Allen Canning Company

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Allen Canning Company

305 West Main Street
Siloam Springs, Arkansas 72761
Telephone: (479) 524-6431
Fax: (479) 524-3291
Web site:

Private Company
Employees: 90
Sales: $330 million (2004)
NAIC: 311421 Fruit and Vegetable Canning

Allen Canning Company, based in the small town of Siloam Springs, Arkansas, is one of the largest private canner of foods in the world, offering a full line of canned vegetables to the retail food and food service industries, including a variety of southern vegetables. The company also does contract canning for major and private labels. It operates about a dozen plants, strategically located close to the growing fields in Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, and Texas. Allen Canning sells its products under a dozen brand names. The Allens label offers a wide variety of beans as well as carrots, hominy, blackeyed peas, and chicken broth. The Allen name is also found on the company's Allen Italian Green Beans product line. New whole and diced potatoes and potato sticks are sold under the Butterfield label. The East Texas Fair brand is devoted to lima beans, field peas, blackeyed peas, and chick peas. Under the Freshlike brand, Allen offers a variety of vegetables, including spinach, corn, peas, and beets. The Popeye label, which features the likeness of Popeye, the venerable cartoon sailor, offers chopped and leaf spinach. The focus of the Princella, Royal Prince, and Sugary Sam labels are sweet potatoes, either cut, mashed, or candied. The Sunshine label is found on such vegetables as turnip greens, rutabagas, yellow squash, and butter beans. The Trappey's name is applied to another line of bean products, including northern beans, pinto beans, kidney beans, black beans, and navy beans, as well as sweet potatoes, blackeyed peas, and okra. The Veg-All line of products include a varied of mixed vegetable combinations and regular vegetables. Finally, Allen offers the Wagon Master brand of pork and beans. Allen Canning is headed by Rick Allen, grandson of the company's founder. A fourth generation is also employed in the executive ranks and being groomed to carry on the family business.

Canning Technique Introduced in 1800s

Canning was in fact bottling when it was first developed in the early 1800s. The idea of preserving food in a container grew out of a challenge by Napoleon Bonaparte, who knew full well that an army marched on its stomach. About the only obstacle preventing him from conquering the world, it seemed, was that the food supplies of his army and navy had a tendency to spoil. In 1895 he offered a 12,000 franc prize to anyone who could find a way to solve the problem. A French chef named Nicholas Appert was determined to win the prize and spent the next 15 years working on a way to bottle food in much the same way wine was. Through trial and error Appert discovered that if food was heated and sealed in an airtight container it did not spoil. Originally it was thought that the elimination of oxygen was the key, and half a century would pass before Louis Pasteur demonstrated that it was the growth of microorganisms that was the culprit in food spoilage. By heating the food sufficiently, Appert had succeeded in killing the bacteria and enzymes that caused spoiling, then by hermetically sealing the food in a bottle he prevented new organisms from gaining an opportunity for contamination. Appert's method was given a trial by the French Navy around 1806 and was so successful it became a military secret. But like many a good idea, it was too commercial to remain a secret and was soon learned by Napoleon's arch enemy, the British.

It was an Englishman, Peter Durand, who first used tin containers, a marked improvement over bottles, which were susceptible to breaking. The first commercial canning factory was opened in England in 1813, but a year earlier immigrant Thomas Kensett launched the first canning operation in New York City for vegetables, fruits, meats, and oysters. Over the years the canning processed remained the same, but in the beginning it was time consuming, requiring about six hours to process food in a can. By the 1860s that time was reduced to about 30 minutes, the price came down, and canned food became available to the masses.

Company is Established in the 1920s

According to company lore, Allen Canning's founder Earl Allen moved to the healthy climes of the Ozark hills of Arkansas in 1922 with his wife and five children crammed into a Model T Ford. A year later he began working in a canning operation located near Siloam Springs, established in an abandoned distillery that was no longer permitted to produce liquor after prohibition took effect in 1919. Allen became the sole owner of the business in 1926 and named it after himself. It was a tiny operation and he produced just one item during his first year: 4,000 cases of tomatoes. It was also very much a family affair from the start, as his wife and children all pitched in.

Allen Canning began to establish connections with locals growers and expand beyond tomatoes, but within a few years Allen Canning had to face the challenge of the Depression. The company managed to scrape by and survive the 1930s, which were also extremely difficult on the growers. Earl Allen established a solid reputation for his honesty in dealing with growers, forging relationships that would benefit the company for years to come. The advent of World War II in the first half of the 1940s revived the economy as well as spurred the growth of Allen Canning, which supplied canned vegetables to the military. Following the war, the United States, after a brief recession, enjoyed a decade-long period of expansion, fueled in large part by the economic activity of returning servicemen, who married and began raising the Baby Boom generation in the new suburbs. The self-service grocery store concept also came into its own as larger "super" markets became the norm and spread across the country in chains. With the expansion of retail outlets, canners like Allen Canning prospered as well. Also, during the 1940s a second generation of the Allen family took charge, as 29-year-old Delbert Allen, Sr., now led the company.

In the 1940s and 1950s Allen Canning added a wide variety of items, such as an array of beans, greens, potatoes, and blackberries. It also became one of the first companies to pack sweet potatoes, especially popular in the south, along with collard greens, turnips, blackeyed peas, and rutabaga. Another regional item Allen Canning specialized in was poke salet, made from the pokeweed, the asparagus-like shoots of which became edible in early spring. It was popular because as one of the first spring greens it served to provide relief from a common winter menu that consisted mostly of salt pork, beans, and cornbread. As people were forced to flee the Dustbowl conditions of Arkansas and Oklahoma for California during the 1930s, they brought their taste for poke salet to the West Coast, which became a prime market for Allen Canning. As the people who grew up on poke salet became to die off, however, the demand for the item dried up. More so, pokeweed wasn't grown so much as it was gathered. In the spring the company put out the word that it was ready to can poke salet and people would bring in bags and tubs of the greens, which had to be gathered in remote locations. Not only were the eaters of poke salet dwindling, so were the people willing to gather it. Allen Canning packed its last batch of poke salet greens in the spring of 2000.

