have lots of manufacturing businesses. So, down here and elsewhere, there is a workers shortage.”