Energy levels among Initiative Foods employees soared at its temporary facility Wednesday as the baby food plant began its first steps toward rebuilding.
So far, the company has hosted a job fair that drew 50 to 60 employees and food production companies that are hiring; initiated agreements with out-of-state contract packers to provide customers with its products; and started the cleanup process with the help of its insurance company.
“Our team is working hard to get these things going; we are calling ourselves the Initiative Foods ‘Phoenix Team’ – we will rise from the ashes,” said James Ypma, Initiative Foods production manager.
In the early hours of Sunday, a fire erupted that lasted all day. The 13-year-old local company, which produces organic and non-organic baby foods and employs 120 people, lost its jar and pouch facilities.
One door closes, and another one opens. We’re hoping it’ll be a big one so we can make an excellent entrance.
Lupe Verduzco, sales director
Initiative Foods’ first act was to put together a job fair for displaced employees. Lupe Verduzco, a sales director, celebrated his one-year anniversary with the company collaborating on the job fair. He was a matchmaker for employees and companies, coaching and directing employees toward best fits and using his fluency in English and Spanish.
Verduzco said it was the most successful job fair he has participated in given the short preparation time. He appreciated that some representative employers trusted Initiative Foods and the caliber of its employees enough to speed up their hiring processes. A few employees already were scheduled to show up for work on Monday, he said.
Verduzco said nearly every employee landed an interview or job, in part because of the wide variety of positions major food production companies like Sun-Maid and Wawona Frozen Foods had available.
He also spoke about the company’s continuation plan, which will provide customers with baby food products in the interim rebuilding period. The company is in the process of meeting with two out-of-state contract packers that match Initiative Foods’ qualifications, which should enable the company to get products to customers in less than three months, he said.
“Hopefully, they can hold the backbone while we rebuild,” Verduzco said. Initiative Foods will provide the artwork and the labels while the co-packers produce the goods.
Carolyn Ypma, daughter of Initiative Foods CEO John Ypma, focused her efforts this week on the job fair as well. She was enthusiastic about how many employees and prospective employers showed up for the three-hour job fair, as well as the collaborative spirit on display.
“Everybody is excited to get to the next step and help out wherever they are,” Carolyn Ypma said. “There’s a lot of synergistic energy going on.”
This energy extended to volunteers in the community and local businesses. Volunteers donated hundreds of water bottles, Sprouts Farmers Market donated an entire truck of food and Walmart gave gift cards to employees affected by the plant closing.
We are calling ourselves the Initiative Foods ‘Phoenix Team’ – we will rise from the ashes.
James Ypma, production manager
A block from the warehouse, an insurance company organized the cleanup and is on site conducting an investigation. James Ypma said the company will provide a full report once it completes the investigation.
Ypma said the company will work with the insurance company and the demolition crew to identify any usable equipment. But after an initial walk-through, he doesn’t expect to find any.
The company’s No. 1 priority, finding work for its employees, occupied the bulk of the past 48 hours, Ypma said. With the job fair accomplished, the company can turn toward its other goals: cleaning up the work site and converting the warehouse into a work-friendly environment.
Carolyn Ypma said the biggest step toward a livable warehouse is installing air-conditioning units. Meantime, to cope with the summer heat, she makes sure employees are well-hydrated and cool by distributing donated water bottles and cooling headbands and setting up big fans.
As Initiative Foods continues to rebuild, James Ypma and his team are grateful for the local and regional support that has poured in.
“We have been flooded with encouragement and support, and it is making this difficult time much, much more bearable,” he said. “We feel so blessed. As immense the devastation of the fire was, the outpouring of love and support has been even greater.”
How you can help
When: Saturday, July 30, 8 a.m.-1 p.m.
Where: 1880 Industrial Way, east of North Avenue and Academy Avenue in Sanger
Monetary donations: Donate at Initiative Foods’ GoFundMe and share the link on social media.