Walkable Workplace Profile: Salem's Wandering Aengus Cider and Fresh n'Local Foods

By Craig Beebe

On a 12-acre site near the Salem airport, two companies are setting down roots in a unique kind of facility. Currently the home to a pair of unlikely partners, a farm-to-school processor called Fresh n’ Local Foods (formerly Organic Fresh Fingers Inc.), and a growing cidery, Wandering Aengus Ciderworks, this new facility is the root of a bigger vision for Salem—as a city where the agricultural economy translates directly to urban economic development, where businesses, residents, and visitors enjoy the fruits of phenomenal soils and a prime location in the middle of the Willamette Valley.

The facility, officially called the East Pringle Innovation Center, is the result of some innovative thinking on the part of the two companies, the building’s owner, and the City of Salem. Realizing that some of the Fairview Industrial Urban Renewal Area funds had been unspent, the partners approached to City to create a new small business pilot loan program that converts up to 70% of the loan to a grant as the companies hire new employees. The program allowed them to update the then-empty shell of a building for their respective businesses, with energy efficiency a key goal. The building is just the first of several that are envisioned for the site.

The program was unprecedented for Salem, which made the process complicated. But determination paid off on the part of all parties. “We worked for over 18 months, writing the loan and going back and forth with the City,” says Remington. “We got it done, and we set it up specifically for smaller businesses, with money left for other businesses to use.” 

Learn more about the City of Salem's pilot loan program for small businesses in the Fairview area.

One local brewery—Gilgamesh Brewing—has already picked up some of the extra funding and will use it to move in just down the road.

“It gets the buildings back on the tax rolls, and employees back on the tax rolls,” says Nick Gunn of Wandering Aengus. “This was a great thing for the city.” Gunn says he’s heard that the city is now receiving inquiries from other municipalities interested in how the program works.

Growing Quickly

Wandering Aengus and Fresh n’ Local moved to the site from other places in the Salem area: Wandering Aengus from the rural Eola Hills area northwest of Salem, and Fresh n’ Local from a pair of overstuffed facilities closer to downtown Salem. They were attracted in part by a unique rent deal with the building’s owner, Wildwood, which allows their rent to grow as they do, with space to expand into new buildings as their size requires.

Both companies are growing quickly, too. On the Thursday of our visit, Wandering Aengus was shipping over 35 pallets of cider around the country—five truckloads headed for distributors in Texas, California, Washington and the Northeast. They’re growing their distribution network and looking to expand their retail presence soon.

Fresh n’ Local Foods quadrupled in size in the last year, transitioning from a retail food line to being a supplier for school lunches, daycares, and other civic organizations. During the school year, the company employs about 18-20 full time employees. They’re currently serving 50,000 meals a month, all of which meet USDA and National School Lunch Program guidelines, but their eventual capacity is 800,000.

The facility, which totals 14,000 square feet, is a bustling place, even on a summer afternoon. Visitors first come to a room that doubles as a shared office for the two companies and a tasting room for Wandering Aengus. Eventually, this area could become a café, but for the moment both companies are focused on growing distribution networks.

The two partners did a lot for the building’s production spaces when they moved in. The building is designed for LEED-Platinum certification, though the partners have not applied for that certification due to costs. They installed a 10 kW rooftop photovoltaic electric system and a 30 kW solar water heating system which they share (especially important for Wandering Aengus’ pasteurization process), efficient lighting systems with motion sensors, and innovative ventilation systems designed to use the cold nighttime air to cool the space.

Grants from Energy Trust of Oregon and the federal government helped make the efficiency improvements work, along with a feed-in tariff. “We actually get more money out of it,” says James Kohn of Wandering Aengus.

Beyond the shared office space, the facility is split into two halves. On the one side, in a space of about 8000 square feet, Fresh n’ Local operates an expansive processing and production kitchen, with large walk-in refrigerators, plenty of shelving and storage areas, and room for large assembly lines during the busiest school months. (Since we visited in August, the kitchen was relatively slow, with a few employees preparing food for summer camps and daycare services.) There is also a baker who operates in the space—baking for Fresh n’ Local while also making her own wedding cakes.

