By Carolyn Barbre
A fat file on Console Foods seemed to take up a lot of file drawer space. Maybe it was time to chuck it. Naw, better wait.
Literally in passing, at the March 9 Lindsay City Council meeting City Manager Scot Townsend said, "We've been contacted by Lindsay Foods. They want to begin production in July and begin hiring 350 people in May." Townsend said a new company had taken over Console Foods, the reason for a lot of activity at the plant now.
As a refresher, Console Foods, a frozen vegetable processing facility, took over the old Lindsay Olive Growers plant on Tulare Road. LOG closed in 1992. In 1996 Mort Console began working on acquiring the site. In 1997 the site was acquired. In 1998 Console got a $10 million USDA loan guarantee and in Jan. 1999, the plant opened. Then USDA's acting California Director Charles Clendenin reduced the loan amount at the last minute to $7.9 million and would not allow any of the approved loan to be used for working capital. Within sixmonths, in June 1999, the plant closed.
This was followed by suits and counter suits as Console tried to secure a second loan guarantee and the lender, Hibernia Bank of Louisiana, clamored for its money. In Lindsay there were public rallys and petition drives.
In December 2001, Console got his day in court with the USDA. A 300 page transcript sent to the Gazette vindicated Console's activities while putting an unflattering light on the USDA which frequently waffled in answers to the court. Still, there would be no loan guarantee.
A December 2002 article in the Gazette titled "Console may be back in the game" quoted then Lindsay City Manager Bill Drennen as saying the business only needed $7 million to reopen, and was trying to borrow $3.5 million through the state and the remaining $3.5 million through private sources. It was then estimated it would take about 90 days, but the plant would be offering about 400 jobs.
Another year and a quarter passed. Last week there were a few cars in the parking lot at the front of the building. Inside Dick Peterson, Console's former Chief Financial Officer, gave a quick tour of the posh offices. In route he explained that Hibernia Bank had the First Deed of Trust. They foreclosed on the property which was sold at public auction on the Tulare County Courthouse steps. "Mort Console bought it back and owns the plant as an individual, not a corporation," Peterson said.
Peterson said he is just helping out, that he retired four years ago. But he sees good things coming. He said when Console was operating before, they got their winter vegetables from Yuma, Ariz. and spring vegetables from Chowchilla, the Imperial Valley, Oxnard and the Salinas Valley. He said a grower from Porterville came in the day before and said he has 1,000 acres he can convert into production.
Pat Morino, who worked in payroll both at the Console facility in Watsonville and at the Lindsay plant was also in to help out. "The day we shut down [the Lindsay plant] we had 450 employees. We expect 500 here in six months. We have room galore to grow." Morino said in Watsonville they had 1,500 employees. "We did way over a $1 million payroll a week."
Morino explained that they do not market directly to stores. "People send in labels that we put on the package, and send back." The plant has the Master Contract for vegetables in California. That means they provided the vegetables for prisons and schools. "It provided good volume, but a low profit," Peterson said about the Master Contract.
Later that day Mort was at the plant. He estimatd that hiring would not start until the fall. There is structural damage to the roof of the vegetable processing area. After being closed almost five years, they can't be just up and operating in a few weeks.
It looks like now would be a good time to clean out that file, and start a fresh one for Lindsay Foods, LLC.