Cook: The big chill
As the heat index took the “feels like” temperature over 100 degrees last week, I found myself with a few others in the coolest place in town — the Food Lion Distribution Center.
We were taking a quick tour after a meeting of Rowan County’s Local Emergency Planning Committee, a group that works to ensure local industries and agencies are prepared for disaster — chemical, manmade or natural.
The tour was a side benefit of attending the meeting. Since Food Lion is one of the biggest entities in town, it has a representative on the committee. Meetings rotate among the different members’ workplaces.
Our meeting was at the Food Lion Customer Service Center, waaaay out on Harrison Road. After we finished, Sandra Mayhew offered the tour, which was led by Reed Simmons.
It reminded me a little of touring what was Fiber Industries years ago and looking down the mile-long corridor. (Was it really a mile long?) Big businesses operate on a large scale every day, but those of us who work in small business get a glimpse inside only on rare occasions. Then we’re like country yokels visiting New York City for the first time.
As Gomer Pyle would say, “Goll-eee!”
Between this building and another on Executive Drive, Food Lion has more than 1.6 million square feet of warehouse space in Salisbury.
To my unaccustomed eyes, workers in the Harrison Road facility flowed back and forth like modern dancers, appearing to be haphazard but all carefully choreographed. Every pallet of goods is labeled, every shelf space is numbered, every motion reduced to the most efficient course.
The banana room alone was enough to impress me. That’s where the green bananas come in and take their place in one of several temperature-controlled compartments where they are coaxed to the perfect stage of ripeness.
My husband swears Food Lion bananas taste better than bananas from any other stores here. When I shared this tidbit, Simmons said, “Your husband is a smart man.”
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We didn’t go to the coldest part of the warehouse, the frozen food area kept at 0 degrees.
There’s also a 34-degree area.
We agreed that the 51-degree area was far enough for us — chilly enough.
That’s where we saw cardboard crates of watermelons stacked high, for example. Nearby sat several watermelons that had been split open, as if for a picnic. But this was quality control — to check for ripeness, moisture and so on — not a picnic.
The melons, bananas, potatoes and other produce rotate through pretty quickly — all in a day’s time, Simmons said. The entire warehouse inventory turns over about every 14 days.
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The Food Lion jobs are a crucial part of Rowan County’s economy.
The community of Dunn took a hit in April when a tornado ripped through the huge Food Lion Distribution Center there. Some 139 workers were temporarily laid off. While most of the warehouse is back up and running now, some of the work has shifted to other centers like the one in Salisbury until the Dunn warehouse is back 100 percent —something expected to happen in 2012, according to published reports.
A couple of months ago, the supermarket chain launched a “back to basics” strategy — low prices and high quality — at stores in two markets: Chattanooga, Tenn., and Raleigh.
The only constant is change
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A group like the Local Emergency Planning Committee has an important role to play in helping business. Tornadoes strike. People are at risk of being hurt.
But the hive of activity at the distribution center made me think about something else — jobs.
Rowan County needs more of them, and not just at Food Lion.
County commissioners OK’d incentives last week that could bring nearly 150 more jobs to Hitachi Metals in China Grove. If we get them — we’re competing with other sites — you can count on long lines of job applicants.
In May, some $1.8 million in unemployment benefits went out to people in Rowan County. A year ago, that figure was $3.7 million. The drop is more a sign of people running out of unemployment benefits than finding jobs. Less money is circulating in our economy. We need those Hitachi jobs.
Even if Hitachi brings in outsiders to fill some of the jobs, it would help. According to the local Realtors Association, more than 850 homes were on the market in the first half of the year, compared to 524 in the first half of 2010.
Chilling, isn’t it? Let’s hope in the hot summer of 2011 this is as chilling as the economic outlook gets. This is cool enough. We don’t need to see the deep freeze.
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Elizabeth Cook is editor of the Salisbury Post.