By Lorrie Baumann
The new minimum wage at Atlantic Natural Foods and its parent company AFT Holdings is now $10 an hour, after Owner and Principal Doug Hines got tired of waiting for improvements in government support for small businesses and decided he was just going to take things into his own hands to improve working conditions for his 100 or so employees. “The only way to take the future into our hands for ourselves and our employees was to act ourselves,” he said.
The company’s plant is located in Nashville, North Carolina, and it also operates a distribution facility in Rocky Mount, North Carolina. The state’s minimum wage is $7.25, and the local economy is in transition away from its historic base of tobacco agriculture. Small businesses have been leaving the county, taking local jobs with them. The region’s unemployment rate and its rate of food insecurity rose and haven’t come back down as the nation’s overall economy has improved after the Great Recession, Hines said. “You go down the road now, and nobody’s left,” he said. “These are blue collar people who need places to work.”
Hines, who acquired Atlantic Natural Foods from the Kellogg Company in 2014 and who just made the final payment to purchase the 101-year-old plant-based protein brand, including the Loma Linda® and Worthington Foods labels, had been talking to his Congressional representatives about how the federal government could help his small business, so that he could afford to offer more to his employees. He got some vague promises, but nothing ever really happened. “Government hasn’t been able to deliver economic progress for an agriculture community that needs better jobs,” he said. “We’re one of the larger employers in the town of Nashville.”
Finally, he decided that if he was going to move his company forward to produce the new expanded range of products he had in mind for the company, he was going to need to keep his work force on the job, which meant that he was going to have to make sure they were making a living wage. “I’m a capitalist, but you have to have social responsibility if you’re going to be a company that’s going to grow in the future,” he said. “You have to produce safe, high-quality products, and to do that, you have to have the people.”
He called his staff together on September 17 to make the announcement that the company’s minimum wage would henceforth be $10 an hour. Workers who’d gotten promotions over the years that took their paychecks above the previous minimum wage also got raises to keep them ahead of this new wage. In addition, Atlantic Natural Foods will retain a complete benefit program, including comprehensive health insurance, paid vacation and holidays and a 401k retirement plan that’s available to all employees. In all, about 75 percent of his work force ended up getting raises, and Hines is hoping that will keep them on the job as he moves the company towards developing new product lines within the company’s range of shelf-stable plant protein-based meal solutions. “It’s a value alternative. It’s shelf-stable,” he said. “We’re looking to create products that are microwaveable and don’t have to be sold from the freezer case.”
The new line, to be announced in 2017 will offer vegetarian meal options for consumers who want healthy products without genetically modified ingredients that deliver flavors similar to beef, pork, chicken or tuna that will help them live long and healthy lives. “We felt that it’s critical that we have an associate base that will be able to participate in developing these products,” Hines said. “We’re going to be able to put this protein into a heat-and-eat meal that you’ll be able to take to work with you.”
“Small business doesn’t get a lot of attention out here, but we want to deliver the message that it’s good for all of us,” he added.
Since 2014, AFT Holdings subsidiary Atlantic Natural Foods has successfully managed the Loma Linda and Worthington shelf stable business along with Kaffree Roma™, a coffee alternative, and neat®, a gluten and soy-free nut-based protein meat alternative and the neat line of vegan egg substitutes, integrating the business into a diverse portfolio that includes a tuna fleet in the western Pacific, a tuna vessel support service group, a specialty food processor in Maine and other businesses across the globe.