You might not know the name, but Lakeside Foods is likely part of your Thanksgiving dinner

MANITOWOC – If you plan to buy store brand canned corn or green beans this Thanksgiving, there’s a decent chance those veggies will have come from Lakeside Foods. Same goes for that dollop of whipped topping on your pumpkin pie. 

The Wisconsin-based food manufacturer may not get all the glory for its private label products, but its reach is vast.

President and CEO Glen Tellock says Lakeside Foods and one other competitor combine to account for about 90% of the private label vegetable canning market. 

Lakeside’s joint venture with another company also makes the vegetable giant one of the largest private label producers of store brand versions of Cool Whip.

Whipped topping isn’t Lakeside’s only non-vegetable endeavor. Through a combination of joint ventures and acquisitions in the past five years, Lakeside now cans pet food, produces ready-to-drink smoothies and makes baked beans and deep-fried cheese curds. 

As Lakeside diversifies, it’s still growing its vegetable business. It recently opened a $40-million addition to its packaging center, where hundreds of millions of pounds of veggies are processed each year for more than 100 private labels. 

Despite the growth and diversification, Manitowoc remains home to Lakeside headquarters. It’s the city where Lakeside started in the kitchen of a small hotel with a single product: canned peas.

From canned peas to 85,000 acres of vegetables

When Lakeside Foods founder Albert Landreth first began canning peas in 1887, Grover Cleveland presided over just 38 states. Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show made headlines for opening in London as part of Queen Victoria’s Jubilee celebration.

After perfecting pea canning in the hotel, Landreth built a plant to pack peas and sell them under the Lakeside brand. But it’s unlikely that Landreth envisioned a day when canned vegetables from his company would be shipped to 50 states and parts of Europe.

Albert Landtreth started Lakeside Foods in Manitowoc.

Albert Landtreth started Lakeside Foods in Manitowoc. (Photo: Courtesy of Lakeside Foods)

Lakeside started working with local farmers for its supply of green beans, corn, carrots, beets and tomatoes. A partnership with the University of Wisconsin’s College of Agriculture helped improve quality control.

Expanded vegetable varieties and better quality sparked company growth, which led to expansions at the original location, new facilities in other Wisconsin communities and the purchase of canning plants from smaller companies. 

A 1930s Lakeside Foods can label. Eventually the Lakeside brands disappeared as the company switched to provide private label packaging.

A 1930s Lakeside Foods can label. Eventually the Lakeside brands disappeared as the company switched to provide private label packaging. (Photo: Courtesy of Lakeside Foods)

In the 1950s, Lakeside moved away from having its own consumer-facing brand to focus on filling private label orders.

It began packaging frozen vegetables in the ’80s. 

Today, Lakeside contracts with farmers growing vegetables on more than 85,000 acres near its 10 plants that process vegetables in Minnesota and Wisconsin. As part of the contracts, Lakeside provides seed, checks on the farms and handles harvesting to keep a steady supply of vegetables coming in by the semi-truck load from June through November.

Wisconsin grown, despite short growing season

Most of Lakeside’s vegetables — peas, lima beans, carrots, beets, green beans and corn — are grown in Wisconsin and neighboring states.

What the Midwest lacks in growing season length, says Tellock, it makes up in other ways.

Most notably its fertile soil produces a big variety of produce.

“It’s a short growing season,” Tellock said. “But it’s a good growing season.”  

Bean harvesting near Mishicot for Lakeside Foods.

Bean harvesting near Mishicot for Lakeside Foods. (Photo: Courtesy of Lakeside Foods)

Not every vegetable packaged by Lakeside comes from the Midwest. Broccoli, cauliflower and spinach grow better in southern states. Though Lakeside will go further south when needed including sourcing asparagus from Peru.

For the past two years, the Midwest’s growing season has been plagued by record rain falls. Rain pushes back the harvest and subsequently the canning of vegetables. Corn wrapped up Oct. 21, says Tellock, but typically it would be done the first week of October. 

But regardless of the the inconsistencies of weather, Tellock says, the growing gets done thanks to an agricultural mentality. 

“It’s that Midwestern culture of, ‘What do we need to do to get it done and not just sit and whine about it and cry?'” said Tellock. “That mentality throughout Wisconsin and Minnesota works well for what we do.” 

