by CHRIS ROGERS
It was a sad day last March when Ferrara Candy Company announced plans to close a business that employed 125 people and had manufactured candy in Winona for 75 years. On Monday, Chicago-based Midwest Co-pack announced plans to reopen the plant and put some of the same people and equipment that once made gummy bears back to work making gummy pet supplements. Twenty-five people are already employed at the plant, Midwest Co-pack is hiring more, and the firm hopes to continue to grow.
Midwest Co-pack CEO Amy Paris plans to use the Winona factory to supply her pet supplement brand, LICKS, and offer the plant’s packaging services to other entrepreneurs and manufacturers. With products like “ElderDog” and “Hairball Remedy,” LICKS offers vitamins and supplements for dogs and cats. The company mostly sells them in gel form in pouches, but it recently launched a new line of gummy, bacon-flavored pet supplements. That is where Winona’s former candy factory and its former employees come in.
“They were some of the biggest producers of gummy candy around … so it’s great that we can leverage that expertise,” said Midwest Co-Pack Director of Public Relations Kat Olewinski.
“The workforce was really important to me. I know it sounds great that I’m hiring them back, but I actually feel like the fortunate one,” Paris said. Before it shut down, Paris had planned to contract with Ferrara to manufacture LICKS’ new line of gummy supplements in Winona. When Ferrara shuttered the factory, Paris looked around the country for other options. “I’ve been renting out candy factories around the country and had a lot of quality issues,” she stated. “Confections are just really difficult so I am incredibly fortunate to be able to hire these people back. They’re already making our products better than we’ve made them,” she added.
Paris bought the plant last October for $1.65 million and began recruiting former candy factory employees. Manufacturing gummy pet supplements and gummy bears is similar, but there are significant differences, so the Winona Workforce Center helped re-train former and new employees, Olewinski explained. State funding for training laid-off workers and a federal Small Business Administration (SBA) loan administered by Minnesota’s SBA corporation helped make the deal possible.
The plant is already bottling and packaging LICKS products and will soon fire up local production of the supplements themselves.
Winona city staff — including Winona Economic Development Director Lucy McMartin and Winona Economic Development Coordinator Myron White — assisted Paris, and Mayor Mark Peterson praised their work to bring back some of the lost jobs. “To have this kind of success, to have this kind of manufacturing facility in a year’s time I think is remarkable,” Peterson said. “I am excited that successful entrepreneurs like Amy Paris find Winona a welcoming place to do business,” he continued. “We are pleased that the dedicated and experienced workforce can have re-employment opportunities in Winona.” Peterson added, “It’s really a good thing for all of Winona.”
“I was just happy that we were able to work with them to bring production here,” McMartin said. “I think we have a skilled workforce here, so it worked out well,” she added.
Olewinski said that LICKS is one of the only pet health brands that sources and manufactures its products entirely in the U.S. Keeping LICKS made-in-America and helping other U.S. manufacturing entrepreneurs is a big part of Paris’ vision, she added.
Winona firefighters extinguished an equipment fire at the 1000 West Fifth Street plant last week.
A public ribbon-cutting ceremony is planned at the factory at 3 p.m. on Tuesday, April 11.