The president of McKee Foods said the snack-cake maker's newest plant expansion, the largest of about $500 million in projects, is aiming for a December startup — where it will make mini-muffins.
"We're installing a line right now," Chris McKee, the Collegedale-based company's president and chief operating officer, said in an interview Wednesday after speaking to Chattanooga Rotarians.
The 307,550-square-foot expansion, which about doubles McKee Foods' Apison Pike facility, was announced in 2020 as the company unveiled a 15-year plan that would add 480 jobs and invest about $500 million in Collegedale. It's the largest dollar expansion in the company's 89-year history.
Company revenues, which hit $1.8 billion in its latest year, are "sort of flat now," McKee said. Consumer traffic in locations such as supermarkets, dollar stores and other retailers has dropped since June, he said.
"We're holding market share. It's steady, but the whole industry is dropping," he said. "Our theory is that all the government support dried up."
McKee told the club the company employs 7,000 workers at its U.S. locations, which include bakeries in Collegedale, Virginia and Arkansas along with a distribution center in Arizona.
The business has 3,849 people assigned as working in Collegedale, said Mike Gloekler, the company's corporate communications manager, in an email earlier this year. But that figure includes 482 people who live in other states and work in jobs such as field sales, he said.
McKee Foods employs 2,886 Hamilton County residents and 481 Georgia residents for a total of 3,367, Gloekler said.
McKee, whose grandparents O.D. and Ruth McKee started the business, said it has had a reputation as a low-profile company over the years, but this summer it held a trio of press events in three weeks.
The company opened an 11-acre nature park in Collegedale, its Little Debbie brand became the title sponsor of the re-imagined Hamilton County Fair, and it announced with Southern Adventist University a new building on the campus called the Ruth McKee School of Business, he said.
"The name gives my family a chance to call out Ruth's critical role in the success of McKee Foods during the foundational years," McKee said. "She was ahead of her time in many ways, and the family members who worked with her were pretty convinced we wouldn't have made it without her."
The company is interested in raising its profile in Chattanooga, he said.
"With all candor, we're like a lot other businesses, we're losing the Boomers, and we've got to appeal to the next generation," McKee said.
The next generation learns a lot on social media, he said.
"And you can't be silent," the company president said. "If you don't say something, they're going to make up what they're going to make up. Somebody else will make up your story for you."
He said he has "always felt blessed" to be part of the family business.
"With no debt and privately owned, we have the freedom to make decisions that are beneficial for customers, employees and the owners," McKee said. "Our family also acknowledges the providence of God in our continued success, which seems a little more rare today."
He said McKee Foods is a third generation company, but that five members of the fourth generation work for the company full time.