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Forest Grove soup supplier enters a New Season

Food processor's local roots now stretch to Japan, where diners go for corn soup with their burgers
by: CHASE ALLGOOD, Mike Frandsen, CEO and president of New Season Foods in Forest Grove, stands atop some food processing machinery at the company’s plant on Yew Street.

Sometimes, no news really is good news.

Last week, New Season Foods of Forest Grove - a manufacturer of food ingredients - announced that it had been bought by Knorr Foods, a subsidiary of Japanese food giant Ajinomoto.

Mark Frandsen, the CEO and president of New Season (not to be confused with the small chain of groceries stores with a similar name), said the sale had been announced at a Tokyo press conference more than a month ago.

He'd planned on announcing the deal locally but had been so busy he hadn't gotten around to it until last week.

Besides, he said, the sale had been in the works for nearly two years.

'Nobody was in a big hurry,' said Frandsen, who owned New Season before selling to Ajinomoto for an undisclosed sum. 'So we took our time to see that this was the best thing for both companies.'

Frandsen, who is staying on as president and CEO, said all employees - 30 year-round and up to 80 during the harvest - will keep their jobs under the new ownership and, in fact, may have opportunities for further advancement.

Carolyn Mayer, a Banks resident who started with the company in 1979 processing strawberries, called the sale 'a very positive thing.'

'With Ajinomoto owning the company, it definitely opens the door to another world of opportunity' for the company and for employees, said Mayer, who has worked her way up to manager of technical services.

'We go from being a successful but small company in Forest Grove to one of the 10 largest food producers in the world,' Frandsen said.

Ajinomoto, the literal translation of which is 'essence of taste,' operates in 23 countries and regions around the world, employs about 25,000 people and has a yearly revenue exceeding $9 billion, according to the online encyclopedia Wikipedia.com.

Frandsen said the sale of New Season can be viewed as a validation of the new direction it has taken in the past decade.

Its main business since it was founded in Banks in 1950, and long after it moved to Forest Grove in 1966, was supplying frozen berries, fruit and corn to grocery stores. But, Frandsen said, the markets started to change in the early 1990s, around the time he joined the company in 1994. By the time he bought it in 1998, he was ready to refocus the company.

The company had been selling dried and dehydrated vegetables since 1985, but not as its primary business. In 1999, Frandsen changed the name to New Season Foods (it had been Flavorland Foods) to reflect the new tack.

Today, the company doesn't sell fruit at all. It's exclusively a supplier of ingredients, mostly sweet corn powder.

Ajinomoto had been a major customer all the while, buying hundreds of tons of sweet corn powder. It uses the powder as the main ingredient in a quick-and-easy version of a very popular meal in Japan - corn soup.

'Even McDonald's in Japan has corn soup,' Frandsen said. 'You can get a hamburger and corn soup.'

The samples of Ajinomoto's end product look much like packets of Ramen instant-noodle soups, available in the United States. By acquiring New Season Foods, Ajinomoto secures a source of ingredients for its instant soups.

Frandsen said Ajinomoto also wants to expand its product lines, and therefore the number of ingredients it buys in Oregon - good news for local farmers.

Harold Wyatt, who founded the company that evolved into New Season Foods, said he had no objections to the business' direction or to the recent sale.

The 94-year-old Wyatt, who lives at the Jennings McCall Center, said it was sad to see the local strawberry market undercut by imports, but he's glad his company could adapt.

'In terms of the community, I think it's a good thing, as long as the company operates and keeps its payroll here,' Wyatt said.