Valley's food and beverage sector leads the way

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The Lehigh Valley makes the products that Americans eat and drink – a lot of them.

There are 46 companies in the Lehigh Valley that produce food products and 11 that make beverages. Those production facilities employ more than 3,500 workers and pay a total of $180 million per year in wages to Lehigh Valley workers.

The list of brands and products made here is like a Who's Who review down the grocery aisles: Coca-Cola, Powerade, Vitaminwater, A.1. Steak Sauce, Grey Poupon, Pepsi, Deer Park, Nestle Water, Poland Springs, Bazzini peanuts, Mike and Ike, Ocean Spray, Sara Lee, Pepperidge Farm, Entenmann's, Samuel Adams.

Little by little, the Lehigh Valley has become a hub on the East Coast for the production of food and beverage products. Just last week, a group of writers from food and beverage trade publications visited the Lehigh Valley to see what is going on here and why.

The company landscape is equally impressive. Coca-Cola Refreshments, Kraft Foods Global, Samuel Adams, Nestle Waters, Niagara Bottling, Just Born, A.L. Bazzini, Just Born candies.

Under construction and soon to be opened, Ocean Spray's new East Coast production facility and Bimbo Bakeries, responsible for baking much of the bread rack in your grocery store: Thomas English muffins, Entenmann's, Sara Lee, Pepperidge Farms and 12 other brands.

Why the Lehigh Valley?

There are several key factors.

Geographic proximity to major markets is critical. Nearly all of the major markets in the eastern United States, from Boston to Richmond, Va., are reachable with a delivery and return trip in one day. Transportation and labor costs are competitive.

While location may be king, infrastructure is equally important. The Lehigh Valley has outstanding and well-maintained water and sewer and highway infrastructure. It also has had a good inventory of available land and existing facilities.

And, as in all things, success begets success. An already established major food and beverage cluster in one place attracts more companies. Most of the cluster is in western Lehigh County in Upper Macungie Township, where available land and facilities have been conducive to continued growth.

Recently, however, the sector has realized a new twist on an old staple in a different county.

Freshpet, the makers of healthy food for pets, joined the ranks of long-time Lehigh Valley staple Alpo by acquiring a facility in Hanover Township, Northampton County, and converting it into a high-tech, modern manufacturing plant making pet food. The $25 million project now employs 125 workers.

Freshpet's philosophy about pet food is to give animals quality food, some of which can also be consumed by people. Fresh meat, liver, vegetables, eggs, brown rice and a litany of vitamins and minerals are standard with Freshpet dog and cat food.

The food and beverage presence in the Lehigh Valley creates unique job opportunities.

Food scientists are one of the area's regional specialties. Lehigh Valley employment of food scientists is 12 percent higher than the national average with a mean wage of $68,000 per year.

The Lehigh Valley has made a remarkable transition from an economy that was dominated decades ago by the heavy manufacturing of steel and trucks to making the products found on grocery store shelves.

It's fitting that a group of national trade writers embarked on the Lehigh Valley to investigate how a region can successfully transition from one type of manufacturing to another and actually increase the number of jobs that exist in a region.

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