JOPLIN, Mo. —
Andy Souder was skeptical at first, but he was willing to keep an open mind about the takeover of the Safeway Bakery by Annie’s Homegrown Inc., of Berkeley, Calif.
To start with, he thought that Bernie, a rabbit, was a rather unusual choice for a company mascot. Then came the paint, signs and photographs.
“Safeway was a good company, but we were a bland institution,” said Souder, who worked his way up in the bakery to become the plant engineer and maintenance manager over the course of 15 years.
“It was white walls with gray trim and some blue on the steel,” he said. “I was not a believer in what they were doing. I kept asking: Why? What difference does the color of a room make?”
Bright and warm colors were chosen for accent walls. Signs expressing the company’s philosophy about clean and healthy foods are prominently displayed. Colorful photographs depicting healthy people living healthy lives have been mounted on the walls.
“We’re halfway through, and all I can say is: This is great,” Souder said. “I can’t wait to do the whole thing. It livens things up and creates a friendly environment.”
But Souder is still a bit overwhelmed by the rabbit.
He opened a door to a freshly painted stairwell and there, looking back at him, was a freshly stenciled image of Bernie.
With eyes wide open, Souder said: “This is culture change.”
Annie’s Homegrown, which recently purchased the bakery at 1401 Junge Blvd. and its contents for $7.4 million, celebrated its grand opening with a ribbon-cutting ceremony Thursday.
John Foraker, the company’s chief executive officer, said the bakery is the first plant — its flagship — to be acquired by Annie’s. The plant’s work force of 140 exceeds a work force of 125 people at the corporate headquarters in California.
Foraker said most of Annie’s production is handled by contracted suppliers in North Dakota, the Chicago area and on the East Coast. The company is known for its macaroni and cheese.
When the purchase was announced in November, officials noted that more than 50 percent of Annie’s snack crackers and cookies were manufactured in Joplin.
The Safeway Bakery has been an important factor in the company’s growth since 2002, when Annie’s was generating about $7 million or so in sales.
“In 2002, our first year with the production of Cheddar Bunnies here at the Safeway Bakery, we did $500,000 in business,” Foraker said. “For a startup company, that was really a big deal.
“We now are doing $200 million in sales and 40 percent of that is in snacks, and the Cheddar Bunnies made here are a big part of that. We feel this plant has a lot more capacity.”
Cheddar Bunnies are baked snack crackers.
The people who operate the bakery, Foraker said, have high levels of experience in manufacturing.
“They have tons of manufacturing experience,” he said. “The people here will play a bigger role nationally in our company.”
Shane Solberg, senior director of marketing at the bakery, said there is “always a little apprehension because of the unknown when things change. There’s a lot of excitement now.
“The growth of Annie’s has been 20 percent in recent years. Safeway was a good corporation, but Annie’s will take us to the next level.”
Foraker said it is likely that the bakery will employ more people in the future after significant capital investments are made in the plant to improve safety, lighting and efficiency.
“We think this plant will provide a long runway for future growth,” he said. “For us, it’s the Cheddar Bunny capital of the world.”