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Busy lifestyles and fast-food popularity have helped expand business for the local company

by Kris Ann Hegle

SBJ Contributing Writer

What do Wendy's, Burger King, White Castle and Hardees all have in common?

Many of their burgers are topped off with pickles made by J.L. DeGraffenreid & Sons.

DeGraffenreid, which is located in northeast Springfield, sells most of the pickles it makes to large fast-food chains. Although the company has been in operation since 1944, business has boomed at the plant during the last eight years, according to Jon Gallo, company president.

Currently, DeGraffenreid supplies all of the pickle slices used at Burger King, Hardees and Wendy's in Chicago and Miami, according to Gallo. The company also supplies 40 percent of the pickle slices sold to food-service distributors within 600 miles of Springfield.

"We've more than tripled since 1991," Gallo said. "We keep expanding every year."

Gallo attributed DeGraffenreid's expansion to the growth of the fast-food industry and busier lifestyles that don't allow people time to cook. This has increased the demand for fast-food burgers many of which are topped off with DeGraffenreid's pickles.

In 1990 when Gallo joined DeGraffenreid, the company had 430 pickling tanks. Today, it has 940 pickling tanks and 70 full-time employees. The company also hires a number of seasonal employees who work at the plant during harvest time.

Next year, DeGraffenreid plans to add another 164 pickling tanks. To handle the increased work load, the company plans to hire 10 to 15 full-time employees, according to Gallo.

"At that point, we're at processing capacity," Gallo said. "We won't be able to add any more tanks until we expand the plant."

This year, the company will process approximately 60 million pounds of cucumbers. Next year, DeGraffenreid will hit the 70-million-pound mark, Gallo said.

About 70 percent of the cukes DeGraffenreid uses are grown locally in the Lockwood area northwest of Springfield. DeGraffenreid supplies local growers with the seed, which yields a dark green, thin-skinned cucumber that is ideal for pickling, according to Gallo.

Once the cucumbers are harvested, they are trucked into the plant and sorted. Broken or blemished cucumbers are tossed to the side and later made into relish.

The rest of the cucumbers are placed in big, open-air tanks where they ferment in salt water. An air pump on each tank circulates the water to drive out carbon dioxide during the fermenting process so the cucumbers do not bloat. Direct sunlight prevents mold and yeast from accumulating in each tank, Gallo said.

The cucumbers are then brought inside, where they get rinsed, sliced and flavoring is added. About 90 percent of the pickles the company makes are sliced. However, DeGraffenreid also makes some whole and spear pickles. Once processing is complete, the pickles are packaged and shipped.

About 60 percent of the pickles the company makes are distributed within a 600-mile radius of Springfield. Springfield's location, near the geographic center of the country, is advantageous, according to Gallo.

"Our location has helped us," Gallo said. "Pickles weigh a lot because they're shipped in water. The closer you are to your customers, the better off you are."

To keep competitive, DeGraffenreid employs several in-house chemists who perform quality-control work. The pickles are randomly sampled to make sure they are the right diameter and that very few slices are broken or blemished. During fermentation, the chemists also test the chemical composition to make sure the pickling process meets the company's standards.

When competing for contracts, DeGraffenreid opens up its facility to representatives from various fast-food chains, who inspect the plant and review its quality-control standards. Recently, DeGraffenreid won a bid to provide pickles to Hardees.

"Quality and service is what makes us competitive," Gallo said. "That's why we're one of the biggest fast-food manufacturers."

PHOTO CAPTION:

Company president Jon Gallo attributes the pickle producer's success to quality control and customer service.

PHOTO CAPTION:

DeGraffenreid pickles, manufactured in Springfield from locally grown cucumbers, are tops among fast-food restaurants, according to company president Jon Gallo. [[In-content Ad]]

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