Two years after it was announced, the expansion at Simplot’s Portage la Prairie plant is now fully functioning and taking more spuds.
Just as J.R. Simplot Company finished construction on the expansion of their Portage la Prairie, Man. potato processing plant, North America went into a lockdown to stop the spread of COVID-19, causing a drop in french fry demand — forcing the company to pivot.
“This has to do with demand, and we’ve experienced a shift in demand,” Josh Jordan, senior manager of communications and public relations for Simplot, says in an email. “We’re seeing a big rise in demand for quick service restaurants and products that hold up well for delivery, which is good for us.”
Simplot was able to complete construction on the expansion before lockdown measures went into place. While the pandemic didn’t affect construction, it has affected demand for products from the plant.
“This is impacting our customers and growing partners as well, but we’re working to provide the products that our customers need the most right now,” Jordan says.
In July, the company announced a new line of fries which stay crisp for 40-plus minutes after cooking. A starch-based clear coating keeps the fries fresh and crisp. With takeout and delivery demand at restaurants rising during the COVID-19 pandemic, having fries which stay fresh longer is important.
The Portage processing plant originally opened in 2003, and prior to expansion had the capacity to process over 300 million lbs. of potato products per year. It makes frozen french fries and formed potato products for major quick-service restaurant chains and other customers in the eastern, southeastern and midwestern United States.
The $460 million construction project was announced in 2018. It expanded the size of the facility from 180,000 to 460,000 square feet and more than doubled the plants potato requirement. The expansion also added 87 new full-time positions.
For the most part, construction was able to stay on schedule over the past two years, Jordan says. However, there was some winter weather which impacted things early on with construction, but it didn’t cause any significant changes.
While the expansion first started accepting potatoes last fall, it wasn’t fully complete until earlier this year. As of right now, Simplot says they are on target with their potato purchasing for the plant for this year.
The expansion includes the latest advancements in potato processing, Jordan explains. In 2014, Simplot built a new plant in Idaho. When planning the Portage expansion, Simplot used what they had learned about automation and sustainability from the Idaho plant, for it.
“We’re doing things better and more efficiently, but that hasn’t meant significant changes for growers,” Jordan says.
The plant expansion has meant an increase in potatoes needed from Manitoba growers. According to Statistics Canada, Manitoba farmers planted 72,000 acres of potatoes this year, up by 2,000 acres from last year. However, in 2019 growers expanded acreage by 5,900 acres compared to the previous year.
“The increased capabilities of the plant will mean more potatoes going through the system, which is good for our farming partners,” Jordan explains.
The Simplot Portage plant expansion isn’t the only recent increase to processing capacity in Canada. Last year, Cavendish Farms opened a new $430 million frozen potato processing plant in Lethbridge, Alta.