Little Giants

Super sized: Small town manufacturer provides big time employment

Driving through the community of Norman’s Cove, N.L., it’s easy to miss the town’s biggest full-time employer – even if it is on the main road. The facility itself is an unlikely collection of structures: an aged main building anchoring several lego-like trailer appendages, some of them on stilts similar to old-fashioned handmade wharves. There is no sign on the building, nor an obvious entrance, just a pair of sliding garage doors with an innocuous-looking buzzer off to the side. The only visible symbol of the venture within is the delivery truck parked outside.

Jason Smith makes no apologies for the site. It’s been his family’s entrepreneurial base for multiple generations. His father’s father operated a coal business on the property. And it was here that his father Howard (“Hod” to his friends) opened a restaurant to supply his Smith Snacks catering trucks.

When the snack trucks were at their heyday, there were 22 of them on the road, selling more than two dozen types of dinners made at the restaurant, along with pop, chips, cigarettes and chewing gum. Altogether, those miscellaneous items – plus the company’s burgeoning wholesale division – amounted to $4-million in annual sales.

Sales, though, don’t automatically equal profit. Within days of realizing that the catering trucks were costing him more they were bringing in, and that the wholesale division was holding the company together, Hod shut down the catering division.

Today, thanks to Hod’s decisiveness and Jason’s affinity for lean manufacturing, the company is more profitable than ever. Inside the deceptively inconspicuous exterior of Smith Snacks is a workplace gleaming from floor to ceiling with mechanized food production equipment. From the industrial-sized mixer to the baking trays to the proofing room to the oven and even to the elevator carrying product from the bakery to the production floor, there is not a single square inch of wasted space. Even the staircase design (it’s spiral) was chosen to conserve valuable footage.

Here, 49 employees toil away like an elite team of manufacturing commandoes, making up to 10,000 products every eight hour shift (more than 2 million products a year). And if Jason – who became CEO in 2003 – has his way, Smith Snacks will soon be feeding thousands more hungry people. He dreams of expanding the company’s full menu line into Northern Canada, and believes he can profitably export their pastry products to the Maritimes. He also hopes to stop importing produce from British Columbia and switch to local products, such as blueberries, wherever possible.

Realizing his expansion plans, however, is presently impossible. Lack of space prohibits Smith Snacks from growing any further at its present location. Which is why he hopes to start construction of a new 20,000 square foot plant within a year – and it won’t be at the current location. It may be in the adjacent community of Chapel Arm (the company has already purchased several acres suitable for development) or it might be in the cities of St. John’s or Mount Pearl. Though reluctant to make a move that might cost him some current staff, he says that the decision will have to be based on a full analysis of the best business case for the company.

Meanwhile, the town council of Norman’s Cove is understandably concerned that their prized employer/taxpayer may be leaving. With only 730 residents in the entire community, Smith Snacks employs the equivalent of one in every 15 people.

In addition to the stable work for residents, Mayor Eva Bennett says Smith Snacks is also a great corporate citizen. She credits them with multiple charitable contributions and frequent sponsorships of community events. “Often, you don’t even have to ask them. They voluntarily donate cash, goods.”

She says she hates the thought that the business might move, but agrees there is indeed no room to expand at their present location.

“We’ll do everything we can to make them want to stay,” says the mayor, “but we realize it’s ultimately their choice. And even if they do go, we will find a way to survive. This is not a one-industry town. Small businesses have always kept this town alive. Small businesses are invaluable to small towns.”

By Dawn Chafe

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