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Putting some meat into the economy: Monogram Meat Snacks has more than 300 employees

Employees at Monogram Meat Snacks package products March 15 at the Chandler facility. (JUSTINE WETTSCHRECK/DAILY GLOBE)1 / 4
Jeff Johnson, vice president of operations of Monogram Meat Snacks. (Justine Wettschreck/Daily Globe)2 / 4
Employees work on a new product line at Monogram Meat Snacks. (Justine Wettschreck/Daily Globe)3 / 4
Thousands of hot dogs from Monogram Meat Snacks will become corndogs. (Justine Wettschreck/Daily Globe)4 / 4

CHANDLER -- At the top of a hill in the small town of Chandler, Murray County's largest employer quietly pumps thousands of dollars into the local economy via paychecks, contracts and area purchases.

Monogram Meat Snacks, a division of Monogram Food Solutions, has grown from employing about 130 people to more than 300 people in the four years since the plant was purchased from Sara Lee in 2006.

"Right now about 325 people come to work here every day," said Jeff Johnson, vice president of operations. "We now produce about 22 to 23 million pounds of meat snacks, beef jerky, smoked sausage and hot dogs each year."

Monogram Food Solutions (MFS), based in Memphis, Tenn., was founded in 2004 when a group of Memphis investors purchased King Cotton and Circle B Brand foods from Sara Lee Corporation of Chicago, Ill. In 2006, MFS had contracted with Sara Lee to co-pack a licensed Jeff Foxworthy product in Chandler, but Sara Lee decided to sell the plant and the Trail's Best brand. The 100,000-squarefoot facility gave MFS an opportunity to begin its own manufacturing operation.

The Chandler plant, with its 130 employees, was producing about 5 million pounds of meat snacks each year in 2006. The plant was expanded in 2007 when the Circle B line was moved to Chandler. Low-interest loans through the county and state helped with the expansion that led to the hiring of an additional 35 employees.

In the spring of 2009, MFS acquired a plant in Muncie, Ind., which now makes corn dogs and pork fritters. Monogram Meat Snacks (MMS) now produces about 3 million pounds of hot dogs each year to send to the Indiana plant to be made into corn dogs. In August 2009, MFS acquired a plant in Martinsville, Va., along with several American Food Groups (AFG) snack brands.

Due to growth in sales, the Chandler plant had hired additional workers to keep up with demand, but in 2009 added more than 8,000 square feet of production facility and hired more people.

"We added a warehouse/- packaging area for smoked sausage and renovated parts of the plant to accommodate the increased volume," Johnson explained.

Renovation inside the plant was needed to enhance the product flow. New equipment was purchased, including four new smokers, and a new employee break room/locker room was constructed to go with the new production area.

"Adding on was easier," Johnson stated. "The hard part was making changes on the inside without having to shut down all production."

Because construction can be a messy business and food products were coming out of the plant, they worked closely with the U.S. Department of Agriculture to make sure sanitation standards were met and everything kept clean.

"We didn't have engineers here," Johnson said. "We had managers with lots of experience at processing meat."

MMS now produces and packages a variety of snacks under a selection of brand names including King Cotton, Frank's Red Hot, Uncle Bucks, Mossy Oak, Stub's BBQ, Bass Pro, Jeff Foxworthy jerky treats, O'Brien meat snacks, Happy Trails, Archer Farms and more.

In a time where many companies are cutting jobs and cutting back, Johnson attributes the success and growth of MMS and MFS to the business acumen of the senior management and the experience possessed by local managers.

"We've got a lot of talent in this company," Johnson said. "I've worked in this industry for 23 years, and the managers and operators here are second to none."

Many of they key managements positions at the Chandler plant have been filled by the same people for 10 to 15 years or more, Johnson explained.

"It makes the team strong and adds a level of commitment that is incredible," he added.

The plant employs both skilled and entry-level labor and offers good benefits and job security, Johnson stated.

"We try to have the reputation in the area and the community as the preferred place to work," he explained. "We treat people with the utmost respect. We have a lot of great people and a lot of great products."

MMS looks to the community to fill most of their job positions, and employs people from not only Chandler, but Iona, Slayton, Pipestone, Worthington, Woodstock, Marshall and even Sioux Falls, S.D. Because there is a light amount of turnover, the company is always looking for qualified candidates. Johnson said the skilled jobs are a bit tougher to fill than the others.

"When the company was first purchased from Sara Lee, people were nervous about the future," Johnson said. "Monogram has been able to turn that around, and now our employees are not worried about tomorrow."

Being part of the community is important to the company, as is supporting the local economy. MMS buys as much locally as it can, getting meat from PM Windom and other area processors.

"We do our best to support the rural economy," Johnson stated.

MMS also tries to give back to the community in various ways, sponsoring some local race car drivers, supporting school events and trying to help out where it can. The company employs a few high school-aged part-timers each summer to give its employees a chance to take vacations.

Johnson said there are not any plans for other purchases or acquisitions, but some of these things are hard to plan, he admitted.

"It can be a matter of timing," he stated.

Right now, Monogram has invested a lot of time, effort and money into the business and the Chandler facility. It has grown and is stable, Johnson explained.

"It has been a very exciting ride," he said with a smile. "While everyone else seems to be cutting back, we have found a way to grow, and the ability to provide jobs and be part of such a nice community has been great. We like what we do here -- it's fun."