Packing Factory Prospering As Shoppers Continue To Shell Out For Organics
Wednesday, October 22, 2008 By JANICE PODSADA
STRATFORD - In the old days, Ma and Pa rode into town and stocked up on staples: sugar, flour, eggs, coffee, a slab of bacon. Today, health-conscious shoppers wouldn't think of leaving the supermarket without soy milk, granola or unsalted nuts for snacking. That shift in attitude is why Stephanie Blackwell, 56, thinks the Organic nut company she founded in 1998, Aurora Products Inc., should continue to grow despite a slowing economy where consumers are cutting back on delicacies.

"More people consider nuts and dried fruit to be staples," said Blackwell, the company's chief executive. Anyone who is accustomed to snacking on Organic raw almonds or unsalted Organic peanuts isn't likely to switch to potato chips or pork rinds, said Blackwell's son, Matthew, 27, the company's operations manager. So far that theory appears to be holding true. Aurora, which employs 120, is gearing up for a robust holiday season. "We're getting new accounts. And we just added a second shift on Saturday and Sunday," said Stephanie Blackwell, whose two Shetland sheepdogs snuggled under her desk at the firm's corporate office on a recent morning. The privately owned company had $30 million in revenue last year, and it's outgrowing the 75,000-square-foot roasting and packing plant it moved to in 2004. It packages more than 200 items, including trail mix, granola and dried fruit under its own name and under some customers' private label brands. Among its customers: Whole Foods, Stop & Shop, Shaw's, Big Y, Price Chopper and Geissler's Supermarkets. Just as gigantic oak trees grow from small acorns, Blackwell's multimillion-dollar company sprung from a mere sprout. In 1998, Blackwell was the co-owner, along with her then-husband, of a small hydroponic alfalfa sprout company in Bridgeport. On a sales trip to New York City, she was given the brushoff by a potential customer, Gourmet Garage.

"They told me no sprouts. They weren't interested," she said. As she headed for the door, they asked if she could package some of their dried fruits and nuts. "They were packing their own plastic containers in the basement," Blackwell said. "They were so glad when I said yes." Blackwell, who was in the midst of a divorce, had been searching for a business opportunity, and with her first customer on board, Aurora Products was born, she said. "I knew it would fly. I had a good feeling," said Blackwell, who sold her interest that same year in the sprout company to her ex-husband. In launching Aurora, she bypassed the bank ("I was not a risk-taker, and I didn't want to put my home up as collateral") and used credit cards to finance the business, renting a 1,000-square-foot building and hiring four workers. As the orders came in, Blackwell enlisted the help of family members at the nut factory. "I remember a Saturday when it was just myself and my son, Matt, packaging nuts with a postal scale," said Blackwell as she walked through the company's roasting plant, a 35,000-square-foot building chock full of 1-ton bags of almonds and filled with the mellow aroma of roasting peanuts. The demand is rising for Organic almonds, cashews and peanuts, she said, along with the demand for dried fruit, such as apricots and papaya, that don't contain sulfur dioxide, a chemical preservative that has proved to be an allergen.

"We don't carry a lot of inventory. Our products are made to order. They have about a nine-month shelf life, which is why you'll find them in a store's produce section," said Matthew Blackwell, who plans to overhaul the company's fleet of trucks so they can burn biodiesel fuel that's been distilled from leftover sunflower oil used in the roasters. Stephanie Blackwell, who earned a master's degree in chemistry, found her niche as an entrepreneur after a few tries. Before launching Aurora Products, Blackwell owned a "home and leisure newspaper that went defunct," Blackwell said. "And then a glass etching company that went defunct, too.

"You've got to keep plugging away."