Frito-Lay celebrates 40 flavorful years in Vancouver

Snack plant lauded for providing local workers steady employment

By Aaron Corvin, Columbian port & economy reporter

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photoJeff Ahner of Frito Lay talks about Frito Lay's history production and manufacturing processes, and the future of the company with Vancouver community leaders and employees at the Frito Lay Vancouver plant Thursday.

(/The Columbian)

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The next time you reach into a bag of Frito-Lay snack chips just remember one thing: There's a good chance the salty goodies were made in Vancouver before they landed on a store's shelf.

In fact, the 300,000-square-foot Frito-Lay manufacturing, warehousing and distribution complex off Fruit Valley Road pumps out 350 million bags of product annually for shipment to Washington, Oregon, Alaska and even parts of Canada.

"We do operate around the clock," Jeff Ahner, maintenance and engineering director for Frito-Lay's locally based operations, told a group of government and business leaders who gathered Thursday to celebrate the company's 40th anniversary in Vancouver.

And the company hopes to not only keep up its busy schedule but to achieve more growth in the years ahead, company managers said, embracing new technology and advancing environmental initiatives along the way.

Vancouver Mayor Tim Leavitt, who was among the elected officials who visited Frito-Lay's sprawling facility, read a proclamation honoring the company as a place that recognizes the "heart and soul of a great company are its employees."

'Ready to go'

Employees who gathered for Thursday's event, during which company managers shared Frito-Lay's history in Vancouver and its plans, spoke of being able to raise a family on a good-paying job.

Ahner said the average tenure of a Frito-Lay worker in Vancouver is more than 15 years. The local plant employs 480 people.

Bob Besserman, who works in quality control for Frito-Lay, has been with the company for all of its 40 years in Vancouver -- from its opening as an 80,000-square-foot building in 1972, through its expansions in the 1980s and '90s.

Besserman recalled the days in 1972 leading up to when the plant would turn on the lights and officially begin cranking out snack foods. "We got the place cleaned up and ready to go," he said.

As the local Frito-Lay plant has filled store shelves with everything from Doritos and Tostitos to fried and baked Cheetos, the company has sought to become more environmentally friendly.

Ahner, the maintenance and engineering director, said the local plant has cut its use of natural gas by 17 percent; electricity by 15 percent; and water by about 28 percent. In 2006, Frito-Lay's Vancouver facility was among several businesses in the state that received an award from Gov. Chris Gregoire for pollution prevention and sustainable practices.

The local plant also is involved in several charitable and community outreach programs. For example, it's working to help Vancouver-based Open House Ministries, which provides shelter for families, open up a coffee shop by the end of October.

Randall Kemp, regional vice president for Frito-Lay, said the company will face several challenges in the years to come. That includes the need to secure a local supply of skilled workers as the retirements of older workers occur.

"We still have a lot of change coming our way," Kemp said.

'A fairly constant business'

Attendees who toured the plant Thursday got to see an assortment of machines, conveyer systems, pipes and a robotic arm. The smell of snack chips, including a very distinct cheddar cheese fragrance, filled the air.

In one part of the factory, a tumbler made sure the snacks inside it were getting thoroughly covered in seasoning.

It's all part of making sure consumers get the kind of snack foods that market research says they want, Ahner said. The local plant is part of PepsiCo Inc., the multinational corporate giant with about $60 billion in annual revenues and about 300,000 employees.

Ahner said that although Frito-Lay is associated with big brands, it maintains partnerships with its local communities and growers. The Vancouver facility, for example, gets the potatoes it turns into snack chips from Eastern Washington.

And the local plant has remained a steady employer for Vancouver, Ahner said. There were no layoffs at the facility when the economy crashed.

Food, he added, is "a fairly constant business."

Aaron Corvin: http://twitter.com/col_econ; http://on.fb.me/AaronCorvin; 360-735-4518; aaron.corvin@columbian.com.