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Loves Park company a health snack food leader
Posted By Brandon Reid On January 11, 2012 @ 7:04 am In Local News, News | 3 Comments
By Richard S. Gubbe
LOVES PARK, Ill. — Quietly doing business at Forest Hills and Harlem roads in Loves Park, TH Foods has implanted itself as the American standard for rice snacks and other healthy munchables in the United States.
What started as an idea to supply America with a substitute for fried junk food was introduced by three men in the mid-1980s. They transformed a single idea into a market-dominating global conglomerate owned by foreign interests, run mainly by Americans and eaten in carefully chosen markets worldwide.
Al Lewin was there from the beginning, and along with partners Glen Smith and Mel Tieszen, started a business in the Rock River Valley that grew and grew, but never left. The descendant of that idea, the TH Foods brand, is found in every major food chain across America.
Not many local residents know or hear the name of TH Foods, but then again, most don’t read the package. But the majority of people have heard of Mitsubishi Corporation, which, along with renowned Japanese rice snack maker Kameda, now own TH Foods and its niche market of products deemed safe and good to eat.
Lewin, who moved to Rockford in 1978, Smith, from California, and Tieszen from Chicago, capitalized on a fledgling health snack market to become the kingpins of rice snacks and other “all-natural” snacks in America.
“We were going to make a product low in fat to replace a fried product,” Lewin said of the original idea.
Lewin said he picked the Rockford area for the operations “because I lived here.”
The baking and packaging plant supplies the snacks for store chains and for snack mix packaging under other labels.
“We’re the only rice manufacturer in the country and pretty much control the market and 90 percent of the snack mix market in the U.S. and Canada,” Lewin told The Rock River Times.
“I never dreamed it would have gotten this big, and a lot of it has to do with Mitsubishi and Kameda resources and equipment, along with commodity procurement.”
Kameda is the rice snack leader in Japan and, along with Mitsubishi, began investing in Sesmark Foods, the original company name.
Under the name of Sesmark, the company began operations in 1984 producing sesame snacks, then wheat snacks. In 1989, Mitsubishi and Kameda started to invest in Sesmark. Within two years, the first rice cracker for retail was introduced. The company began bringing in money through exports in 1995.
“It started out as an investment in 1990 as we grew,” Lewin said of the procurement by Mitsubishi and Kameda. “We were using their resources and technology. They increased their ownership over the years, and in 1998, they took control, now owning 100 percent of the shares.”
Lewin said Mitsubishi has more than 50 percent and Kameda has more than 45 percent of ownership.
After the purchase, Lewin served as chief operating officer and executive vice president. Lewin has remained with the company on a consulting basis. The company employs 300 people, and Lewin said the success has brought him great personal satisfaction.
“Our business is growing rapidly. We’re solid with nice growth. We can’t complain,” Lewin said. “We made decisions due to trends in the snack food industry. Being in rice makes perfect sense.”
The steady growth continued throughout the 1990s with the bulk snack program followed by the start of the Mr. Krispers brand of rice chips.
Then, came the health food craze and the acquisition of the Crunchmaster brand with Mr. Krispers Baked Rice Krisps, Crunchmaster Multi-Grain Crackers and Crunchmaster Multi-Seed Crackers. Each of those products followed a trend in what people want, and need, to eat to stay healthy.
In 1998, the Sesmark brand was acquired by the umbrella Liberty Richter group, and the company became Terra Harvest Foods, evolving into the abbreviated TH Foods brand.
Because TH Foods is not publicly traded, Director of Marketing Jim Garsow and Lewin declined to disclose the company’s yearly earnings.
“We’ve been growing at 18 percent a year for the last 10 years, and those are the plans for the next four years,” Lewin said. “We will continue to look at growth and new products and territories.”
The company has shown its awareness for the need of healthy snack foods by offering products for people with complex digestion problems and major health issues. Crunchmaster is the largest individual brand sold today, Garsow said. Crunchmaster products are in every major grocery chain, as well as being staples in Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s.
