Manufacturing may appear to be stalled because of the COVID-19 pandemic, but that has not been the experience at Emerald Packaging. The 57-year-old company based in Union City, CA, is one of the largest flexible-film packaging producers on the West Coast. It specializes in roll stock, bags, pouches, and lidding for a range of products including dried fruits and nuts, fresh produce, and ready-to-eat bagged salads and snacks. It produces more than one billion packages annually in its 200,000-square-foot facility.
CEO Kevin Kelly is the second generation to run the family-owned business, helping the fresh-food industry find innovative solutions to satisfy consumer demands. Kelly took the helm in 2002, thinking that at some point he would diversify the markets the company serves, but he never did.
|At one time there were 20 flexible packaging converters in the San Francisco Bay area. Emerald Packaging is the last one standing, said CEO Kevin Kelly, because it focused on innovation. Image courtesy Emerald Packaging.|
“We’re diversified internally,” Kelly told PlasticsToday in an interview. “We make the plastic, do the printing, and convert it into bags. We also laser perforate the bags, and have proprietary products such as our Innolok zipper on our roll stock. Our lidding solutions include our proprietary eLID.”
Given California’s huge agricultural business, Kelly noted that at one time there were 20 flexible packaging converters in the Bay area. “We’re the last ones here,” he said, noting that the industry has changed quite a bit over the past two decades. “Companies that didn’t invest or innovate simply disappeared from the scene.”
When asked how the emphasis on sustainability has affected his business, Kelly admitted that he has seen customers “shy away from single-use plastic packaging” and shift to “naked produce.” Additionally, packaging for school lunch programs has also “dried up,” as single-use plastic packaging has fallen out of favor.
“Everything became about sustainability in packaging — what it is and what it isn’t,” said Kelly. Then COVID-19 hit. “I haven’t been asked about sustainable packaging for months,” Kelly commented. But that doesn’t mean business has been slow. It’s been anything but slow. “We were just sitting here and the orders came flooding in,” he said.
“Business has been really fast-paced, which caught us by surprise given the rise in unemployment,” he explained. “In March, bookings were up 100%, as our customers began buying more bags for produce and people bought more vegetables and started cooking at home. Consumers also recognized packaged produce was likely safer than unpackaged, which also fueled the increase. Bookings have since tapered off.”
Kelly added that Emerald Packaging is in one of those markets where it has boomed due to circumstances, but he’s unsure how it will hold up. “We hope it will remain strong, although long-term unemployment and a shift in consumer behavior could easily change that,” Kelly said.
The increased business along with COVID-19 safety measures have presented challenges. The company has implemented new protocols to ensure the health and safety of its employees. “We’ve been at work non-stop making sure that we’re social distancing, wearing masks, cleaning the machines at regular intervals, and more,” Kelly said.
The company has been one of the leaders in packaging that increases shelf-life, thereby reducing food waste, like pre-made salad bags. “Within the last year we invested in six new machines, including a new printing press and new bag making machines. We’ve gotten them in on time. The machinery technicians were able to travel here in spite of the lockdown,” Kelly said.
“We’re counting on the economy to hold up to some extent, but we have no idea what will happen — no one does,” Kelly commented. “Hopefully the market for packaged produce holds steady, and we’ll have to wait and see how the whole sustainability issue [plays out]. It appears that, for now at least, there’s much more hesitation about regulating plastic due to jobs, and the government is appearing to stay away from anything that could be job-destroying. But again, you never know.”