IOWA CITY — Last year, Goodwill of the Heartland bet big on itself.
Known primarily for its retail stores, the nonprofit organization invested $8 million in transforming the former FS Feeds and Hawkeye Food Service Distribution center in Coralville into a facility designed to package vegetable oil. It was a new venture for Goodwill, which also provides janitorial services and does contract manufacturing in fulfilling its mission to help people overcome barriers to independence.
“There are all kinds of uncertainties when you’re doing something new,” said Jessica Schamberger, vice president of operations for Goodwill of the Heartland, noting the $8 million investment. “That’s not a small amount of money for Goodwill.”
The gamble appears to have paid off. Last Friday morning, the transformed facility at 3800 Second St. was humming along, with the largely automated line filling cans with vitamin-fortified vegetable oil. Through a contract with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 260 metric tons of the packaged soy oil will head to the Port of Chicago early next month. An additional 600 metric tons are slated to be shipped to the Port of Houston in November.
The cans are to be sent to Ethiopia and Benin on the African continent as part of a humanitarian effort.
“We’re falling into a nice rhythm,” Schamberger said. “We continue to make progress each day with our output.”
Goodwill was awarded its first order in August, but the process of getting to that point started months earlier. Remodeling the facility began in late October 2019 and was completed in June, Schamberger said. During that time, Goodwill recruited a leadership team including a plant director, quality manager and maintenance manager.
The facility also has full-time employees who are responsible for taking cans off pallets, stretch wrapping completed pallets, pulling samples of oil for testing and unloading oil from trucks. All told, the facility has nine full-time employees, several of which have disabilities.
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Right now, the facility is running just one day shift Monday through Friday, but Schamberger said the operation could grow up to 40 full- and part-time employees.
“We want to grow the number of jobs and do that over time and just get successful on first shift right now,” she said.
Schamberger said the first few weeks of operation have included “debugging the line” — making adjustments to ensure the line is running as efficiently as possible. They are typically filling 30 to 35 cans a minute, but can top out at 40 cans a minute, Schamberger said.
“We’re fine-tuning our packaging line right now and we’re getting better every day,” she said. “Our best single day was over 8,000 4-liter cans of oil.”
The contract with the USDA is expected to bring in approximately $18 million annually for Goodwill, but Schamberger said the organization is already looking at other revenue streams. That could mean taking on larger amounts of the current packaging, pursuing additional contracts with the USDA or other agencies like the Department of Defense, or getting in to private-label repackaging.
“This is just the beginning,” Schamberger said.
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