Continental Mills will celebrate the 20th anniversary of its Hopkinsville factory Friday with an open house.

The event starts at 10 a.m. with presentations by the Kentucky Lt. Gov. Jenean M. Hampton and local dignitaries, followed by a brunch with a menu of products manufactured at the plant.

"It's going to include our Krusteaz pancakes," said Marybeth Bott, Continental Mills human resource manager. "Our folks are making brownies and cookies and muffins of all varieties, along with our lemon pound cake."

Entertainment will include a Cadiz Bluegrass band, a kidzone for the kids and plant tours for employees, their families and any children ages 12 and older, for safety purposes.

"We are just really excited," Bott said. "It's going to be a fun-filled day and the weather's going to be beautiful, I know."

Company history

Headquartered in Seattle, Continental Mills is a family-owned business, which was started in 1932 by a Seattle Bridge Club with an idea for a "just-add-water pie crust mix." The idea evolved into the company's first brand, Krusteaz (easy-crust).

According to the company website, "Continental Mills has a nationwide presence, featuring product distribution internationally and in all 50 states, supported by our four manufacturing facilities, two distribution centers, and our Corporate Business and Innovation Centers."

Hopkinsville became a large piece of that puzzle in 1999.

"We were pretty much a West Coast company and our flagship brand Krusteaz was really a West Coast and Northwest brand," said Continental Mills president and chief executive officer Andy Heily. "We had a little bit of distribution east of the Rockies, but not much."

Heily said leadership realized expanding east was critical to the growth of the company. They built the Hopkinsville plant "to support its growing retail, club and food service business and to provide East and West Coast facilities for national distribution," according to the website.

"It was an absolute green field at the time," Heily said. "We were out there trying to find a location with in- and out-bound logistics, so we identified that property which is right next to Siemer Milling (Company). They were really the reason we located in that specific place in Hopkinsville. We literally have a pipe that runs across the railroad tracks from Siemer Milling into our manufacturing facility. It pipes freshly milled flour directly into our facility. It's an extremely efficient process."

Today, Hopkinsville is the largest Continental Mills manufacturing facility in terms of pounds produced, individual skews produced and number of employees, Heily said.

In 1999, the Hopkinsville factory employed 29 individuals for one shift of production. The first case of product came off the line that February.

Two decades later, the Hopkinsville site has 278 employees and operates seven product lines, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, except for holidays.

Products

Continental Mills manufactures flour-based mixes. Its flagship brand is Krusteaz, which includes light and fluffy buttermilk pancake mix and light and fluffy wild blueberry muffin mix, among other products.

"We've been baking and pancaking since 1932," Heily said.

Several well-known products are licensed and distributed by Continental Mills, including Ghirardelli chocolate and Red Lobster Cheddar Bay Biscuit mix.

"We supply the largest pancake restaurants in the United States," Heily said. "We are the largest supplier to food service distributors throughout the U.S."

Don Ruddy, Continental Mills' Hopkinsville plant manager, said the supply chain and local partnerships provided a unique benefit to the company to produce these products. He estimates at least 70% of the flour used in production comes from farms located 50 to 60 square miles from the plant.

"You can go to Walmart and buy a Krusteaz product and it came from a local farm. If it has flour, it came through Siemer (Milling) and was made here. It was grown on one of the farms in the area," he said. "That to me is something very, very unique, which benefits the county, the community."

Heily said the way the products are made has not changed much in 20 years, but advancements in technology and automation "has enabled us to move that much faster."

"We feel like the food we produce is the ultimate manifestation of all the work that we do. The people that create all that amazing food are the people that work in our manufacturing facilities," Heily said. "The thing I have the most pride in is the fact that it's a great manufacturing facility from a technology standpoint, equipment standpoint and from a machinery standpoint. It's extremely advanced. None of that runs at all without really great people. The success of that plant is directly proportional to the quality of folks that we have."

Employees

In addition to the company celebration, Continental Mills employees who have reached two decades of employment will be treated to dinner at Morton's in Nashville July 20 as a member of the 20-Year Club.

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Bott said more than 50 people at Continental Mills have reached that milestone.

"With 50-plus resources, that's close to 20% of the organization," Ruddy said. "You'll always have a person that stays a long time or a person that leaves early, but when you have such a large percentage of people with that kind of tenure, it does say an awful lot about the company."

Venus Crump, George Gibbs and Shirley Passenau will celebrate their 20-year anniversaries working at Continental Mills this year.

Crump and Passenau were hired Nov. 30, 1998.

"It's a family," said Crump, a Cadiz native who is the plant scheduler. "There's like 15 of us that started out. It was a shell. There were no lines. I got hired when everyone else got hired on Nov. 30, but I had surgery so I couldn't start. Continental Mills was like, 'we'll save your position.' It's always been that way. It's always been family, fun, laughter."

Passenau, a Hopkinsville resident, has been the packaging team leader for the past 16 years.

"It's a good place to work and I've seen a lot of changes from day one," she said. "From dirt floors in the warehouse to the new distribution center come up. It's been a big change through the years. It's been for the good too."

Gibbs, the facility maintenance technician, monitors the heating, cooling and electricity at the plant.

"You come into a brand new building. Everyone had their own ideas," he said. "It was brand new to me that they allowed their employees to make their own decisions … It gives you ownership when they allow you to do that. Even if you make wrong decisions, you're trying to make the best decisions for Continental Mills."

Gibbs said company owner and chairman of the board John Heily Jr. made a positive impression on him years ago.

"If you've been with Continental Mills for any amount of time, John knows your name and he shakes your hand and he remembers something about you from years ago," Gibbs said. "He's that kind of guy. John's a great guy. I'm glad he came to Hopkinsville. He gave a lot of people the opportunity to work for a good company."

John's son, Andy Heily said Continental Mills' goal "is to give people the opportunity to not only work at Continental Mills but retire from Continental Mills and spend a career at Continental Mills.

"Based on the tenure at that facility, a lot of people have chosen to do that," he said.

Ruddy said Continental Mills is a family-owned company "that lives up to its principles."

"Principles of treating people right, doing the right thing, making products that are really changing the lives of people. That's the type of things I think it reinforces," he said.

"Being a privately-owned, family company it affords us the ability to do what's right. I think that's important for folks to know. We don't answer to corporate America. We don't answer to Wall Street. We have a family that runs our company. That's a unique difference."

Going forward

On Friday, Heily will celebrate Hopkinsville's 20th anniversary by thanking the employees and the community.

"It's been a tremendous experience," he said. "It's one thing to find a great location … (and) supply chain, but it's another thing to find a community that really embraces you as a job creator. The community has been very supportive over the last 20 years."

Ruddy said going forward he would love to see the Hopkinsville location double in size.

"I'd love to see folks we are hiring today … 20 years from now celebrating their 20-year (with us)," he said. "I'd love to see our brands continue to grow. I'd love to see us continue to be part of the community. With that, I'd love to see the growth of Siemer and other vendors in the area."

Ruddy said Continental Mills, via the Krusteaz brand, also wants to continue its philanthropic mission locally.

"We like to support different agencies, like United Way. We like to support different food bank groups," he said. "If there's a pancake breakfast in this town, I want to know about it. I want to make sure that we're helping."

After 87 years, Heily said the company strives to be first in the business from coast to coast.

"We still have a long way to go to maximize our potential in the Midwest and the East. Our objective is to be the marketplace leader in every category in which we choose to compete," he said. "We believe we have all the capabilities to do just that. Hopkinsville plays a central role in that objective, that vision, that strategy."

Reach Michele Vowell at 270-887-3242 or mvowell@kentuckynewera.com.

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