Sales are growing for many Columbia Basin food and beverage makers, fueling expansion plans, according to a survey by the Tri-City Development Council.
That growth could bring an estimated $14.3 million in investments and 130 new jobs to the Tri-City area, said the survey released Thursday.
A majority — 76 percent — of the 71 manufacturers interviewed plan to expand, and 24 percent expect to relocate. Most plan to stay in Benton and Franklin counties.
The survey is part of a new effort to better position the Columbia Basin as a globally significant food and beverage processing region. The effort is called Food and Beverage Retention & Expansion Opportunities, or FABREO Columbia Basin.
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Gary White, TRIDEC’s director of business retention and expansion, visited the manufacturers earlier this year, including ConAgra Foods Lamb Weston, the Country Mercantile and area wineries.
Tourism development is key to helping existing businesses stay healthy and grow, and helping new businesses develop, he said.
“We are the wine capital, which is the good thing,” White said. “We just need to build around it.”
Many of the smaller companies, especially wineries, depend on selling directly to consumers, White said. They need tourists to come out and taste their wine or products and buy from them.
About a third of the area’s food and beverage manufacturers export their products to other counties, including Canada, Japan and China. But most say their primary market remains local or in the region.
White said the region needs to develop more specialty food companies to help complement the world class wine industry. Benton County already grows the most wine grapes and produces the most wine in the state.
Food tourism is an opportunity for existing and new food processors, White said. People like to be able see how food companies make their products, such as Chukar Cherries’ chocolate-covered cherries and nuts.
Hospitality also is key to helping grow manufacturing and tourism, White said. That means restaurants, hotels and tourist attractions, such as a food park, where a number of specialty food companies are clustered together.
“The wineries definitely think there is a need for higher-end restaurants; whether the market will support that need remains to be seen,” he said.
The Tri-Cities already is seeing more food trucks, which is an inexpensive way to start a business and build clientele, as well as possibly help entrepreneurs open a brick and mortar location, he said.
White created a to-do list to help the industry continue to grow and strengthen.
He’s already started on some of the requests, including creating an event to showcase locally processed foods. TRIDEC announced Thursday plans for a trade show June 12 at Pasco’s TRAC center to feature locally processed food and beverages, and investment opportunities.
The survey also showed a need to focus on future workers.
That includes a hospitality program, a culinary school, a food processing training program and a technical skills training program.
Many wineries also have an on-site restaurant, and those companies said it was difficult to find trained, skilled people to work on that side of the business, White said.
About 63 percent of area food processors and manufacturers are going to need more employees, the survey showed. However, more than half of the companies who participated said they had positions that were difficult to fill.
Also on the to-do list are plans to promote the Columbia Basin as a top food and beverage producing region.
White plans to start promoting the Columbia Basin to national publications starting in January. He already is reaching out to Asian economic development groups.