Steeped in history, but adapting to trends

Lakeside Foods is appropriately named. From the parking lot of the original canning plant you can see the S.S. Badger car ferry coming and going on daily runs across Lake Michigan. When the wind is right, as it was during our late October tour, you can see massive white caps smashing the shoreline.

There are wide, wooden plank floors and exposed brick in the section of the original plant that now houses maintenance equipment and operations. There have been at least six additions to this building, and that’s where the work of cleaning, slicing and canning or freezing vegetables gets done. 

Carrots are brought into Lakeside Foods to be processed at the original site in Manitowoc. The company has grown to include 13 production facilities, mostly in Wisconsin. (Photo: Sarah Kloepping/USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin)

It starts with a semi load of vegetables. At the Manitowoc location, the vegetables are green beans or carrots. Both are grown in nearby fields. Green beans are processed from July through September then carrots from October into November. Each day about 400 tons of carrots get processed during the height of the harvest. 

Vegetables are cleaned, cut and separated by size for consistency. With a consistent cut ensured, carrots are diverted to either the freezer tunnels or the canning line.

A Lakeside Foods employee processes carrots oat the company's plant in Manitowoc.  The company is one of the largest private-label processors of carrots and other vegetables in the United States.

A Lakeside Foods employee processes carrots at the company’s plant in Manitowoc. The company is one of the largest private-label processors of carrots and other vegetables in the United States. (Photo: Sarah Kloepping/USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin)

Carrots and green beans destined for freezer bags are cold-blasted from fresh to frozen in a matter of minutes during a ride on a conveyor belt through one of two freezer tunnels. 

Meanwhile cans zig-zag down metal rails to catch carrots and water before zooming along to get lids swiftly sealed. Without stopping, they move on to a short stint in cookers reaching upward of 245 degrees to kill off any harmful bacteria.

Lakeside cans and freezes vegetables at sites in Minnesota and Wisconsin with more than 850 year-round employees and more than 1,000 seasonal workers.

Lakeside doesn’t dominate the frozen veggie market to the extent it does the canned, says Tellock, but it’s a big player and growing. It added 100,000 square feet to its frozen foods packaging center. 

Here, bright lights illuminate the process of space-age blue plastic conveyors moving carrots, peas, corn and other cuts of vegetables in vibrant hues of orange, green and yellow to be bagged and sealed. Bags get packed into shipping boxes by robots.

The new packaging center enables Lakeside to keep up with ever changing consumer tastes and trends.

“With the new packaging center we can do new blends,” said Tellock. “We can take advantage of those trends.”

Right now this includes carb replacements like riced cauliflower. Lakeside is also working on Brussels sprouts with Balsamic vinegar. But whatever vegetable becomes the next kale, Lakeside is ready to meet the challenge. 

Beyond vegetables

Vegetables pay the bills and keep the lights on, says Tellock, but diversifying smooths out the ups and downs for Lakeside Foods.

In 2000 Lakeside and Interstate Food Processing Corporation formed Peak Foods in Troy, Ohio, and began producing private label tubs of whipped topping. Today it’s one of the two largest suppliers of private label bowl whipped topping in North America.

About five years ago, Fromm Family Pet Food wanted to add canned dog and cat food to its lineup. One of Lakeside’s former employees worked for Fromm, says Tellock, and suggested Lakeside because it had the capacity to take on the canning process. It’s now become a full-time operation at Lakeside’s Eden facility near Fond du Lac. 

Lakeside also purchased Arkansas-based Good Eats Food Co. Among Good Eats’ products is Serious Bean Co., makers of baked beans in flavors like Southern Mustard Q BBQ Beans, Dr. Pepper Baked Beans and Buckin’ Buffalo Beans. 

This year Peak Foods added Blendtopia — a Nashville startup company that makes nutritionally-rich smoothies — to its production.

Closer to home, Lakeside purchased Riverside Foods in Two Rivers in 2018. Riverside’s growing sales of frozen appetizers, including cheese curds at restaurants in Wisconsin and across the Midwest, have the facility operating at full capacity. Plans are in the works for a $6.9-million expansion for more storage and production space.

Now with cheese curds and an agricultural mentality, there’s no telling what’s in store for the next 130 years at Lakeside Foods.

Daniel Higgins, Green Bay Press-Gazette

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