LIMA — Of the many things Allen County exports, mashed potatoes just might be the most satisfying.
Bob Evans’ mashed potatoes, made at the company’s plant in Gateway Commerce Park, are distributed to every state in the union, Bob Evans Food Products Division President Mike Townsley said.
Bob Evans expanded the facility and capacity when it bought the plant from Kettle Creations in 2012, Townsley said in an interview with The Lima News. After Bob Evans paid $50 million for the facility, it invested another $27 million, adding 50,000 square feet to the 100,000-square foot facility, installing a third line and leaving capacity for a fourth line.
Today the plant employs 240 people and makes up to 2.5 million pounds of mashed potatoes weekly. Bob Evans Lima makes seven varieties of mashed potatoes in multiple size packages, macaroni and cheese, broccoli cheese casserole, scalloped potatoes, penne pasta with Alfredo sauce and several new oven-baked products, such as hash brown casserole. It will soon make glazed apples.
Bob Evans makes the No. 1 mashed potato brand in the country, with half the market share across the country. When the potatoes are displayed next to competitors, they outsell two to one, Townsley said.
If it seems like mashed potatoes are taking over, you haven’t seen anything yet.
“Bob Evans the brand is founded on quality and service,” Townsley said. “What we have found is, this is a very fledgling category. The category (of prepared side dishes) still has a household penetration of only 10 percent. A lot of people still have not tried the category. We didn’t invent it, although we’ve been doing this 17 years, but the growth of this category will come from the strength of the Bob Evans brand. It gives the meal preparer permission to pick up and buy. There’s a high expectation of quality.”
Townsley joined Bob Evans as president and chief operating officer of Owens Foods, then Owens Country Sausage in 2003. He has a long career in food service, including time with Premium Standard Farms in Kansas City and Smithfield Packing Co. in Smithfield, Va. Originally from Xenia, he has a bachelor’s degree in agriculture from The Ohio State University.
The combination of a strong agriculture economy, work ethic of residents and access to higher education makes Ohio a great place for food processing, Townsley said.
“This is agriculture in the broadest sense, and agriculture is the state’s No. 1 industry,” he said. “Ohio is a major hub to move product, especially to the population base east.”
Ohio is within 600 miles of 60 percent of the U.S. and Canadian populations. The state ranks second in the nation for fruit and vegetable processing and the production of specialty foods and fifth in food processing overall. Agribusiness accounts for $9.5 billion of the state’s gross product, 967 firms and a workforce of more than 59,000 people.
Bob Evans, with its headquarters in New Albany, is a large part of that economic impact. The company unveiled its Best to Invest in Ohio campaign in 2011, announcing a new corporate headquarters and a $187 million investment in the state over multiple years. That investment includes the remodeling of all 190 restaurants that will be completed in April and $4 million in renovations to original Farm and Homestead in Rio Grande. In Ohio, Bob Evans employs 14,000 people and generates $38 million in corporate, payroll and sales tax for the state annually.
In Lima, mashed potato making has grown rapidly since the Klausing family formed Kettle Creations in 2008 and started making mashed potatoes in 2009 for multiple clients, including Bob Evans.
After experience with the facility as a client, Bob Evans officials knew acquiring the facility made a lot of sense for the growth it wanted in the sector, Townsley said.
“It allowed us to take our research and development up a stroke, and develop some proprietary things while also increasing the security of supply,” Townsley said. “It was a natural fit for us.”
Bob Evans operates a research and development office in Lima, always working on improving things from the label to the quality of the product and creating new products.
“You want something that’s convenient, and you’re not sacrificing quality,” Townsley said. “The beauty of the product is that in five minutes, you have really, really good mashed potatoes.”