Hickory Harvest Foods looks toward growth with new owner
One of region’s growing food manufacturers has a new owner, new plans for long-term growth and a new problem — finding people to work as it sees demand increase for its nuts and other healthy snacks.
Joe Swiatkowski said he has acquired sole ownership of Hickory Harvest Foods from his mother, for undisclosed terms, making him the third generation of his family to own and run the snack food company.
“My mom’s a little past 65 now, and it was something I always wanted to do,” Swiatkowski said of taking over the company. “Either sell the company (to an outsider) or sell the company to family were the options.”
The company has been growing in a joint economic development district industrial park in Coventry Township on Akron’s southern border. The 34-acre North Turkeyfoot Industrial Park that houses Hickory Harvest is owned by the city and supports both it and the township with shared tax revenues.
Two 16,000-square-foot expansions, in 2009 and 2016, mean the company now has 65,000 square feet of space in the park.
That’s enough for this year, but the company will need more, especially if it continues to grow as it has been, said Swiatkowski, who added that Hickory Harvest has seen double-digit revenue growth in all but two of the past 10 years.
“We’re up over 10% again this year,” he said.
Thanks to a strong sales force, the pandemic hasn’t hurt Hickory Harvest’s business too much, Swiatkowski said.
The company makes packaged snacks, with a heavy emphasis on nuts, dried fruits and other organic ingredients. Some of the products go to consumers under the Hickory Harvest brand, often at places like convenience stores or bars, but most of what the company makes is sold as privately branded products by big grocery chains. And the company supplies most of the big grocers in Northeast Ohio, Swiatkowski said.
It was that grocery store business that enabled the company to continue its growth this year.
“Grocery stores did well through COVID, but convenience stores did terribly. And food service was nonexistent,” Swiatkowski said.
The company has been taking advantage of the changing ways that Americans eat, which means meeting more demand for organic and healthful snacks as people tend to eat more throughout the day and rely less on three main meals, he said. It’s a trend that has also boosted grocery store sales, he added.
Now the company’s biggest problem might not be finding new customers, but finding enough employees. Hickory Harvest has 80 workers but has had to delay a few orders because it needs more, Swiatkowski said. He said he’s been paying for plenty of overtime work to keep up.
“We need more people. We just can’t find them right now,” he said, adding that he would hire 15 new workers now if he could find them.
That’s not a unique challenge in today’s environment, especially for manufacturers, said Tia Ramlow, president and owner of Akron-based staffing firm Great Work Employment Services.
Ramlow said it’s been difficult to convince people to work, something that began when the federal government paid folks $600 a week in additional unemployment benefits. That still holds true, she said, as many hope another federal stimulus program is coming soon.
“It is a struggle,” said Ramlow, who said she understands why people want to stay home and why the government wants to help them. But it still leaves small manufacturers in a lurch, she added.
“When you’re in the hourly pay range between $11 and $18 an hour, that $600 stipend people were…