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WATERLOO — Food storage is the “meat’ of the business for Crystal Distribution Services.

The company, which took over and rehabilitated large portions of the former Rath Packing Co. plant site, is in the middle of a $5.5 million, 50,000-square-foot expansion onto its refrigerated warehouse at Vinton and Sycamore streets on the old Rath site.

The expansion, coupled with other developments like the growth of Standard Distribution — the addition of an Ashley Furniture warehouse in Cedar Falls, expansions by Martin Brothers Distributing about two years ago and the location of the massive Target Distribution Center nearby — help further cement the position of Waterloo-Cedar Falls as a major warehousing and distribution hub.

That growth has continued since the reconstruction of the metro highway system in the 1980sand ’90s under the federal interstate highway substitution program following the extension of Interstate 380 to the metro area in 1985.

The company also has added some meat processing to the operation, trimming fat and packaging meat from Tyson Fresh Meats in Waterloo and other firms for further processing.

“Lot of history here. It’s kind of ironic that we’re still doing the meat business,” Poe said, given the history of the old Rath site. “We do a lot of work with Tyson but there’s other customers. Different proteins — beef, turkey, chicken — all proteins.

“We box meat, temper it, do some trimming of meat. That’s new this past year. We started that for a customer. If we can add more value-added service, those thing are good for us,” and add jobs “The thing that’s been holding us up now is the lack of freezer space,” which makes the expansion timely. It is anticipated to be completed in May.

The business employs 55 people full time, plus some temporary labor of about 20 to 40 workers during busy periods.

The catalyst for the warehousing and distribution growth of Crystal and others was the highway system, Tom Poe said. “That was a large part of it. (Interstate) 380 connecting with 80 was a big deal, and the Avenue of the Saints in general. Most of our traffic rolls that way or (U.S.) Highway 20. When we’re in the middle of agriculture heartland here, between a number of large cities, it lends itself really well to distribution. Obviously Target recognized that, and other companies. My brothers (Stan and David Poe, Standard Distribution) have expanded their dry storage business and done a good job with that,” utilizing highway as well as rail.

“Having the infrastructure for highways and rail is key for our business,” Tom Poe said.

Poe’s brothers’ Stan’s and David’s enterprise, Standard Distribution, has several sites in Waterloo-Cedar Falls and does dry storage for food-grade packaging material, ag products such as animal feed additives and manufacturing components.

One of its newest constructed facilities is a 103,000-square-foot building in the North Cedar Falls Industrial Park, about three years old. In all, Standard has about 800,000 square feet under roof at seven different facilities in Waterloo-Cedar Falls. It also has a location in Omaha, Neb.

The business is, by design, not well known, because its client base is confidential.

“That’s kind of the nature of our industry. We fly below the radar,” Poe said. “We operate like an extension of our clients’ business. Companies don’t want to spend millions of dollars on a distribution center when they can outsource it to us.

“We’ve got all the headaches of operation that they don’t want to mess with. So they send orders to us every day and we load them back out on trucks,” Stan Poe said. “It’s a big industry throughout the world but almost nobody knows about it. It’s called third-party logistics.

“It’s similar to all these little storage units all over town, Stan Poe said. “It’s the same concept. Why build another garage if you can go rent one? It’s the same deal here. Why put up your own warehouse? These things aren’t cheap,” and also need to be staffed. “Most of the larger companies, especially larger companies, outsource to companies like us because they don’t want to tie up their capital.”

Standard employs about 80 people and that can fluctuate depending on workload and projects.

Products stored can be massive, ranging to multiple 7,000 pound rolls of paper. “But our clamp trucks just pick it up like it’s a piece of paper,” Stan Poe said.

The area benefits as a warehousing hub from its trucking companies. But for Standard’s Cedar Falls operation rail access is a plus, particularly with the size and weight of the products stored. The company built a rail spur access of the adjacent Canadian National Railway line to load and unload product right out its door.

“We’ve had steady growth over the years,” Stan Poe said. “We used to just be food grade. We’re expanding our base and clientele,” adding ag and industrial products.

“I think our customers like the Cedar Valley,” Stan Poe said. “First of all, there’s good trucking here. Secondly, it’s a central location. You look on a map and you can draw arrows out to all these major metro areas that are within a six-hour drive. That’s kind of impressive.”

Another family-owned warehousing and distribution business, Martin Brothers Distributing Co., said the highway access and labor pool has only accelerated their growth through the generations as a regional distributor of institutional food products.

“Being located in the Cedar Valley since 1940 has allowed Martin Brothers to grow our distribution network not only in Iowa, but throughout the Midwest,” company chief operation officer Jeff Martin said. “Our operations center in the Cedar Falls Industrial Park allows our fleet to reach the entire Midwest market with easy access to highways. The quality of the workforce in the Cedar Valley is second to none. The Cedar Valley community has been extremely helpful in supporting our growth needs and we look forward to many more years of growth.

Martin Brothers director of warehousing and operations, Ethan Dewall said, “The highway access is certainly a positive as are the easy access to food, fuel and shopping for employees. Additionally, the aesthetic look of the Industrial Park is a positive from both an employee and customer perspective. “

Kevin Hemmen, president of Waterloo Warehousing & Service Co. said that company began 34 years ago with Deere as a main customer. “Deere’s still a big customer but we’ve added to our customers base,” he said.

The company has multiple locations, including several repurposed industrial buildings and about 120 to 140 employees. He agreed the revamped metro road system attracted more companies to down and consequently more potential customer snad business for everyone.

The Cedar Valley’s advantage is its people as well as the location, said Jordan Kettner of the Target Distribution Center.

“One of the things that’s key for us is the workforce of the area, the strong work ethic and our ability to draw top talent — highly educated team members — and being able to retain them,” Kettner said. “The work force here in Cedar Falls, the Cedar Valley, rivals anywhere in the United States. With that, we have the ability to draw great leaders from the area. Wartburg, Iowa, Iowa State, the University of Northern Iowa, they’re preparing people ready to come right in.”

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News Editor

News Editor at the Courier

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