Pasta passion: Factory revival to capitalize on strong market
CANDO -- For Francine Anderson and some of her friends, the reopening of a pasta factory in Cando is a financial lifesaver.
"It's a blessing," she said. "My unemployment ran out in May."
That's about the same time that Jim Gibbens hired her to be part of his new team at Cando Pasta LLC, which will begin some limited production later this month in the same building that housed Noodles By Leonardo for 30 years before closing last fall.
Anderson had worked at Noodles for eight years.
The reopening also is a windfall for Cando, a Towner County city of 1,125 located 40 miles south of the Canadian border and 130 miles northwest of Grand Forks.
"The pasta plant has been here for so long that it was kind of taken for granted," said JoAnn Rodenbiker, executive director of the Towner County Economic Development Corp. "So, it was kind of a wake-up call when it was announced last year that it was going to close."
The company currently employs about 20. Another 10 are likely to be hired when production begins. That number will grow to 60 or 70 over the next several months.
Cando Pasta is owned by four partners: Cousins Jim and Bruce Gibbens of Cando; Bruce Satrom of Colgate, and Steve Johnson of Page.
The partners also are building another pasta plant, Abbiamo Pasta Co., in Casselton. Abbiamo is Italian for "we have pasta."
Noodles By Leonardo operated two North Dakota pasta plants, one in Cando, the other in Devils Lake, before closing both last year.
The Devils Lake facility since has been purchased by Ultra Green, a Twin Cities-based company that makes biodegradable, compostable food-service products from wheat straw. The company will reopen later this year.
Cando Pasta will produce macaroni products: elbow macaroni and shells from its short goods line, spaghetti and lasagna from the long goods line.
It also will operate its own mill, located in the same building, converting durum and spring wheat into semolina or farina, to be used in its products, which will be marketed to a variety of pasta brands.
Until it closed last year, the Cando plant was one of three operating semolina mills in the state. The others are the North Dakota State Mill and Elevator in Grand Forks and Minot Milling in Minot.
When Cando Pasta reaches full production, Jim Gibbens said the plant should produce 15 million to 20 million pounds of pasta annually and contribute $2 million to $2.5 million in payroll to the local economy.
Jim Gibbens, president of the Towner County economic group, served 16 years on the Cando City Council and eight years as the town's mayor, retiring from that position in 2010. His cousin, Bruce, is a Cando attorney.
Together, the Gibbens cousins and their families own and operate Gibbens Farms, a 12,000-acre grain farm, Sky-Can Ltd., a 6,000-head farrow-to-finish hog operation, a construction company and several Cando businesses that employ a total of 80 to 90 people.
Jim Gibbens was hesitant at first when his cousin raised the possibility of buying the pasta plant. But they ultimately decided to talk with Satrom about a possible partnership. Satrom is a principal with Bektrom Foods, a Michigan-based manufacturer of private-label pasta products with plants in Fargo and the state of Michigan.
The Gibbens cousins are the fourth generation on the family farm.
"I'm pretty passionate about wanting Cando to succeed," he said. "We hope to pass it on to the next generation."
One of their prized possessions is a photograph of Jim's mother, taken in 1950 when she was "Durum Queen" at the annual Macaroni Festival in Devils Lake. At the time, the Gibbenses raised about 600 acres of durum wheat, for a long time the key ingredient in pasta, on what then was a 1,600-acre farm.
The photograph was featured in National Geographic magazine, he said. Jim was about 1 year old at the time.
Most of the Gibbenses' sons and daughters live in the Cando area, where they help run the family businesses, including Cando Home and Hardware, Dakota View Properties, the local Tesoro gas station and off-sale liquor store, among others.
"They've taken over a number of businesses that probably wouldn't be here if they hadn't stepped up," Rodenbiker said. "I know some people think they're taking over the town, but their commitment to the community is great and they have the resources."
Experience and more
When Cando Pasta took over, one of the partners' first priorities was to hire former plant workers. Many of them already were working other Gibbens family businesses, such as the hog farm, according to Jim Gibbens.
"We wanted people with experience," he said, "people who might want to be around for two or three years before retiring and are willing to train someone to replace them."
Among them is Steve Torry, a 71-year-old Cando resident who started with Noodles By Leonardo when it opened in 1982 and stayed until it shut down last year.
"I'm working part-time now," he said. "I'll stick around until Jim gets someone to replace me. But I like this job. I'm happy."
The key to Cando Pasta's success, Jim Gibbens said, is three-fold.
"We're old enough and experienced enough to have the capital to buy the pasta plant. We have an experienced workforce. They're mostly in the 50s to 70s, but they're going to teach the next generation of workers. And the pasta market is good."
Rodenbiker believes that will mean good things for Cando, Towner County and the broader region.
"There are some good things happening up and down Main Street here," she said. "The other nice thing is small-business financing. The local banks have been good. Of course, the ag economy has been strong, and that really helps. I think the whole county is starting to rebound, starting to feel good about the economy."