GRUNDY CENTER -- Odds are good most people have tasted products made at Richelieu Foods. Odds are also good few people know the products they're trying were made by the company.

That suits Richelieu Foods just fine.

Richelieu Foods is growing both in numbers and in size. The company is up to 115 employees from 78 at the same point last year and is beginning a 30,000-square-foot warehouse expansion.

Walt Grineski, vice president of manufacturing, dressings and sauces for Richelieu, said growth in the past couple of years has been tremendous.

"It's nuts," Grineski said. "That's why we're putting up the warehouse. We're overwhelmed."

The business has evolved from a line of salad dressings to a host of products.

The company started in 1956 as Western Dressing Inc. and made only salad dressing until 1988, when it was sold to an investment group.

"They basically looked at it and decided they wanted to be more than making Western French dressing," Grineski said.

From there, the company got into contract packing and private label items, making products for other manufacturers.

"An example of that would be McCormick spice and seasoning," Grineski said. "They're huge in spices, but they really don't do a whole lot of retail products like condiments and marinades and things like that. So we do all their retail liquid products like Golden Dip Cocktail Sauce."

Private label arrangements are similar, but those products are made for companies with no manufacturing of their own. "All they do is take our product, put it on the shelves and sell it," Grineski said.

Companies with private label items from Richelieu include Hy-Vee, Aldi's and Save-A-Lot.

In 1994 Richelieu decided to concentrate on the contract packing and private label areas. The Western Dressing brand was sold and eventually acquired by Unilever. Richelieu continued to pack the dressing for about eight years until Unilever took it in-house and began marketing it under the Wish-Bone brand.

The company also recently became organically certified and introduced a line of organic dressings. Grineski said Richelieu Foods is shipping its organic products to primarily the East Coast, though some are going as far away as Japan and Korea.

Melanie Kirkpatrick, associate director of the Grundy County Development Alliance, said the company is an asset to the community.

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"I think people would be surprised at the products that are produced here," Kirkpatrick said.

Growth was driven by the transfer of ownership. About three years ago, Brynwood Partners, a private equity firm based in Connecticut, acquired the company. Grineski said the new owners have a more hands-on approach, as well as more experience and contacts in the food industry.

"I would have to say that's probably been the catalyst for the growth," Grineski said.

That became evident when Richelieu began packaging the gallon-sized containers of dressings for Sam's Club. Brynwood invested $750,000 so Richelieu Foods could take on the business. Grineski said current projects could mean another $2 million investment.

"They've driven sales, but they've also provided us with the capital we need to grow this business and get it done," Grineski said.

The expansion will be strictly warehouse space. The company is running out of room in its current 43,000-square-foot facility. Production lines are also being upgraded to put out more product.

That couldn't be done without more storage space. "We'll use up every bit of what we have plus that," Grineski said.

The expansion should be complete in late October or early November.

Grundy Center is one of three Richelieu Foods plants. The company, headquartered in Braintree, Mass., also has facilities in Washington Court House, Ohio, and Beaver Dam, Wis.

The plant in Ohio makes pizza crusts. The plant in Wisconsin makes deli staples like potato salad and cole slaw, and tops the pizza crusts made in Ohio.

"We're actually one of the largest, private label pizza companies in the country," Grineski said.

With such specialization, there is little chance of work being shifted from one plant to another. Grineski said the company as a whole is a $120 million business.

With more than 50 percent growth in staff, Grineski said, Richelieu has likely completed the bulk of its additional hiring.

"We're going to be looking at some more people, but I wouldn't think it would be another 35 or 40 folks," Grineski said. "It'll probably be a half-dozen or so more, I would hope."

Contact RC Balaban at (319) 291-1418 or rc.balaban@wcfcourier.com.

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