Petri’s in Silver Creek to close

SILVER CREEK – The news that Ralcorp will soon close the Petri’s Baking Products plant as well as the Carriage House plant in Dunkirk came as a shock to the community Thursday.

According to a press release, these two closings will leave approximately 375 hourly and salaried employees out of work, more than 250 of which will come from the Petri’s location. Reasoning given for the closures was “due to a re-allocating of manufacturing to maximize capacity and capabilities at other facilities within the United States.”

Information about the layoffs was sent home with employees Thursday.

Petri’s officials said they could not comment, but directed all calls to the headquarters in St. Louis. An official with Ralcorp said they would have nothing further to say beyond the two-paragraph press release. No information was given as to when the plant would officially close.

The OBSERVER spoke with employees leaving the plant Thursday. The workers, who asked not to be identified, said around 3:30 p.m., management held a meeting with employees in the break room. One employee said they were told “everyone would be laid off sooner or later” and those with the most seniority would be last to lose their jobs.

“This is a devastating blow,” Hanover Supervisor Todd Johnson said Thursday after hearing the news. “The board and I are committed to see what we can do to change their decision.”

Johnson said although the news came as a shock, looking back on the past few years it has been a while coming.

“Three years ago there was a planned expansion at Petri’s. That didn’t go through and then it was sold to Ralcorp. Then Ralcorp was purchased by ConAgra. It has just been this domino effect,” he said.

One of the reasons the closure of Petri’s comes as such a shock is because just one month ago, Silver Creek Mayor Kurt Lindstrom assured residents there would not be any action until the deal closed in March. He based his information from a conversation he had with County Legislator George Borrello.

Lindstrom is out of town and could not be reached for comment Thursday.

On Thursday, Borrello said he told the mayor Petri’s would not be closed after speaking with company officials in December.

“I was able to have a conversation with the legal affairs division of ConAgra in Washington D.C., and his words to me were, ‘Nothing is going to happen until the deal closes in March or April. So it is premature to be reaching out.’ As far as my outreach to them was ‘we want to work with you and keep businesses here in Chautauqua County and let’s work together to see that happen.’ His response was, ‘I’m glad to hear you want to work with us…’ So to hear Ralcorp is going to close it down is unexpected,” he said.

Borrello said when he heard the news it was like “a punch in the gut.”

“Ralcorp out of one side of their mouth was saying ‘everything’s fine, we aren’t closing anything,’ while working behind the scenes to close these operations. At least now their cards are on the table and we can start working with them from a standpoint of reality instead of what they were saying,” he added.

Bill Daly, Chautauqua County Industrial Development Agency Administrative Director and CEO, explained the reason for the surprise is because there are strict regulations on publicly-traded companies like Ralcorp for what information can be released and when.

Daly said one of the challenges with economic development is a loss of personal connections when small companies are sold to large corporations.

“In economic development, one of the worst things that happens is family-owned businesses … become very successful and they sell out to large entities, especially publicly traded entities who are not located here. … When you have very large corporate entities like Ralcorp and ConAgra you tend not to be able to develop personal relationships with executives at a distance,” he said.

Daly and Borrello will be working with a team put together by County Executive Greg Edwards, which includes Assemblyman Andy Goodell, State Senator Catharine Young and Empire State Development Regional Director Christina Orsi, who in turn has gotten Lt. Gov. Robert Duffy involved.

Edwards said in an interview after hearing the news he wanted to put a team together with the “best and most far reaching impact.”

“We affirmed the information we had to date, we identified what we could do to have impact on this in a good way. That included Christina Orsi getting in contact with Lieutenant Governor Duffy to see if the lieutenant governor on behalf of New York state could reach out to these corporations to make sure they were aware of how serious New York is now about keeping businesses and bringing resources to help these businesses grow and to be certain these corporations knew of this commitment at the highest level. …

“We want to make sure ConAgra and Ralcorp realize how much of a good place this is to do business and the resources we have including our great workforce, access to virtually unlimited natural resources of water, excellent prices on utilities and a history in food processing going back to Welch’s and probably beyond. We certainly have the capacity to be successful in food processing and other advanced manufacturing and we just want them to know that and coordinate any and all efforts to preserve jobs and grow opportunities going forward,” he said.

Edwards said he has been very involved in creating and maintaining job opportunities in the county and any loss of jobs will have negative effects.

“Any loss of any job has terrible consequences, short and long term for the person who is losing the job, their family and our overall economy. So this is a serious issue and one I take very personally … We will work with these corporations and bring all the resources we have to bare to assist workers who lose their jobs to find new jobs and new opportunities,” he said.

Petri Baking Products manufactures and distributes a complete line of cookies with a homemade look, feel, and taste. The company produces both soft style and crunchy wire-cut cookies for customers in a variety of retail channels. Petri Cookies has been around since 1935 when Armand Petri started making soft sugar cookies in his home kitchen.

Ralcorp purchased Petri Baking Products in May of 2012.

Staff Writer Shirley Pulawski contributed to this article. Send comments to ngugino@observertoday.com