ver wonder why Kansans always seem to be so happy? I did, and a drive through the state a few years ago answered my question. I ventured off the beaten path, took a turn down Main Street of Hays, Kansas, and enjoyed one of the best meals of my life.
It all took place at Gella’s Diner at 117 East 11th Street in downtown Hays. From the jumbo pretzel and pale ale cheese spread to the smothered bierock sandwich (a pastry pocket sandwich stuffed with meat, cabbage and onions), Gella’s delivered the gastric equivalent of a World Series-clinching grand slam.
I could go on at length describing my dinner, or you could just try it for yourself. I’m confident you’d come away convinced that when it comes to food, nobody does it better than Kansas.
If the food processing sector had a Hall of Fame, it would be in Kansas. Think of everything Kansans gave us: the bierock, the Icee, the White Castle slider, the Pizza Hut Pan Pizza and Freddy’s Frozen Custard. And don’t forget the Fort Hays Tiger Chicken Sandwich, which you can buy for $13.95 at Gella’s and consume shortly before enjoying a long nap.
Statistically, Kansas is a food lover’s dream. According to the Kansas Department of Agriculture, the food processing industry has a direct output of more than $20 billion and creates more than 32,000 jobs statewide. Kansas ranks third in the nation in total number of beef cattle per state and produces nearly 20% of all wheat grown in the country. That’s why they call the Sunflower State America’s Breadbasket.
In November 2022, Gov. Laura Kelly (pictured) announced the expansion of Schwan’s pizza plant in Salina, where the firm is investing $600 million.
Photo courtesy of Kansas Dept. of Commerce
Kansans’ penchant for producing new food products never wanes. According to a search of the Conway Data Inc. projects database, six new food and beverage manufacturing plants were launched in Kansas in 2022. These include the $250 million plant investment by Amber Wave in Phillipsburg and the $175 million project by Mars Inc. in Topeka.
Pizza Pies Proliferate
While Pizza Hut continues to grow from its humble beginnings in a small brick home in Wichita in 1958 to over 18,000 locations in more than 100 countries today, so too does Salina-based pizza maker Schwan’s Company. On November 3, Gov. Laura Kelly announced the expansion of Schwan’s pizza plant in Salina, where the firm is investing $600 million and adding 225 new jobs to increase its production facility by 140,000 sq. ft. and its manufacturing side by 400,000 sq. ft.
Dimitrios Smyrnios, CEO of Schwan’s, said, “In 2020, we had the honor of announcing to the Salina community a major investment that would enable us to continue to provide delicious pizzas to millions of families for decades to come. I feel a lot of pride and I am also very much humbled by everyone’s execution of this project.”
A couple of months earlier, Gov. Kelly announced that JTM Foods would expand in Wichita. On August 24, she unveiled the company’s plans to invest $40 million to create a new production facility for JJ’s Snack Pies, creating 150 new jobs for Kansans.
“After exploring several options across multiple states and locales, the strong public/private partnerships here linking government, business, academic and community interests together convinced us that Wichita was the best choice for JTM’s future expansion,” said Monty Pooley, president and CEO of JTM Foods.
Also in August, Gov. Kelly cut the ribbon on North America’s largest wheat protein plant. She joined executives of Amber Wave to christen the new plant in Phillipsburg. The $250 million project creates more than 60 new jobs at the former Prairie Horizon Agri-Energy ethanol plant complex.
“Recognizing the rising demand for high-protein ingredients and innovative feed products, coupled with renewable fuels that reduce our carbon footprint, this investment fits with what we have successfully done many times in Summit’s history,” said Bruce Rastetter, CEO of Summit Agricultural Group, Amber Wave’s parent. “We evaluated several sites in various wheat-growing areas and Prairie Horizon is ideally located. The wheat protein we will produce is a healthy ingredient used widely within baked goods, pet food and growing aquaculture feed markets.”
A Cheesy Game-Changer
Hilmar Cheese Company then broke ground September 30 on a new $600 million cheese and whey protein processing plant in Dodge City, adding 250 new jobs to the local economy.
“The Hilmar project is a game-changer for southwest Kansas in terms of job growth, opportunity and lifestyle benefits for those living in Dodge City and surrounding communities.”
— Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly, September 2022
“The Hilmar project is a game-changer for southwest Kansas in terms of job growth, opportunity and lifestyle benefits for those living in Dodge City and surrounding communities,” Gov. Kelly said.
The state of Kansas offers several incentives to give food processors a boost. One of them is an official state trademark program known as “From the Land of Kansas,” which has 408 member companies and connects them via an online marketplace to offer a compelling brand. Various tax credits, tax abatements and worker training dollars are also available to qualifying employers in Kansas. The Kansas Department of Commerce stands ready to assist these firms as they grow.