Augusta icon shuts down after 82 years

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The final cans are rolling out of Castleberry's Food Co.

Production stopped Friday, ending an 82-year tradition of canning stew and chili at the 15th Street plant.

One of Augusta's icons now belongs to a New Jersey company. Aunt Kitty's Inc., a subsidiary of canned-food giant Hanover Foods, owns the Castleberry's name and recipes -- and made the business decision not to buy the plant, instead making the stew and chili in New Jersey.

A skeleton crew will remain in the Castleberry's plant for post-production work, but most of the 325 workers now have no job.

"In the midst of this economy, to see people lose their jobs, it breaks your heart," Augusta Mayor Deke Copenhaver said. "It hurts the neighborhood. You have people that have worked there their whole lives. I know it is going to be difficult for that neighborhood."

Just south of Castleberry's security fence is Shiloh Comprehensive Community Center, which provides services for youth and seniors in the area and serves as a small food bank.

"These are good, hard-working people. I think the personal impact on the people that work there is the greatest tragedy of this," said Sam Tyson, Shiloh's chairman. "The ones that I've talked to seem very optimistic."

Aid has flocked to the workers. The state's labor department has pledged to help with its job-placement services, not just unemployment checks. Augusta Staffing and other firms have been to the plant to explain what they have to offer in temporary job staffing, some of which could become permanent placement with companies.

Others, such as Odell McCain Jr., have chosen to go back to school to pursue a degree, He was laid off two months ago when Castleberry's shut down his unit immediately after Connors Bros. Income Fund announced it was selling its red meat product division.

Mr. McCain, 39, has not found a new job, so he is doing volunteer work for his North Augusta church to keep busy until he can get into Augusta Technical College to finish his media communication degree.

"I'm being productive at least," he said.

He dreams of a career in graphic arts, Web design and desktop publishing.

"We've had tough economies before, and we've come back. I want to be ready for that comeback," he said.

WHEN MISSY DESOUZA WALKED through the facility a few weeks ago, she needed to visit the spice room. The smell of the spices that flavor the chili brought back memories of her days growing up in Castleberry's when it was under her grandfather's control.

Her grandfather was Clement Stewart Castleberry, who in 1926 persuaded his father to can and sell his locally popular stew and barbecue hash.

The founding father of the company, Clement Lamar Castleberry, was a wholesale food merchant who made barbecue as a hobby. Chroniclers of history say his barbecue was so popular that he was invited to cook for a crowd of 12,000 people in Detroit in 1922 at an event held by the Dodge family.

When father and son teamed up in 1926, they started a canning plant in a small shed where six men produced 30 cases a day.

"He sold it out of the trunk of his car," Ms. DeSouza said of her grandfather.

The cans eventually made it into local grocery stores. When the plant got its U.S. Department of Agriculture approval in 1929, the cans started going to stores outside Georgia.

The plant produced military rations during World War II and went back to its product line after the war.

Ms. DeSouza said the company was responsible for many industry innovations, one being the pop-top can.

Castleberry's growth came in incremental gains and new strategies: vending machines, schools and restaurants. Ms. DeSouza said the company really reached a national market when it purchased Texas-based Austex in 1974.

Ms. DeSouza's mother, Joan Castleberry Walker, began working in the family business at a young age, becoming a third-generation owner. Ms. DeSouza said she never thought she would work for the family business, but she did, handling marketing for the company.

The Castleberry family sold the company to Robert Kirby over a period of years beginning in 1991.

Castleberry's grew through acquisition during Mr. Kirby's control. Snow Brands was one of the early ones, in 1994. Castleberry/Snow Brands Inc. was the country's top seller of canned clams and clam juice in 2004 when a Toronto-based conglomerate came calling to acquire the Augusta canner. Connors Bros. Income Fund spent 2004 acquiring several seafood brands, Bumble Bee from Conagra, Sweet Sue and Bryan from Sara Lee Corp.

"When we sold the company, it was the main goal of the family to keep the plant running," Ms. DeSouza said.

"Even when (Mr. Kirby) sold, he wanted to ensure as many jobs stayed as possible. ... Granddaddy was always big on telling people to take care of your employees; they're your family."

Ms. DeSouza said she was not shocked by Connors Bros.' decision to sell Castleberry's.

"That's the food business," she said, meaning that there are always sales and acquisitions among food-production companies. "I was surprised that they decided to shut it all down."

Ms. Walker said she was saddened by the decision, too.

"I would rather have it sold and closed down than drug through the mud like it has been by people who didn't pay attention to what they were doing," she said, adding that she believes the Canadian owners did not maintain good quality control during the past few years.

