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Sweet, sharp smell of spice rises from Hillsboro food plant

When he first started turning out his sharp, slightly sweet mustard in quantity, Gerry O'Connor made the rounds and distributed it himself for sales in markets around this area. That was 20 years ago.

When he first started turning out his sharp, slightly sweet mustard in quantity, Gerry O'Connor made the rounds and distributed it himself for sales in markets around this area. That was 20 years ago.

Now, the retired Grand Forks science teacher has his mustard manufactured and distributed from a factory in Hillsboro, N.D., that turns out 100 different products.

Mike Monette, who has a daytime job at Rydell Nissan Honda, came up with his recipe for Monster's Pit Road Barbecue about three years ago. He has it made up in 19-ounce bottles and does a lot of his own distribution. You see it in stores around Grand Forks and Grafton, N.D., where he grew up. And you see him at places such as the Farmers Market in Grand Forks.

O'Connor and Monette are among clients who have entrusted their secret recipes to Full Service Foods in Hillsboro. They are some of the entrepreneurs who have hot salsas, dressings, jellies and baked beans made at the plant. There, four days a week, a crew of mostly women workers turns out the products that are trucked mainly to Minneapolis area. But Amy Gordon, the general manager, says there are several products distributed in North Dakota and neighboring Minnesota towns. Some of it reaches Nebraska, Wisconsin and Montana.

She has 12 employees working 10-hour shifts, four days a week. She said they earn easily above minimum wage and seem to like the four-day work week. The plant is a well-preserved, 10,000-square-foot red building at 217 S. Main St. The first thing you notice when you step inside is a sign saying, "Wash your hands." The place is ready for state and federal inspectors who monitor places where food is manufactured.

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The list of customers is not disclosed, and the plant holds recipes for each product in strict confidence. The biggest problem Gordon had on a hot day in August was a need for more workers and maybe more shifts. This, she agrees, is a good problem.

Full Service Foods is an outgrowth of the Mexican Village restaurant in Grand Forks operated for years by Ray and Mae Gordon, parents of Amy's husband, David. When the Gordons outgrew the kitchen in the restaurant for making salsa, the family looked around for a commercial kitchen. And in the late 1980s, with help from Rural Development loans, they opened their factory in Hillsboro.

There, the Gordons turn out Mexican Village products that have become well known in this area. They continue even though they have sold the restaurant to Angie Green and Joe Egstad. And the general manager is Ben Heit, Angie's brother. They sell their homemade chips in the cafe, as well as the Mexican Village salsa made in the Hillsboro plant.

The business at Hillsboro has grown slowly and steadily, mostly by word of mouth, Amy said last week. There are few food manufacturers around rural areas. When the Gordons started 20 years ago, they had four outside contracts.

Now, Full Service Foods works mainly with larger contractors, but they will do smaller orders of 50 cases of a product. Often, the business comes from people making their specialties as a sideline or hobby. While they turn out the recipes, Full Service Foods does no marketing or sales. And Amy said success often depends on the marketing.

"No matter how good the product is," she said, "it

doesn't move off the shelf of a food store without promotion behind it." She notices the people who sell their sauces get it out to fairs and farmer markets and demonstrations in stores.

There is a sharp smell of spice in the plant. There are pallets of tomatoes from California and pallets of sugar. The pinto beans come from North Dakota. The product goes out almost as fast as it is finished.

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O'Connor is content to have Full Service Foods distribute his mustard in its 6-ounce gold labeled jars. It is on the shelves in markets here, including Hugo's and SuperOne. The mustard recipe was fairly well known in Pembina, N.D., where he grew up and his mother made it. His work at promotion has created a demand.

You come to the conclusion that if Aunt Tillie makes the best chokecherry syrup in North Dakota, she should be encouraged to bottle it for sale. But Tillie better understand that it will take some promotion to make sales.

Reach Hagerty at mhagerty@gra.midco.net or (701) 772-1055.

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