Opinion

Johnny’s, Nalley’s, others gave Tacoma flavor

Johnny Meaker, founder of Johnny’s Fine Foods and Johnny’s Dock, was 92 when this photo was taken and he still tended to business everyday at the seasoning company he started in 1956, Johnny's Enterprises, Inc. The cigar was often in his hand.
Johnny Meaker, founder of Johnny’s Fine Foods and Johnny’s Dock, was 92 when this photo was taken and he still tended to business everyday at the seasoning company he started in 1956, Johnny's Enterprises, Inc. The cigar was often in his hand. News Tribune file photo, 1997

“Out with the old, in with the new” is an aphorism often used with the arrival of a new year, and it certainly applies to the Tacoma business scene as 2017 turns the corner into 2018.

Tacoma’s food products industry, in particular, will see some notable comings and goings. The changes not only point to the continued decline of a once-formidable slice of the local economy, they also underscore trends in the world food supply chain.

Johnny’s Fine Foods, which has made seasonings in Tacoma since the mid 1950s and occupied its Dome District location since the early ‘80s, will move the last of its production line to King County in the next week or so. A partner company in Woodinville is taking over manufacturing. Fifteen local jobs will be lost.

Johnny’s relocation marks the end of an era that began when Johnny Meaker, the son of a butcher, started selling the iconic Johnny’s Seasoning Salt he rubbed on meat at the equally iconic Johnny’s Dock restaurant on the Foss Waterway. Over more than five decades, the company has expanded into dressings, marinades, spreads and an array of spices — a niche business that managed to survive in an industry dominated by brands like Schilling and McCormick.

While Tacoma gained notoriety for an unpleasant aroma, those who visited Johnny’s nondescript building on East 25th Street savored its melange of scents.

Johnny’s will retain a corporate presence in Tacoma, at least for now. As for the new manufacturing arrangement: “It’s hard, but it’s one of the things you have to do to move on,” President and CEO Kevin Ruda told TNT reporter Kate Martin.

The food industry has done a lot of “moving on” from Tacoma in the last decade, chiefly with the departure of Nalley’s Fine Foods, but also with the downsizing of companies such as Roman Meal. Losing these 50- to 100-year-old institutions strikes a blow to the economy by shrinking payroll and tax revenue, while also hurting community pride and philanthropy. (Roman Meal’s long title sponsorship of the Sound to Narrows fun run is history.)

You can still buy a can of Nalley’s chili, made at an Iowa plant under one of many brands owned by a New Jersey food conglomerate, and you’ll still be able to buy a bottle of Johnny’s Seasoning Salt. But without their Tacoma ties, they don’t pack quite the same flavor.

Meanwhile, on the positive side of the ledger, the TNT reported this week that international frozen-food supplier NewCold plans to open a $50 million warehouse in South Tacoma in the next month or so.

The employment promised by the Dutch company’s “cube” warehouse — an estimated 100 jobs by the end of 2018 — will more than make up for Johnny’s job cuts. And yet there’s no mistaking Tacoma is losing its grip on its heritage as a food manufacturing city; it’s trading home-grown products and hands-on entrepreneurship for a place down the supply chain as a hub for food storage, financed by outside owners and built on robotics technology.

Go ahead and take a moment to mourn the change. Then let’s get busy making sure we aren’t left behind.

Tacoma needs reliable tax and land-use policies to stay competitive in the agribusiness game. We need a technically proficient workforce to keep up with the shift to more automated production. We need aggressive efforts to market available sites at the Port of Tacoma and in the Nalley Valley. And we mustn’t take for granted local fixtures such as Brown and Haley and its century-old Dome District candy plant.

Make no mistake: There’s still room for food entrepreneurs here. We must cultivate a supportive environment for small startups to ensure more success stories like Lynnae’s Gourmet Pickles.

Tacoma will miss Johnny’s Seasoning, but we’re confident this city will prove it’s still worth its salt.

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