FOR TWO MONTHS in the summer of 2007, Augusta -- and especially the neighborhood around Castleberry's -- got a glimpse of what life without the plant will be like. It shut down after a nationwide recall so that it could find the cause of botulism toxin that was getting into its chili cans. While the federal government was investigating, more than 400 people had two months of unemployment.

The recall was issued in July 2007 after people started reporting to the Centers for Disease Control that they were getting sick with botulism after eating hot dog chili sauce. The reports were coming in from Ohio, Illinois and Texas.

The cause, according to an FDA report, were two cookers with poor maintenance records and inaccurate temperature devices that could "produce a small portion of finished product that would not achieve a thermal process sufficient to destroy Clostridium Botulinum spores."

Going through the botulism recall was not easy on the Castleberry family. Ms. DeSouza said it just wasn't just the bad publicity; it was the people who were out of a job.

"It bothered me that something like that happened," Ms. DeSouza said. "If something happened in the past, it was shut down and fixed before anything got out. If you don't have safe food, you don't have anything."

Mr. McCain was a manager and remained inside the plant, keeping up with its regulatory paperwork so a restart was possible once the Food and Drug Administration and U.S. Department of Agriculture cleared it.

"The company was setting standards (in food safety) for the nation after that," Mr. McCain said. "Even after all that drama, the company came back and was one of the best in the nation in its rankings in certain criteria."

If a decision had been made to permanently close the facility at that time, it would not have come as a surprise, he said.

"When they really expected to hear that news, it didn't happen. To survive that and a year later, say shut it down, that shocked people," Mr. McCain said. "They thought that after all we'd been through -- and we'd been through the worst, it seems -- that we'd be able to turn it around. No one expected to go from 82 years to shutdown in 60 days."

Although only the hot chili tested positive for botulism toxin, the company voluntarily expanded its recall to 90 products. In the months that followed the September 2007 restart, the corporate owners added up the cost of the recall, settling at $38 million, and temporarily suspended dividend payments to shareholders.

In February, Connors Bros. said it would begin reviewing whether to keep its Castleberry's division. When that review ended, the owner of the Augusta icon announced in September that it had sold Castleberry's to a subsidiary of Hanover Foods for an undisclosed amount and would begin searching for a buyer for the soon-to-be empty facility.

ITS DEMISE WILL have a more far-reaching effect than the layoffs. The loss of Castleberry's is a loss of $20,000 in the Shiloh community center budget. "They lease a parking lot from us," explained Mr. Tyson.

He said there aren't many ways to make up for that lost income.

"Coming on short notice, we're concerned," Mr. Tyson said. "We're concerned, but not desperate."

Paul Han runs the corner grocery store, C&J Market, which fills with Castleberry's employees at noontime when they come in search of lunch or a snack.

Mr. Han said he thinks his business will be fine when the plant closes because most of his customers live in the nearby apartment complexes.

"We will suffer a little bit," he said.

"You lose a long-term local business, it is not a good thing for the city," Mr. Copenhaver said. "It started here, grew here and now it is closing down. It is a sad day for the city."

Castleberry's not only employed a lot of people; it fed a lot of people.

"When Mr. Kirby was there, he was very generous to the neighborhood around him," said Erick Montgomery, the president of Historic Augusta.

Mr. Tyson said the company, even under current owners, distributed its food annually to support the food bank at Shiloh.

"Our folks will miss that. They've been good neighbors and supportive of us," Mr. Tyson said.

Ms. DeSouza said Mr. Castleberry, her grandfather, was big into giving back to the community through the United Fund.

THE FUTURE OF THE PLANT is now largely in the hands of the Development Authority of Richmond County.

"We are actively seeking a food processor to go in there," Executive Director Walter Sprouse said. "The first thing we did is let the state know that we've got a very good food-processing plant sitting here, ready to go to move it."

The development authority staff flew to Dallas this week to meet with regional developers, a trip taken periodically. This time, they went armed with Castleberry's information, along with the rest of what Augusta has to offer.

"The site-selection representatives and real estate people know Augusta because we get on a plane and go see them," he said.

It is a difficult task given the status of the national economy, and in the areas in the Northeast where many food-processing companies are located.

"Times are tougher up there, so they are a little skittish about any expansion in the South," Mr. Sprouse said.

The advantage to Augusta is the work force. There are hundreds of people with experience in all aspects of food processing at the ready, he said.

"We did everything that we could to encourage Connors Bros. to keep the facility open, to work with them with OneGeorgia grants, to get some free services from Georgia Tech as far as making things more efficient," Mr. Sprouse said.