In the 1960s and 1970s Allen Canning expanded on a number of fronts. To keep up with consumer demand and accommodate its growing slate of products, the company opened more plants and began running them 24 hours a day. In 1963 it opened one of the most modern canning plants in the United States. State-of-the-art equipment would also be installed in the company's other plants to make them more efficient and improve the quality and freshness of the products. The plants were strategically located close to the fields because it was important to pack the vegetables as quickly as possible, before they began to lose nutrients. With increased capacity, Allen Canning was also able to expand into new markets. Among the new products the company added during this time were shoestring potato sticks in 1971, and in 1978 the company acquired the popular Popeye Spinach brand.

In the 1980s Allen Canning made strong inroads into the institutional market, which became an increasingly important sales channel, eventually accounting for about 35 percent of all revenues. By the middle of the decade, Allen Canning was billing itself as the world's largest private canner. It produced more than 75 products from 11 plants in Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma, and Texas, and its products were now distributed across the United States. It was also during the 1980s that a third generation took the helm of the family business, as Delbert Allen Sr.'s son, Roderick Allen, succeeded him.

Canned Food Loses Popularity in 1990s

The canning industry had to contend with a decrease in popularity in canned foods in the 1990s. According to Debbie Howell writing for DSN Retailing Today in 2002, "Fresh produce, frozen food and takeout meals have made what once was considered the ultimate convenience food a dinosaur." Moreover, consumers became less loyal to brand name canned vegetables and fruits, and as a result private label products became increasingly popular. The canning industry was not in danger of disappearing, but many of the players found it difficult to make much money. The only reason sales grew over the course of the decade were price increases: unit sales steadily dwindled. Smaller companies like Allen Canning, which specialized in niche products such as Southern vegetables, fared better by being innovative to gain a competitive edge. One way Allen Canning was able to maintain sales was by adding seasonings to some of their items, spurring renewed interest.

Company Perspectives:

Generations of families have grown up enjoying vegetables from Allen Canning Company. Since 1926 we've been packing a variety of products including beans, greens, spinach, and sweet potatoes.

Despite the difficult climate facing the canning industry, Allen Canning entered the 2000s looking to expand, even as rivals were looking to cut back. Birds Eye Foods sold its Veg-All brand of canned mixed vegetables to Allen Canning in July 2003. The Birds Eye brand, long associated with frozen foods, had undergone a number of ownership changes in the previous 20 years, and in 1998 was acquired by Agrilink Foods, Inc., which was involved in frozen, fresh, and canned foods. Then in February 2003, Agrilink assumed the Birds Eye name and began closing half-a-dozen plants and casting off product lines. Veg-All was as old as Allen Canning, dating back to 1926 when the combination of 10 vegetables was introduced with the promise of "no scrubbing, no peeling, no work!" The Veg-All products had been produced by a Birds Eye plant in Green Bay, Wisconsin that was slated to be closed. Allen Canning bought much of the facility's assets and transferred them to its plants in Arkansas and Mississippi. A year later, in August 2004, Birds Eye sold another Green Bay-based product line, Freshlike canned foods, to Allen Canning. Established in 1934, Freshlike offered a variety of popular vegetables, such as corn, carrots, green beans, peas, and beets. The Freshlike name was also found on a line of frozen vegetables, which were not part of the deal.

Not only was it clear that Allen Canning remained committed to canned vegetables despite declining popularity, it continued to be very much a family-owned and operated company. The third generation of the Allen family served as chairman of board and president of the company, while a fourth generation was actively involved. While one of the younger family members, Dave Allen, left the company to produce horror films in Hollywood, with the help of the family largesse, another, Josh Allen, became vice-president of operations while in his 20s and appeared to be well on his way to being groomed to one day carry on the family heritage.

Principal Operating Units

Allens; Allens Italian Green Beans; Butterfield; East Texas Fair; Freshlike; Popeye; Princella; Royal Price; Sugary Sam; Sunshine; Trappey's; Veg-All; Wagon Master.

Principal Competitors

B&G Foods, Inc.; ConAgra Foods, Inc.; Del Monte Foods Company; Dole Foods Company, Inc.; Seneca Foods Seneca Foods Corporation.

Key Dates:

Earl Allen finds work in an Arkansas canning company.
Earl Allen becomes sole owner of what becomes Allen Canning Company.
Modern state-of-the-art plant is opened.
Popeye Spinach brand is acquired.
Veg-All brand is acquired.
Freshlike brand is acquired.

Further Reading

Howell, Debbie, "Canned Goods May Be Losing Customer Appeal," DSN Retailing Today, May 6, 2002, p. F12.

"Marketplace Southern Vegetables," Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, September 3, 1986.

"Open Up to Allens: The Inside Story on Canned Foods Popularity," Restaurant Business, March 15, 2003, p. 123.

Stogner, Alicia, "Allen Canning to Buy Birds Eye Subsidiary," Arkansas Business, June 23, 2003, p. 11.

Turner, Lance, "Allen Canning Buys Freshlike Business," Arkansas Business, April 12, 2004 , p. 11.

"Twp Canning Firms Offer Southern Spring Favorite, Poke Salet," Toronto Star, April 11, 1990. p. C14.