Dawn’s Foods in Portage is undergoing a $5 million expansion after quadrupling sales over the past three years.
The salad manufacturer located at La Dawn Drive is adding 34,000 square feet of space — doubling the size of its facility — and increasing its workforce from about 60 employees to 90 or more.
Construction begins today and the owners expect the expansion to be complete in May or June.
“We want to help build Portage into a world-class city,” said president and majority owner Dan Moore, whose partners are Ron Rehlinger, vice president of sales, and Craig Millie, vice president of operations. “There’s a lot of expansion going on in Portage and we’re happy to be part of that success.”
Moore had worked for more than 20 years at the Milwaukee salad competitor, Country Maid, before he and his partners purchased the company from Detroit food distributor Lipari Foods in June of 2015. Dawn and Harold Swan started the Portage business in 1961 and the Swan family remained involved for many years thereafter, Moore said. The Swans’ daughter, Sherri Blount, had worked as office manager for about 40 years before retiring two years ago.
Dawn’s produces about 150 distinct salads and dips, including about 20 different potato salads and 30 pasta salad dips, Moore said. It distributes locally and nationally to food service, convenience stores and retail grocery stores. It is purchasing $2 million worth of equipment in addition to the $5 million expansion of its facility, which adds 22,000 square feet for production and packaging, 6,000 square feet for sanitation and another 6,000 square feet for employees.
Sales improved not long after Moore and his partners hired Chef Bob Clark from the Milwaukee salad company Garden Fresh Foods, bringing “culinary innovation” to their line of salads, Moore said.
“We started a whole line of salad kits in addition to our traditional salads, where the end user puts it together to create a more fresh salad,” Moore said. “That’s the biggest change.”
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Filling newly created jobs after an expansion is especially challenging for local manufacturers because of their distance from high-population areas, which makes for a highly competitive local job market, Dawn’s partners said. To help counteract this, Dawn’s strives to incentivize its employees for good work, being on time and for helping to find new employees.
Dawn’s offers $500 hiring bonuses when its employees bring on someone who stays with Dawn’s for at least one year, partners said. The company also pays for their outside training in food safety and provides ongoing training for advancement within the company.
“Bottom line is we try to provide better working conditions than our competitors,” Rehlinger said of filling jobs.
The partners singled out the company’s head of production, Kelsey Mullis, who started at Dawn’s as a production line worker only 3½ years ago.
“She and so many other employees of ours started as line workers,” Moore said.
Millie said he hopes the major expansion further demonstrates to Portage that Dawn’s offers careers — not jobs. “We want to change the perception that Dawn’s is a food factory,” he said.
“We’re not a factory, we’re a manufacturer — a good company where you can work for a long time.”