SK Food Group starts work on Cleveland’s biggest-ever industrial project

Staff photo by Mike Pare / Officials break ground in Cleveland, Tenn., on Tuesday for construction of an SK Food Group plant. The facility is to employ 840 people and start production in the first half of 2025.
Staff photo by Mike Pare / Officials break ground in Cleveland, Tenn., on Tuesday for construction of an SK Food Group plant. The facility is to employ 840 people and start production in the first half of 2025.

CLEVELAND, Tenn. — The president of custom sandwich-maker SK Food Group on Tuesday officially gave a green light to building a more than half-million-square-foot plant in what will be the city's biggest-ever single industrial project.

The $205 million factory at the Spring Branch Industrial Park will spur 840 jobs over seven years, company President Dustin Dixon said to about 75 people who turned out at the construction site.

The project will create the largest single number of jobs for a new company in the Chattanooga area since Volkswagen more than decade ago when the German automaker announced it planned to hire 2,000 employees.

"We're the leading manufacturer of custom, hand-held items in the U.S.," Dixon said, standing in front of a large sign featuring a rendering of the huge plant that's to start operations in the first half of 2025.

Dixon cited Bradley County's Pie Innovation Center, the workforce development facility where build-out will begin soon on space to help train future SK Food workers. The center's name is an acronym for partners in industry and education.

"The Pie Center is unlike anything we've seen across the country," he told the group. "Even with automation, we'll require skilled workers."

Founded as a mobile catering business in 1942, SK Food specializes in supplying sandwiches, wraps, snacks, flatbreads, burgers and protein snacks for branding by corporate customers worldwide in the quick-serve, retail and vendor sectors, according to the company.

SK Food will take up the largest tract in the sprawling industrial park off Interstate 75, said Doug Berry, the Cleveland-Bradley Chamber of Commerce's vice president for economic development.

(READ MORE: Wacker ups investment in Bradley County)

Officials intentionally left large wooded buffers when building the industrial park to help create an aesthetic setting for SK Food's flagship plant, he said.

"This will be one of the most beautiful manufacturing plants in East Tennessee," Berry said at the groundbreaking ceremony.

Cleveland Mayor Kevin Brooks called the company a game-changer for the city.

The manufacturer plans to provide an on-site day care center for employees, adding it will offer "quality of work," Brooks said.

The plant brings a new chapter for the area, Bradley County Mayor Gary Davis said.

"It's a transformative project," he said.

The location and business incentives are important to the project, and it helps diversify the economy, said Stuart McWhorter, the state's commissioner for economic and community development.

"The Pie Center, what's happening there, is also something that matters," he said. "I wish there were more Pie Centers across the state."

The investment is the largest ever in Cleveland and second biggest in Bradley County history, according to officials. Polysilicon maker Wacker announced a $1 billion plant in Charleston, Tennessee, in 2009, though it later upped the investment to $2 billion.

(READ MORE: Volkswagen investing in electric vehicles in Chattanooga)

State Rep. Dan Howell, R-Ocoee, worked on a bill that helped facilitate the industrial park, he said in an interview.

"Eight years later, we're seeing the results of that," he said.

Local officials are providing an incentive package that includes helping the company with the price of the land and with property taxes, Berry said. The project also received $9 million from the state, according to the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development website.

In the past 12 months, a dozen new major business expansions or relocations have been announced in Bradley County, collectively planning to invest $797 million and add up to 2,500 jobs in the Cleveland area.

"It's been the best year in my career," said Berry, who has worked on economic development in East Tennessee for the past 37 years. "I hope the community understands how rare this is and how we've done so much work over the years to get to this point."

Despite the job additions in the past year, Bradley also has had three announced plant closings over the same period, idling 350 jobs. Last year, both the former Coppertone plant operated by Beiersdorf Manufacturing and the former Hardwick clothing plant operated by the Puerto Rico Industries for the Blind announced their Cleveland plants were shutting down.

Newell Brands LLC filed a notice with the state this summer indicating plans to shut the Rubbermaid yarn mill and commercial plant along Overhead Bridge Road by Dec. 22, cutting 81 jobs.

"While we're saddened by their closure, if things like this are going to happen, now is the best time for us to help those folks make the transition," Berry said in an interview last week during the Governor's Conference on Economic Development in Chattanooga.

Business Editor Dave Flessner contributed to this story.

Contact Mike Pare at mpare@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6318.

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