Commerce facility.

Commerce facility. Photo by Courtesy Photo

Before the recession, John Blazevich had a dream of turning his Contessa Premium Foods Inc. products into the “green cuisine” of frozen foods, both in their quality and how they were made.

So the private San Pedro company built a $40 million, first-of-its-kind “green” manufacturing plant in Commerce that opened in early 2008 to some fanfare, including from national network news shows. His timing couldn’t have been worse

The recession stopped the company’s projected high-growth trajectory in its tracks, and Contessa filed for Chapter 11 reorganization last month so it could unload debt associated with the facility. Blazevich now faces selling and then leasing back the plant at an April auction. And he’s considering partnerships to save the business he founded in 1984.

“This is a very special plant – if all food manufacturing facilities were built and run like this one, we wouldn’t have all these food recalls, I can tell you that,” said a rueful Blazevich during a tour last week.

Contessa specializes in specialty seafood, gourmet stir-fry vegetables and convenience meals sold in supermarkets, club stores and other venues, under its own name and private labels. It also has an institutional line aimed at restaurants and food service businesses. The company’s marketing trumpets its ban on high-fructose corn syrup, moderate use of salt and emphasis on fresh-frozen ingredients.

The private company, which employs 150 people, has annual revenue of more than $200 million. The company’s bankruptcy filing said Contessa has more than 200 creditors and debts of more than $50 million. Claims made by unsecured creditors so far total $1.4 million.

The Contessa plant was the first time the U.S. Green Building Council awarded LEED certification to a frozen-food manufacturing facility, setting a new industry standard. The LEED rating system considers water and energy-efficiency, the use of recyclable or sustainably produced materials and other elements

The plant’s conference room, for example, is appointed with what looks to be mahogany materials, but which are in fact recycled composite woods. Thin solar energy membranes covers the roof, and heat generated by its refrigerating systems is recycled. Trucks delivering food for processing are attached to the plant with an airlock so refrigerated air doesn’t escape.

Public good will?

The 110,000-square-foot building is about three times the size of Contessa’s older facilities in Vernon. Blazevich said making the plant green at most only added $5 million to its cost, which can be made up over time from lower utility and maintenance expenses. Still, that amounts to about a 15 percent premium on traditional construction.

Prev

For reprint and licensing requests for this article, CLICK HERE.