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Market of Choice readies expansion

The company’s new high-tech warehouse in west Eugene is a big step toward plans to double its number of stores

Appeared in print: Wednesday, Jan. 18, 2012, page A1

EUGENE – When Market of Choice President Rick Wright looks around at the high-tech kettles, hand and shoe sterilizing stations and ceiling-high racks of warehouse shelves waiting to be filled at the company’s new central kitchen and distribution center, he sees the future.

He sees the near future — more types of hot soups and company-made condiments in Market of Choice stores, for example, and food safety measures that go far beyond what’s required.

He also sees the longer-range future: He plans to almost double the number of Market of Choice stores — from the current eight, to a total of 15, at the rate of one new store every 18 to 24 months.

First up is Central Oregon — “We’ve bought property in Bend,” Wright said. He also wants to expand further in the Portland area.

But his vision for the family-owned company doesn’t end there. The brand new building on Owens Loop in west Eugene, he said, “could handle 15 stores before we expand.”

“(But) it’s designed to expand,” he added. The kitchen can be expanded outward, doubling in size, Wright said. The warehouse space can be more than doubled.

“(There’s) no better time to prepare for growth than in a downturn,” he said. “We didn’t have any stores under development at the time, so we had the ability to invest in this project. Now we are positioned to grow at the perfect time, and we can focus on finding the right locations.”

The “dry” warehouse at the new center has approximately the same floor area as the company’s old warehouse — 32,000 square feet — but will hold three times as much, Wright said, because it’s designed better, down to the shelves that will allow lightweight bulk goods to be stacked deeper.

The kitchen area is three times the size of the old one and equipped with high-end, high-tech stainless steel appliances. Almost half of the $7 million cost of the building — which the company financed itself — went for equipment, Wright said.

This includes three kettles, ranging in size up to 100 gallons, each with different stirring mechanisms to serve different needs. These go from gentle stirring for soups that have fragile ingredients to paddles that scrape the sides of the kettle to prevent foods like cheese sauce and fudge from sticking, to large paddles that stir soups like the signature Mama Leone’s chicken soup, keeping the ingredients evenly suspended while an attachment dispenses exactly one gallon of soup at a time into plastic bags.

In the old kitchen, head chef Greg Cabeza said, there was one kettle. “This is the mixer from the old kettle,” he said, brandishing a well-used, long-handled wood spoon. And soup was retrieved from the kitchen’s lone 60-gallon kettle by an employee scooping it up with a one-gallon container, he added.

The kitchen also has an expanded pasta-making area, and an array of new baking, steaming, sauteeing, grilling and chilling equipment, Cabeza said, lovingly patting a combination oven and steamer. “We didn’t have one of these (before),” he said. An array of chillers will slash the time it takes to cool foods for storage, a necessity for food safety, he said.

Although each store’s chefs and cooks will continue to develop and produce entrees, side dishes, appetizers and desserts for their individual stores, Wright and Cabeza said, foods that are produced in quantity — such as soup, salad, and macaroni and cheese — will be prepared at the central kitchen and distributed from there.

So will foods that the company wasn’t equipped to make before, Wright said. “This opens up our ability to do our own cake filling or pie fillings,” he said. “We had a really good producer, but they went out of business.”

It also opens up a chance to expand the company’s catering business — “We haven’t really focused on catering; we’re always at capacity,” Wright said.

The increased storage in the warehouse means the company can distribute more products to its stores itself, instead of going through a distributor, Wright said, a cost savings. And, like a thrifty householder, “We can buy when something is on special,” he said.

Because the new center has two functions — distribution and food production — extra food safety requirements were put in place, Wright said. This included installing a system that will keep the floor of the hallway leading from the warehouse to the food preparation areas coated with disinfectant foam.

The facility was designed to meet the highest food management standards set out by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration — called Hazard Analysis & Critical Control Points.

Ingredients that must be kept cold are delivered to three separate storage area: one for produce and dairy products, one for proteins (such as meat and poultry) and one for frozen foods. Each of the storage areas connects to a separate food preparation area to avoid cross-contamination, Wright said.

Access to food preparation areas is controlled. Before going in, employees must stop at a sanitation station: sticking their arms into tubes that sterilize their hands and forearms while simultaneously triggering a shoe disinfectant at floor level. Inside the prep area is another hand sterilization station.

“The health inspector said they’d never seen anything like this,” Wright said. These kinds of precautions aren’t currently required in kitchens, he said. “But at some time it’s going to be required. Since it’s the best, why not do it now?”

Cabeza said that the local food industry grapevine has been buzzing about the new Market of Choice center, and people are calling him, asking about working there. Initially, Market of Choice will probably hire a couple of additional workers, Wright said, growing to 25 or 30 in a few years, up from the current 18.

Market of Choice Distribution/kitchen center: 1390 Owens Loop, Eugene

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