Before the sale to Hanover Foods, the authority was trying to broker a deal with an unnamed group interested in buying the brands, Mr. Sprouse said. And that group intended to keep the production in Augusta.

"It may be next week, may be next month, may be next year. It may be soon before we get somebody. It may be never, but the effort is there," Mr. Sprouse said.

Mr. McCain said Castleberry's was not as "bulletproof" as people thought -- it was as vulnerable to shutdown as any other company.

"I feel that everything happens for a reason," Mr. McCain said. "If it was time for Castleberry's to close, it was time to close."

Mr. Sprouse said Castleberry's will be missed as a symbol of the city. "You associated Castleberry's with Augusta. Everybody knew that name in the South," he said.

"It made me proud to see the cans on shelves around the nation. That was a source of pride for me," Mr. Copenhaver said.

Reach Tim Rausch at (706) 823-3352 or timothy.rausch@augustachronicle.com.

CASTLEBERRY'S HISTORY

1926: Clement Stewart Castleberry persuades his father, Clement Lamar Castleberry, to begin canning stew and barbecue hash.


1929: Plant approved by meat division of the USDA and shipping outside Georgia begins.


1938: Clement Lamar Castleberry dies.


1965: Clement Stewart Castleberry retires as company president and names his son-in-law Frank Troutman Jr. as successor.


1974: The company acquires Austex from Riviana Foods Inc. for $4 million.


1977: Clement Stewart Castleberry dies.


1985: Company reports that it is marketing 175 products and making $50 million in annual sales.


1990: Robert Kirby, a former chief executive of Murray Biscuit Co., becomes president of Castleberry's.


1991: Mr. Kirby buys the company from the Castleberry family.


1993: Castleberry's opens outlet store.


1994: The company acquires Snow's/Doxsee, a former division of Borden.


1995: The company acquires Bunker Hill Foods.


2004: Connors Bros. Income Fund buys Bumble Bee Seafoods and then acquires Castleberry/Snow Brands for $93 million, merging the two companies.[CAPTION]

check out a video of Castleberry's Food Co. made in the 1980s.

Comments (5) Add comment
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ca evans
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ca evans 11/16/08 - 01:39 pm
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Unfortunately, when these

Unfortunately, when these investment fund "sharks" take over a company it's pretty much certain death. I'm sure that they have a well-practiced procedure for writing the whole loss off on taxes. Chrysler will be next (Cerebus Funds).

ca evans
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ca evans 11/16/08 - 01:42 pm
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P.S..........Is everybody

P.S..........Is everybody ready for Chinese Chili?

former employee1
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former employee1 11/16/08 - 04:51 pm
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As a former employee of

As a former employee of Castleberry's who worked under the Castleberry family, Robert Kirby, and Bumblebee Foods, I have to wonder why so much press has been given to Missy deSouza, who hasn't been associated with the company for 17 years. Why not have comments from Mr. Kirby or others who were more involved in the recent events and reveal the 'story behind the story' instead of Missy's self-serving yarn. There's much that hasn't come out and the Chronicle hasn't done a very good job of uncovering the real history of this crumbling of an Augusta icon. There's so much more to tell.

GnipGnop1
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GnipGnop1 11/17/08 - 03:11 am
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You mean the Chronicle is lax

You mean the Chronicle is lax in reporting? Say is isn't so!!!

scorehouse
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scorehouse 11/17/08 - 10:34 am
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isn't castleberry's bar-b-que
Unpublished

isn't castleberry's bar-b-que what is sold at the masters?

former employee1
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former employee1 11/17/08 - 08:59 pm
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The Masters had the

The Masters had the Castleberry's BBQ for years & years but not now. The real story should be how Bumblebee took a company that was either 1 or 2 in market share in Beef Stew & Chili for many years and killed the business in 3 years. How does one destroy a thriving business in so short of a time frame? If Bumblebee now decides that business doesn't fit their profile why did they buy it to begin with? Why not look into the real story of what happened there recently instead of reminiscing about how it was 17 years ago? Is anyone in Bumblebee being held accountable for this litany of one bad decision after another? Why not do some real reporting here and let Augusta know what really happened? Unbelievable!

scorehouse
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scorehouse 11/17/08 - 09:10 pm
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these products were doomed
Unpublished

these products were doomed anyway. the sodium and fat content are extremely high. i could care less but in our PC society it was only a matter of time. the botulism was the nail in the coffin. who does make the masters bbq now? i'd like some for old times sake.

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