POCATELLO — An East Idaho native is the new plant manager at Amy’s Kitchen in Pocatello — a job he says has been incredibly rewarding as well as challenging in the age of COVID-19.
Born and raised in Blackfoot, Brent Higginson has lived in the area for most of his life. He graduated from Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, with a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering, and soon after he and his family moved back to Blackfoot where he eventually got a job at Basic American Foods. During his 16 years there, he held several positions, finally serving as plant manager, before returning to his engineering roots for a stint at the Idaho National Laboratory.
While at the INL, Amy’s Kitchen reached out to Higginson to see if he was interested in overseeing the Pocatello plant. He agreed to a job interview and was blown away by the company atmosphere at Amy’s.
“I’ve always felt a commitment to my community to do as much as I can to serve here,” Higginson said. “I was contacted by Amy’s, and when I went through the interview process, I was just incredibly impressed with the leadership and the values that Amy’s represents: Taking care of their people, making sure that quality is exactly where it should be, and then taking care of customers.”
During the job interview, he was also dazzled by the Pocatello plant itself.
“I was really impressed with just the quality of the facility — how clean it was, how friendly the people were, and it just felt right,” he said. “It felt like something I could really attach to — by serving the community and then by working for a great company I believe has a great future.”
Higginson has been on the job since June, and though he says the job is challenging, he thinks that navigating food manufacturing in a pandemic has made the company stronger.
“We’re learning to support each other more during these difficult times,” he said. “... Every day that I go home, I feel privileged to work with the great people that I have. We have an amazing team that definitely cares about the people that work with us here. I just know that we’re going to continue to get better and better, which is very satisfying to know that you’re contributing within the community that you live in and you’re helping a lot of people to provide for their families and ensure their futures as well.”
‘PUTTING EMPLOYEES FIRST’
Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, the family-owned company that manufactures organic convenience and frozen foods has shown a strong dedication to keeping its employees safe.
“No. 1 is the employees,” Higginson said. “From the beginning, Andy and Rachel Berliner, the owners, they’ve always tried to put employees first in everything that they do.”
At the plant, Amy’s was at the forefront of implementing measures to make sure employees stayed safe when the pandemic hit.
“During COVID, I’ve been incredibly impressed with how Amy’s — from the beginning, even before a lot of people thought it was that big of a deal — (was) investing in masks and putting up barriers and doing all the right things that everyone is being asked to do today,” Higginson said. “They were doing (that) from the outset to make sure that the employees are protected. We’ve seen results: We have a lot fewer cases within our facility than what we’re seeing outside in the community.”
Today, when you walk into Amy’s Kitchen, an employee takes everyone’s temperatures at the door and asks if they have symptoms. If someone is not feeling well, employees are directed to seek treatment, and they can do so at the Pocatello facility’s on-site clinic.
Inside the plant, everyone wears masks and other personal protective equipment. In the working areas, if people cannot be 6 feet apart, there are barriers between employees.
“We early on reduced the number of meals that we were producing so that we could ensure that those who needed to stay home could stay home,” Higginson said. “We are an essential company. A ton of people depend on our food and so we feel our responsibility to produce for our customers, but never at the expense of the safety of our people.”
Amy’s also recently paid for everyone at the plant to be tested for the coronavirus. That move was made “to ensure that we knew that there wasn’t anything happening within the facility and to just make our employees feel more comfortable knowing that the people they work with were safe as well,” Higginson said. “That was a huge expense, which I again appreciated the investment that our company took to do that.”
Higginson says there’s also another big step that the company recently took to show its commitment to its employees: a significant wage increase. Starting wage is now $13.75 an hour, or $28,600 a year for a person working full time. That puts full-time Amy’s employees above the per capita income of Pocatellans as a whole, which is about $24,000 per year, according to census data.
“We made the decision to increase wages as an investment in our employees and the community,” Higginson said. “We want it to be more competitive and our desire is to become an employer of choice. We want it to be a win-win — a place where people can come and make a great living. We want them to come and stay, to contribute to our family here for years and years to come. We just felt like we wanted to become even more competitive and make sure we’re getting the best people within this community.”
Plus, he says that Amy’s will look at employees’ experience and pay them above that new starting wage if applicable.
“Because we’re privately held, we can compensate people for the experience that they have,” Higginson said. “It’s very appealing to a lot of people right now.”
He also says that Amy’s has great benefits for employees, which sets it apart from similar companies.
“Personally I have not seen benefits better than what’s offered here at Amy’s as far as health care and that on-site clinic; the retirement benefits are really great,” Higginson said.
He wants to assure potential new employees that the growth Amy’s has seen in the past few months is unlikely to slow down.
