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  • 22 Oct 2014

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Young company bakes natural foods, sorely needed jobs

by: PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT - Rebecca Chang, newly hired by the Bridgetown research and development department, mixes a toasted oats recipe at its Southeast Portland facility.  Businesses that manufacture foods with other companies’ names on the packaging don’t usually get much reknown. But Bridgetown Natural Foods is making a name for itself in the sustainability field, and for being a swiftly growing employer in a part of outer Southeast Portland that sorely needs the jobs.

Bridgetown makes granola and natural-food snacks on contract for about 15 food companies, out of a 110,000-square-foot bakery and warehouse on Southeast Foster Road near 116th Avenue. Formed about four years ago, it’s shooting to have about 230 full-time employees by summertime.

In December, Bridgetown was dubbed a “Rising Star” and honored with a Governor’s Sustainability Award at the Northwest Environmental Conference and Tradeshow in Portland.

by: PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT - Bridgetown Foods“If you focus on a wholistic approach on sustainability from the beginning, you don’t necessarily have to get behind on this stuff,” says Dan Klock, Bridgetown chief executive officer. “It’s stuff that doesn’t cost huge money.”

Bridgetown is working to become a zero-waste-to-landfill operation. It sells unusable food-product waste to hog farmers. It refurbishes used equipment, and seeks energy-efficient lighting, machinery and facility cooling.

It was part of Bridgetown’s business plan to do such sustainable practices from the start, so it’s nice to be recognized, Klock says.

“The core part of the business was to try to demonstrate that manufacturing can be innovation-based, flexible and sustainable,” he says.

Aside from granola, Bridgetown makes trail mixes, energy and cereal bars and cookies — snacks that are certified organic, kosher and gluten-free. It buys about 20 percent of its ingredients from Oregon producers, and 50 percent from companies between Seattle and San Francisco.

“We do a lot with nuts,” Klock says, “and focus on whole grains and better ingredients.” Bridgetown-made products sell under other labels at places like New Seasons and Whole Foods.

Bridgetown saw a niche to do such contract work on behalf of relatively small food companies from around the country, and the young company has been growing quickly.

“We can add a layer of sophistication that mom-and-pop shops don’t have, in an area that large companies largely ignore,” Klock says.

by: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT, PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP - Bridgetown Foods preparationsSustainable practices won’t tremendously help the bottom line, plant director Jensen Thome adds. “We’d rather make money in selling cases than feeding hogs,” he quips.

But businesses today have to make sustainability part of the business plan, he says.

“Dan and I discussed this a year and a half ago. We really want to be zero-waste-to-landfill,” Thome says. “That’s hard to do. In manufacturing, it’s the last thing folks think about.”

Not much waste goes to the landfill, Thome adds. Pallets get rebuilt. Equipment gets refurbished. Corrugate gets baled and recycled. All scrap that falls by the wayside — oats, nuts, etc. — not considered edible for human consumption gets sent to farms for hog, cattle and chicken feed.

Still, Bridgetown sees room to do better in the sustainability department.

“We’re turning our focus to packaging,” Klock says. “There are some customers who use film to wrap bars or granolas that isn’t recyclable; the goal next year is to have customers migrate toward more recycled materials.”

Bridgetown doesn’t have much waste water. Because it works with dry foods, much of the water used in food manufacturing gets evaporated. In addition, as stated on the company’s Governor’s Sustainability Awards application, Bridgetown’s operations are energy-efficient by design.

“Despite churning out up to one million snack bars and 150,000 pounds of baked snack products daily, the company counts energy expenses as one of its smallest,” the company wrote. On average the facility uses less than 85,000 kilowatt-hours of electricity per month, costing about $5,000.

Klock, a New England native, has a background in investment banking. Thome has spent the past 16 years in food manufacturing, first with Kellogg and then with a baked and frozen foods company in his native Indiana.

Klock’s wife co-founded the Bear Naked granola company in Connecticut, which later was sold to Kashi, a Kellogg subsidiary.

Klock initially was an investor in Bridgetown, then moved here in 2011 to run the company. Soon after, Thome was brought on board.

Thome has seen the sustainability movement take hold in the food manufacturing industry, even with big companies like Kellogg.

But smaller companies have more of an opportunity to make an impact, he adds.

“There’s not a lot we’re doing that is in and of itself novel,” Klock says. “But we caught the attention of the (Governor’s) awards committee because we’re trying to take a platform approach and do it across all areas. We’re trying to do all things well, if we can.”