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Any way you cut it, Richland a french fry powerhouse

Whether waffle-cut or straight, Richland is emerging as a powerhouse in the frozen french fry industry.

Lamb Weston unveiled Monday its $200 million expanded processing line for frozen potato products.

The addition took 18 months to build and doubles Lamb Weston’s ability to convert raw potatoes into frozen products in Richland. The company can now produce 2 million pounds of finished product a day, or 600 million pounds a year.

“The Tri-Cities is the french fry capital of the world,” declared Carl Adrian, president of the Tri-City Industrial Council or TRIDEC, which assembled a multi-million dollar incentive package to induce the Idaho potato giant to site its newest state-of-the-art processing line here.

Technically, a Canadian town — Florenceville-Bristol, N.B. — lays claim to the title of the french fry capital of the world. But Richland enthusiasts weren’t having any of that Monday as they gathered in a dry storage building next to Lamb Weston’s packing gear for a celebratory lunch that, interestingly enough, did not include french fries.

Sen. Sharon Brown, R-Kenn., repeated the boast when she welcomed the new addition as a critical job-creator for the region.

“This really puts us on the map as the french fry capital,” she said.

The 290,000-square-foot addition adds 150 mostly operations jobs to Lamb Weston’s already impressive local payroll. Though based in Eagle, Idaho, Lamb Weston has 4,500 Mid-Columbia employees, including 2,500 in the Tri-Cities.

Richland is a long-time anchor for the potato giant. Lamb Weston has produced frozen fry products next to the Richland Airport since 1972. It also operates science and innovation centers in Richland, a corporate office in Kennewick and support facilities in Pasco.

Mark Schuster, plant manager, said Lamb Weston has completed hiring for the 150 new positions, but advised would-be workers to go to for future job opportunities. The company, he said, always is hiring.

Lamb Weston isn’t just a major employer. It’s a major buyer of one of Washington’s more important crops: Potatoes.

Schuster said most of the potatoes processed into french fries in Richland are purchased from farmers within 60 miles of the Tri-Cities.

Access to growers, and rail and surface transportation networks, factored into Lamb Weston’s siting decision.

So did the presence of the massive (and expanding) Preferred Freezer nearby in north Richland. Lamb Weston is a major customer for Preferred’s frozen warehouse and distribution hub.

At Monday’s ribbon cutting, company executives heralded the massive investment as sign of growth to come. One official hinted at a fourth line in the not-too-distant future, but quickly walked the comment back.

That said, “growth” was the talking point of the day.

“A little less than a year ago, this was just a patch of dirt,” said Tom Werner, the company’s CEO. He promised Lamb Weston will continue to invest for growth in a product the world wants.

The company in the past cited Euromonitor data that showed demand for frozen potato products will grow by 2.6 billion pounds by 2020.

Lamb Weston ships about 30 percent of its products overseas to about 100 countries, with Japan as a leading customer.

The dedication comes as Lamb Weston nears its first anniversary as an independent, publicly traded company. It spun off from its parent, Chicago-based ConAgra Foods Inc., last November and trades on the New York Stock Exchange under the symbol “LW”.

It has been a strong performer for investors. It closed Monday at $50.68, a gain of almost 70 percent since it began trading late last year. It reported $83.4 million in net income attributable to Lamb Weston on $817.5 million in net sales, or 56 cents per share, in its 2018 first quarter report, released this month.

The company reaffirmed its expected growth for its 2018 fiscal year, noting that the start up of its new production line in Richland will enable it to support customer growth.

The project was supported by $250,000 from the Governor’s Strategic Reserve Fund, $250,000 from TRIDEC and a sales tax exemption on construction worth up to $13 million.

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