Inside United Foods International’s new Belcamp manufacturing plant, the walls and floors gleam white, hulking Japanese-engineered equipment hums and there is a whiff of soy sauce in the air.
The Japanese maker of Asian sauces and spices chose Harford County for its plant, which officially opened Friday, to serve East Coast customers better than it can from its California plant. The company produces private-label goods — everything from those ubiquitous packets in Chinese take-out to bottles of Korean barbecue sauce on grocery shelves to sacks of tempura batter used in Japanese restaurants.
A crew of about 25 has been working since last August testing and perfecting this $5 million operation aimed at Friday’s grand opening with state, local and Japanese embassy officials.
United Foods expects the plant to eventually employ more than 120 people as it ramps up to produce 3 million gallons of sauces and 20 million pounds of dry spices a year for restaurants, groceries and other food makers who will use the ingredients to make their own products.
“We are truly excited to be able to operate in a similar capacity or even more than that of the California operations, and given our geographic location, delivery is possible as quick as one to two days to all East Coast states,” Takeo Shimura, United Foods’ chief operating officer and president of United Foods International (USA) Inc., said in a statement.
The company was drawn to Maryland in part by a memorandum of cooperation Gov. Larry Hogan signed last summer between Maryland and Japan.
“UFI’s location and growth in Maryland further strengthens the partnership between Maryland and Japan,” Kenichiro Sasae, the Japanese ambassador to the United States, said in a statement. “I am delighted that the Memorandum of Cooperation between Japan and Maryland has already been and will be providing incentives to greater amount of investment which creates more jobs.”
Sasae said Maryland hosts than 100 Japanese-affiliated companies that employ about 6,100 people.
United Foods opened its first U.S. plant in the San Francisco Bay area in 1988 and has been trucking products across the country. United Foods, which has several other factories and offices across Asia, employing about 1,000 people, does not release customer information or sales but says the firm is growing.
In addition to giving the company easy access by truck to East Coast markets, United Foods also plans to start exporting products to Europe through the port of Baltimore.
If United Foods’ employment grows as it expects, the company could qualify for state incentives under a program called More Jobs for Marylanders that rewards businesses for locating in the state or expanding here, according to the Maryland Department of Commerce. Once United Foods hires 100 people it could receive a 10-year income tax credit, said Karen Glenn Hood, a spokeswoman for the department.
Harford County officials, who welcomed the jobs and economic activity, also helped the company with permitting and utility connections, as well as regional workforce development services.
Hood said it’s the state’s location in the Mid-Atlantic that helps economic developers pitch Maryland to manufacturers such as United Foods. About 104,000 people work in manufacturing in the state, with about 15,000 in food production, according to state figures.
“We have a strategic location that allows companies to reach one-third of the U.S. population within an overnight drive,” she said, “and we have a confluence of large food corporations already here, which made it an easy decision for UFI to locate here given the strong supply chain.”
Harford County Executive Barry Glassman added that the location offers “buildable land, available infrastructure and a skilled workforce.”
Shimura agreed that location in the Northeast corridor was key to landing the company in Belcamp among other food manufacturers in Riverside Business Park, about 30 miles from the port and Baltimore.
“There is big potential,” he said.