For Rich and Mary Clemson, success comes in all shapes and sizes.
There’s stringy spaghetti, curly macaroni and flat fetuccini. There’s pasta hearts, pasta bells, pasta bows and pasta trees.
At Pasta USA, the Clemsons’ food processing company in Hillyard, there are 61 different shapes in all to satisfy a growing appetite for carbohydrates from Spokane to Siberia.
The Clemsons, a pair of Spokane high school graduates who knew little about making food seven years ago, have turned a small, aging local company into a national concern that produces enough pasta to feed 1.5 million people a year.
“Flour and water, that’s pretty much what we’re about,” says Mary, 39.
The company is housed in a new $3 million, state-of-the art processing plant.
When the Clemsons bought the 79-year-old company from the DeFelice family in 1988, it employed 17 people and posted annual sales of $1.3 million with output of 6 million pounds of pasta. Now the company employs 50 people, running a seven-day-a-week factory that generates in excess of $5 million in sales and 30 million to 40 million pounds of pasta.
The Clemsons, who juggle duties as new parents with their 50-hour work weeks, expect to double sales this year and repeat the feat in 1996. That’s when they’ll shut down their old downtown operation and move the last production line to the Hillyard plant.
“We simply can’t squeeze out any more product,” says Rich Clemson, a hands-on executive who wears bluejeans and matching gray socks and sweatshirt to work. “Our sales always have been limited by production capacity.”
Shoppers may recognize Pasta USA brands - Italian Chef, Betty Baker, Pasta Vitale and Earth Life, an organic product. But the company also manufactures and packages tons of pasta for other companies under various private labels.
The Clemsons sell pasta and noodles (noodles are composed of a minimum of 5.5 percent egg) to more than 75 food companies and distributors, servicing grocery stores and restaurants. About 75 percent of sales are outside Washington state.
A national consumer trend to use pasta as a healthy substitute for other dishes has contributed to the Clemson’s success. The average American, according to the National Pasta Association in Virginia, has increased annual consumption of pasta from 17 to 20 pounds in the past five years. That may grow to 25 pounds by 1999, the association says.
The Clemson’s imagination and energy for business also has spurred big gains at their company.
Just changing the name to Pasta USA was a coup. Buyers from Russian and other nations regularly place orders because “they think it’s the biggest pasta company in the country,” Rich Clemson says.
Pasta USA has grown so fast it lost its most famous Spokane customer last year - Buckeye Beans & Herbs. Jill Smith, co-owner of the award-winning packaged soup company, says she made a friendly split with Pasta USA when it began focusing on larger accounts. But the Clemsons say they’d like to get Buckeye’s business back.
Pasta USA is located next door to Buckeye in a 58,000-square-foot building that was built along a rail spur. The company receives durum flour directly by railcar from Montana and North Dakota mills.
Pasta USA currently operates 100-foot pasta makers that press dough through dies. Spaghetti drips across long arms that lead the dancing noodles into massive dryers that cut and dehydrate the pasta. The brittle noodles are transported on overhead buckets into a packaging warehouse and shot into macaroni boxes and shrink-wrap bags.
Clemson says he tries to make Pasta USA an enjoyable place to work. He promotes from within, pays employees based on performance and encourages an informal dress code.
“This rapid growth is heady stuff,” says Clemson, who gets a rush during off hours jumping wakes on his jet ski. “I like to have fun and everybody tries to do the best they can.”
The Clemsons, who once owned an interior construction firm, were attracted to pasta because there’s a steady demand for the product.
But earning a profit can be a challenge. Rising costs of flour and paper for packaging have eaten into Pasta USA’s profits. That’s got the Clemsons thinking about cutting their freight costs by locating a second factory on the East Coast sometime after 1997.
“Our first priority is to get production up to full steam, and then we’ll start looking at what’s next,” Clemson says.
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Photo