“We’re cooking and packaging, by hand, real food,” says Remington. Most of their ingredients come from regional growers, purchased through Charlie’s Produce or directly from Minto-Brown Island Growers, located just about ten miles away. They are hoping to expand their buying to include additional local growers.

On the Wandering Aengus side, large steel tanks tower around the sides of the 6000-square-foot space above a sophisticated bottling machine and a pair of large pasteurization tanks, which are operated by several employees. “The way cider works, it’s made like a wine but bottled like a beer,” says Kohn, which makes for an interesting combination of machinery in the facility. There is plenty of room to expand beyond the current 15,000 gallons of tanks, used for fermenting, aging, and direct bottling. All the shipping and receiving is also in-house. Two to three thousand gallons are bottled or put in kegs each week, year-round, with spikes in the early summer and holiday season. All told, the company’s apple purchases approach one million pounds yearly, mostly from Oregon and Washington.

The company makes cider under two brands, its namesake and ANTHEM. Both are made from Oregon and Washington apples almost exclusively. ANTHEM is made from regular dessert apples like Honeycrisp, Gala, and Red Delicious, picked in the fall and stored through the year. Wandering Aengus Cider is created from rare, specialty varieties grown on 80 acres of orchards owned by the company itself, or by farmers directly contracted by them. “They’re varieties that largely died out during Prohibition,” Kohn says, which makes them very rare.

All of the Wandering Aengus ciders are either blends or single varietals with a wide range of qualities, Kohn says. The company is now starting to approach farmers to encourage them to grow a wider range of apples in the Willamette Valley, diversifying the local agricultural market and perhaps providing better security to area farmers, as well as price stability for cider makers.

 “The whole thing we’re promoting is that like wine, which can vary year to year, cider should also vary from batch to batch depending on the varieties used and other qualities,” Kohn says.

The ciderworks, which has been in operation since 2004, used to be in a rural area, closer to the orchards it owns. But as they grew, they knew they should move. “As we were getting bigger, we knew we shouldn’t have lots of trucks coming and going to our facility. That isn’t what should happen in areas meant for farming,” says Kohn. “We wanted to take the pressure off the Eola Hills,” adds Gunn.

Also, since the company’s owners live in town, along with most of their nine employees, the move allows most of them to bike to work, while also having better access to highways for trucks to deliver apples and take away cider.

What It Could Mean for Salem

But there is a larger vision at work inside the walls of EPIC: could Salem exploit its location, history of food processing and production, and affordability, to become a hub of food innovation, processing, and tourism? 

Remington, Kohn, and Gunn all serve on a recently convened Mayor’s Task Force on Agriculture for the City of Salem. City documents on the task force note that “Salem’s agricultural heritage, and current food crops, food  processing, value added food industries, Chemeketa [Community College]'s viticulture center, wine and microbrew industries in this region can add jobs and put us on the destination map of food and wine buffs along with expanding our export of food  products nationally and internationally.”

Tory Banford, a Management Analyst with the City of Salem Economic Development Division, agrees that there's major potential for expanding food processing in the city, even as it has an important role in its history. "The Salem area has a history of agriculture and food processing businesses, so it remains true to that core," he writes via email. The manufacturing focus further expands that sector, increases economic diversity, and brings money from communities outside Salem to Salem through product exports."

Kohn points to the example of Tillamook on the coast, where a cheese and ice cream factory has been attracting visitors to town for decades. “For Salem, there’s nothing like that. But if Kettle Foods, or us, or other processors, were to invest in more of these kinds of destinations, that would be great for Salem,” he says.

Both companies give the City of Salem special credit for making it easy and attractive for them to set down permanent roots there, though perhaps it may not seem like the most likely place for their businesses. “In some ways, if we were in Southeast Portland, we’d be a more natural fit,” says Kohn. “We’d probably get a lot of walk-in business. But industrially, Salem works better for us. We have easy access to I-5, and better access to coordinate the places we purchase apples. And it’s a more affordable place to live. But the City pushed us the extra mile by making it possible to do this building at a much lower cost. They made sure everything worked, that the red tape didn’t catch us up.”

Eventually, the EPIC campus could be filled with several more buildings where small food innovators can grow. With creativity and focus, Salem may have found an especially sweet avenue for economic development: connecting farmers, processors, and consumers in the heart of Oregon’s most productive region.