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Nalley's brand: A story of losing our local history

Why the big get eaten by the bigger: Success can be the worst enemy of companies with roots in the community.
The old Nalley's facility

The old Nalley's facility Gexydaf

The news, earlier this month, that Hillshire Farms would buy Pinnacle Foods for $6.6 billion has local ramifications: One of the brands in the Pinnacle portfolio is Nalley's, which had a run of almost a century as a major employer in Tacoma. Now, there's news Tuesday that a poultry producer out of Chicago, Pilgrim's Pride, wouldn't mind taking over Hillshire.

Who does what to whom, and for what price, will play out over the next few days. But the corporate dance obscures the very real fact that regional food brands like Nalley's have been disappearing, swallowed up (as it were) by larger companies that keep the packaging but throw away the filling — the local plants, like the one that used to be in Tacoma, and the history that on which they were built.

Back in 1903, a 13-year-old Croatian immigrant named Marcus Narancic arrived in New York with 15 cents in his pocket. He couldn't speak a word of English. He took several jobs: in a steel mill, as a meat packer, and finally in a hotel kitchen where he moved from kitchen flunky to pantry boy to fry cook. He signed on as a cook on the Milwaukee Railroad's train from Chicago to Tacoma; he later worked at the Bonneville Hotel in Tacoma.

The culinary rage at the time, on the East Coast at least, were thinly sliced, deep-fried “Sararatoga Chips,” which young Marcus learned how to make, using the potatoes out his back door in the Puyallup Valley. By the 1920s, a manufacturer named Herman Lay would start calling his version of the Saratoga concoctions “potato chips.” Lay would automate the manufacturing process and started selling his chips nationally. But before that, in 1918, Marcus Narancic simply rented a storeroom behind his apartment for $5 a month and would sell his chips from a basket, door-to-door, to households and grocery stores.

Marcus soon began adding other food products: pickles (from cucumbers grown in the Puyallup Valley), then beans for chili, then salad dressings, and so on. He changed his own name from Narancic to Nalley. His company built a factory in the canyon off State Route 16, and the factory grew and grew until it became one of Tacoma's largest employers.

The company’s website tells of Nalley’s continued growth after Marcus Nalley’s death in 1962: In later years, new plants opened up in Tigard, Oregon and Billings, Montana. Nalley's was becoming even more of a staple in the Northwestern household. In fact, at the height of its operation, the company was operating more than 10 potato chip facilities within the United States. Today there are over 1,300 food products under the Nalley label ranging from pickles to canned foods to salad dressing and peanut butter. With canned chili as its biggest seller, the Nalley label continues to be synonymous with delicious, high quality food products.

What the website doesn't say, of course, is that Nalley's itself is no more. But that is what happens when your jar of pickles, your bag of chips, or your can of chili loses its independence.

You can't really blame anyone. It's not as if Marcus Nalley or the company intended to betray the trust people put in him or his family. Nalley's was once an icon of local food, and then? Then it wasn't. It ceased to be.

Long before it closed the plant in South Tacoma, long before the pickles started coming from India, long before its slow, sad decline as a regional brand, Nalley's was one of those firms that became infected with the cancer of ambition, a cancer that required transfusions of money from banks and investors. It wasn't failure that infected the company; on the contrary, it was success. The Nalley's that survives today, in an obscure corner of a giant holding company, didn't lose its way because it was trying to survive hard times. Rather, it sold its soul because it was lured toward the dazzling light of “more.”


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Comments:

Posted Wed, May 28, 5:23 a.m. Inappropriate

An interesting and oft-told tale. When I read stuff like this I wonder why it is never mentioned who the evil corporate owners really are... if you, yes YOU, wouldn't buy stock in these corporations they couldn't do this. Before you whine and moan about corporations swallowing up the little guy purge your portfolio. If you own mutual funds, you are probably part of the problem.

JamesD

Posted Wed, May 28, 7:41 a.m. Inappropriate

The evil owners -- hiding in their board rooms -- often come down to private equity firms who care nothing for the brands they own. They purchase a grab-bag of companies and, like a teenager going through her closet, spin off those they don't care to keep. Whoever picks up those cast-offs cares even less. Folks like Mitt Romney, who excelled at this game, would have you believe that this is "capitalism" and that it's the very essence of "what makes America great."

Posted Wed, May 28, 10:15 a.m. Inappropriate

A lot easier said than done, JamesD, if you hope to be able to retire.

Posted Wed, May 28, 12:38 p.m. Inappropriate

"Today there are over 1,300 food products under the Nalley label..."


Surely this is wrong. It may have been the case at Nalley's height, but a look at their web site shows only a couple dozen or so products. Potato chips are something I seldom eat, and I was shocked to learn 10 years ago that Nalley's had abandoned that market over a decade before. I remember taking at least two field trips in grade school to Nalley's plant. We stood on a glassed-in balcony over the potato chip line. The tour guide went down and came back with a basket full of hot chips fresh from the fryer. Now those were good. I guess that spoiled me to packaged chips forever. We all left with variety packs of personal-sized bags of chips, though.


Nalley's isn't the only iconic brand that's been packed up and moved. Adams peanut butter (old timers may remember JP Patches' picture on the label) is still sold in stores, but it's made back east by Smucker's. But at least we still have Almond Roca, that staple of Northwest kitchens, Johnny's Seasoning Salt.

dbreneman

Posted Wed, May 28, 3:23 p.m. Inappropriate

Thanks for bringing up Adams, dbreneman. At least it's still being made. I was skeptical of that 1,300 number, but I'm guessing they're talking about SKUs (every permutation of ca size can, bag size, flavor, etc.), not individual products.

Posted Thu, May 29, 10:37 a.m. Inappropriate

How could an article about the impact of Nalley not mention "Nalley Valley"... the area named after Nalley's and which will certainly live on?

lazespud

Posted Fri, May 30, 7:56 a.m. Inappropriate

Nalley Valley is in the fifth paragraph, lazespud. WASHDOT, meantime, is still expanding the Hwy 16 interchange.

Posted Sat, May 31, 1:10 a.m. Inappropriate

crud! I missed it, and then did a "find" for "Nalley Valley" which didn't come up! but there it is...

lazespud

Posted Wed, Jun 4, 10:07 a.m. Inappropriate

Marcus Nalley's family sold out to the W.R. Grace & Co. conglomerate in 1966. They spun it off to Curtice-Burns Foods in 1975, which was renamed Agrilink in 1997. Agrilink acquired Dean Foods (owner of the Birds Eye brand) the following year, and changed its name again to Birds Eye Foods in 2003. In 2009, Birds Eye was acquired by Pinnacle.

This process didn't happen overnight, but it seems that it has accelerated in nearly every industry in the past couple of decades. Deregulation and cheaper transportation share a lot of the blame as well. If Nalley's pickles could have been cheaply sourced from India in 1975, I bet the bigwigs at Curtice-Burns would have done it then.

By the way, anyone know what happened to this guy?! Now you know where those barbecue chips got their smoky flavor from.

tkaye

Posted Wed, Jun 4, 10:08 a.m. Inappropriate

Here's the link I had intended for that last aside:
http://search.tacomapubliclibrary.org/images/dt6n.asp?un=1&pg;=1&krequest;=nalley%27s&stemming;=On&phonic;=&fuzzy;=&maxfiles;=5000#image

tkaye

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