The Idaho State Journal reported in April that the company was looking to hire 50 people for the Pocatello plant to help keep up with demand for products. It ended up hiring 120 people since then and now employs about 800 people.
“Because of the demand, there was a lot of concern that ‘is this just temporary? Is this going to go away when COVID ends?’ But everything is telling us that this growth is absolutely not temporary,” Higginson said. “(COVID) exposed a lot more people to our products and they love them, so we expect this growth to continue, which is great news for this community as well that we have great-paying jobs, and that’s going to continue for years to come.”
Higginson also encourages employees at all levels to contribute their ideas about how to make the company better.
“My biggest thing as plant manager is (I tell my employees), ‘We don’t just need your bodies. We want your minds,’" he said. "Everybody is intelligent and has their own experience and ways in which they can contribute. … We want their ideas. We want their perspectives of how to improve the business in which they work. ... We have what’s called a management operating system where every morning we go out to the floor and we talk to the front-line leaders who are getting information and ideas from their people and they share with us 'here’s what’s happening, here’s what support we need, here’s some ideas we have to improve the processes that we’re working in.'”
He added, “I’m a big believer that the more you teach people correct principles — there’s guidelines of course in food manufacturing that we have to follow to ensure the safety of our people and the safety of our food — but there are so many ways and opportunities to improve our processes as well that’ll make it a better working environment to the people and it’s going to make it a more profitable business that ensures success for everybody for years to come.”
Amy’s Kitchen as well as Higginson also have at the forefront of their minds the idea that they need to take care of the planet.
“One of the main principles of Amy’s is they care very much about the planet, so they’re always looking for ways to reduce the carbon footprint of the facilities that we operate to make sure that we’re doing what’s right for the communities in which we live and operate,” he said.
‘ONCE THEY TRY OUR PRODUCTS, THEY STAY WITH US’
Higginson said the company takes care of its customers by maintaining a standard of excellence. Because of that, customers tend to stay loyal.
“It’s because of the commitment to the customer to always provide them with quality, great-tasting, healthy food,” he said. “Amy’s hasn’t spent a dime on advertising, so all of their growth thus far is word-of-mouth and people finding them at the grocery store and social media. They do a good job with social media, but with this COVID situation, their customers are extremely loyal because of that quality, great-tasting food. Everything we do is organic. It’s healthy.”
The growth in demand in 2020 is likely because of state stay-home orders, resulting in more people eating more food at home.
“As people have had to work at home and have been unable to go out and eat outside of their homes, they’re looking for that healthy option,” Higginson said. “So that’s what’s bringing them to Amy’s, and once we get them and they try our products, they stay with us.”
He said he wasn’t very familiar with Amy’s before he got the job, and it’s been a pleasant surprise to learn more about how the company operates.
“I knew about Amy’s because I was a plant manager at a local manufacturing company, so I made sure to know who is coming into the area,” Higginson said. “But until I decided to interview and pursue this job, I hadn’t really done a lot of research on the beginnings of Amy’s — how much is privately owned, how they’re not profit-driven. They’re just all about creating great food for their customers and looking out for them.”
Because of the increase in demand, the Amy’s Kitchen Pocatello location is expanding its production.
“We’ve definitely experienced an unprecedented level of growth for our soups and frozen products,” Higginson said. “So we are actually expanding production, particularly in soup. We have an automated soup process here that was only running at about 40 percent of its capacity.”
Now, the Pocatello plant has increased soup production by about 50 percent, and demand has also increased for frozen products.
“We’re expanding there as much as we can, but we’re being careful about that because we won’t do that at the expense of our employees’ safety,” he said.
‘BRIGHT THINGS AHEAD’
The future is looking bright for Amy’s as a whole as well.
The company recently bought a plant in San Jose, California, and it is building another one in Goshen, New York.
“This company that started literally in a kitchen by Andy and Rachel is now going to approach $600 million in revenue this year, and it’s incredible that it’s happening with very little marketing,” Higginson said.
He predicts that the company will continue to grow and expand operations, especially in Pocatello.
“What’s exciting about this facility is there’s room to grow,” he said. “We have room to expand here and to improve our manufacturing efficiencies. I think that there are a lot of bright things ahead for Amy’s, as a company and definitely here in Pocatello.”
Higginson is looking forward to both the future of the company and his being a part of such a business.
“As you grow, there are growing pains, but there is such a commitment (here) to continue to improve and to do what’s right by the people, and I’ve never felt supported in the way that I do here,” Higginson said. “As a leader, I’ve always had that desire to do the best for the people, and sometimes in companies you can feel a little torn between making a profit and doing what’s right, and I just don’t feel that here. I truly believe the owners want to do what’s right, and that’s a pretty unusual place. … It’s a pretty awesome place to be.”