Claxton Poultry’s new deboning and processing plant at Sylvania is in production, turning out ready-to-cook chicken portions mainly for Chick-fil-A. Running since June, the plant already employs 187 people, Claxton Poultry President Mikell R. Fries announced during a ceremony last week with Gov. Brian Kemp.
The governor and first lady Marty Kemp toured the plant with Fries Oct. 21. Then they joined him and his grandmother, Claxton Poultry Farms Inc. CEO and board chair Doris Fries, in cutting a ceremonial ribbon out front with local and state officials. For Kemp, who included the Claxton Poultry facility in his ongoing “Georgia Made” tour, it is an example of economic growth he wants to see continue in rural Georgia.
“Behind me is a 33,000-square-foot building that we designed with the emphasis on food safety, worker safety, efficiency and quality,” Mikell Fries said. “We went to extreme measures to minimize water usage, electrical usage and to do our part for the environment.”
His grandfather, the late Norman W. Fries Sr., founded the company in 1949. Claxton Poultry now employs about 2,100 people, including more than 1,500 at its butchering and processing plant at Claxton in Evans County. It also has two hatcheries at Glennville in Tattnall County and a feed mill at Surrency in Appling County.
The Sylvania facility does not replace or eliminate jobs at the Claxton plant, but is purely an expansion, company officials said. It is not a slaughtering plant. All the chickens are killed at the Claxton facility, and cleaned front halves are trucked cold to Sylvania for deboning, portioning, seasoning and packaging.
Then the chicken is shipped “to the end user, which is Chick-fil-A, who we’re fortunate enough to have a 50-year partnership with, and it’s been a great thing, and part of the reason we built this is to continue to grow with their needs,” Fries said.
The governor in his remarks mentioned some other Claxton Poultry customers: Popeye’s, KFC, Bojangles, Walmart and Zaxby’s, as well as Chick-fil-A. But the Sylvania facility was added with Chick-fil-A particularly in mind.
Claxton Poultry started up the new plant in June with a single shift of 75 employees, hoping to ramp up to a second shift in three or four months.
“I’m proud to say now we have 187 full-time employees here,” Fries said. “That’s two processing shifts and one sanitation shift, so pretty much somebody’s here around the clock, Monday through Friday, an occasional Saturday.”
Kemp teased him about a gubernatorial recommendation to add a third production line as soon as possible. But after the ceremony Fries said the work force will probably remain near its current numbers for a while.
“We kind of thought it would be around 150 and we ended up at 187, so we’re doing good,” he said.
The plant was designed and built in one year’s time after Claxton Poultry executives, as recently as May 2018, looked at a nearby existing building in the industrial park.
“The first time I was standing in that green building was in May of 2018, and we were thinking about buying it, and we didn’t do that,” Fries told the crowd. “So at that point, we started to design a building. We didn’t even have a drawing in May of 2018.”
Noting that this presented “a pretty aggressive timeline,” he thanked a number of organizations for their help in making it happen. He mentioned Claxton Poultry employees, Sylvania’s mayor and council and city manager, the Screven County commissioners, the Screven County Development Authority, the Screven County Chamber of Commerce and the state Department of Economic Development and Department of Community Affairs.
The city of Sylvania was instrumental in providing water, sewer and electric power to the plant, including “a pretty big project,” for the sewer connection, Fries said.
Peggy Jolley of Live Oak Concepts assisted Claxton Poultry in evaluating potential sites for the plant.
Pope Construction of Statesboro, specifically a team led by Rob Sharp, built the building.
When the site was announced last fall, officials gave the cost of the plant as $12 million.
‘Georgia Made’ tour
Timed for the opening ceremony, Kemp’s visit to the Sylvania plant became the seventh stop on his ‘Georgia Made’ tour, a periodic series of visits to industrial sites. He started the tour a couple of months ago and plans to continue through the end of the year.
“I just want to thank the company for continuing to grow and invest in our great state,” Kemp said. “That really is what the Georgia Made tour is about. We’re trying to raise awareness that, look, in Georgia we can make anything that anybody wants and we can do it in all parts of our state.”
Last year, the Global Commerce division of the Georgia Department of Economic Development supported 332 projects, which together involved a record $7.4 billion in investments and created 29,000 jobs, Kemp reported.
“While we know that Atlanta is our capital and it serves as our logistics hub and our jobs magnet, in the last year, of those 332 projects and that $7.4 billion of investment, 74% of those came outside of the metro area, so outside of the 285 Loop, and that’s good for Atlanta and it’s good for our state,” he said.
Rural Strike Team
He touted his creation of a Rural Strike Team for economic development as “turning another campaign promise into a reality.”
Kemp has been working with the Department of Economic Development to create this team, which will work directly out of the governor’s office, he said. The team will create marketing plans for regional sites available for industrial development, develop a target list of industries that may be interested, and provide training to local leaders to market the sites, he said.
“These hardworking Georgians are going to help raise the visibility of regional economic development assets, especially large industrial sites outside of the metro Atlanta area,” Kemp said. “The strike team will work to bring communities together to market sites in today’s competitive environment and to tout the benefits of their potential prospects.”