There are snack food blends available to package under other companies’ brand names. There are 27 varieties of snacks that can be blended or sold separately. This division makes up 25 percent of sales, and the company holds a 90 percent market share in that area nationwide, Garsow said. The company also sells a chia seed product to Costco, and there also are sales to natural food co-ops as well.
All TH Foods are made at the baking facility in Loves Park.
TH Foods has devoured a big bite of the ever-evolving healthy snacks business by using technology from Japan, but not the ingredients. TH Foods incorporates the claim: “Our Crunchmaster products aren’t just crunchy and delicious. They’re healthy and safe for your gluten-free diet.”
The company uses multiple growers from California for the rice and uses South America for other ingredients. All products are classified either organic and/or all-natural. Garsow said the U.S. Department of Agriculture is the certifying agency to audit the suppliers but admitted “organic is a very small part of the business.”
When rice snacks enter the conversation, the public perception is supply comes from foreign-grown products from China, Japan and Thailand.
Garsow said where the TH Foods ingredients come from has been brought to light more with pollution concerns in the East, particularly the Japanese products grown after the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdown.
“We fielded those concerns,” Garsow said. “The technology is what comes from Japan.”
The rice fields that surround Niigata along the coast of northern Japan is where the art of handcrafting, aging, baking (on open grills) and perfecting rice crackers began. TH Foods uses proprietary rice-baking techniques in the “Usuyaki” style, Japanese for thin and flat.
Crunchmaster crackers are 100 percent whole grain, cholesterol free, low in sodium, low in saturated fat and contain zero grams of trans fat.
Although all the products, except the original chips, do contain sugar, it’s what they don’t contain — gluten. The baking facility in Loves Park is certified by the Gluten Free Certification Organization. This alternative to wheat crackers opens up a food choice for those with food allergies and diseases such as autism and celiac disease. Celiac disease is a condition that damages the lining of the small intestine and prevents it from absorbing parts of food that are important for staying healthy. The damage is the result of a reaction to eating gluten. Gluten is the protein part of wheat, rye, barley and other related grains. Instead, TH Foods uses GMO-free, whole grain and white unbleached rice
The sesame seeds used in Crunchmaster products are grown in the U.S. with a special hybrid that was developed to fit the climate in Texas and Oklahoma. The quinoa and amaranth seeds are sourced from the Andean region in South America. The flax seeds are grown in the plains of the upper Midwest and Canada.
Each of the seeds has distinct tastes and benefits. Quinoa is sometimes called the “mother of all grains,” since it contains a balanced set of essential amino acids.
Studies have shown that amaranth seeds, like oats, may be of benefit for those with hypertension and cardiovascular disease.
Studies also have shown that among other benefits, the sesamin in sesame can lower total and LDL cholesterol and raise tocopherol levels. Flax seeds contain high levels of lignans and Omega-3 fatty acids and may help lower cholesterol levels.
Gluten is a natural protein that is found in wheat, rye, spelt, triticale and barley. Foods made from these grains like pizza, bread, cookies and traditional crackers usually contain gluten.
It’s estimated that one of every 133 Americans have celiac disease, which is a chronic inherited digestive disorder that can cause damage to the small intestine. A no-gluten diet also is recommended for those with autism.
“We have a core constituency buying gluten-free foods,” Garsow said, adding that as much as 18 percent of the population prefers or needs gluten-free products. Other TH Foods products are also milk free, meaning they are also casein free.
All other ingredients used are natural, and all the products are baked. Garsow said the competition uses Chinese, Thai and Japanese ingredients. TH Foods products, he added, do not use any artificial flavor enhancers.
The TH verbiage claims the following: “Our scientists work closely with our chef to ensure that each product that we manufacture fits your strict dietary needs and excites your taste buds. We test every production run before shipment to ensure the highest standards of purity. It’s our commitment to your health.”
Only in the past few years have those with special dietary needs been able to obtain snack foods without gluten. Healthy snacks that use rice and other seeds to replace gluten grains are no longer hard to find. The oddity is that they are produced right here in the Rock River Valley.
“We’ve kept a low profile since the beginning,” Lewin said. “But we’re bigger than a lot of people think.”
From the Jan. 11-17, 2012, issue
Article printed from The Rock River Times: http://rockrivertimes.com
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