By Lawrence Bivins

Italy’s love affair with sweet treats began 800 years ago when Venetian merchants acquired sugarcane farms in what today is Lebanon. The story’s latest chapter has brought opportunity to Rocky Mount in the form of Nutkao S.r.l.’s 100,000-sq.-ft. production facility at Whitaker Business & Industry Center. The company’s plant there makes nut butters laced with chocolate and other sweet flavors.

“We started out as a very small company producing hazelnut spread,” explains Davide Braida, president of Nutkao USA. Braida’s father, Giuseppe, established the parent company in 1982 in the Cuneo province of northern Italy. Still privately held, Nutkao exceeded 120 million euros (nearly $130 million) in sales in 2016. Its products are sold to consumers as toppings and dipping packs that contain breadsticks for easy snacking. Nutkao supplies spreads for private-label buyers such as Kroger and Aldi supermarkets, and its buyers also include other food processors. “Our product goes into cookies, cakes, croissants – even ice cream,” Braida says.

Nearly half the company’s product is consumed outside of Italy, and that’s where Nutkao’s Rocky Mount operations come into play. In 2012, an emerging taste for Nutkao spreads in North America prompted discussion of a second plant, one closer to markets in Canada, Mexico and the U.S. The Braida family worked with an Italian site selection consultant to explore potential locations in Georgia, Kentucky and the Carolinas. In late 2013, they announced their selection of Rocky Mount for the plant, an investment potentially worth $74 million.

“Here we made a facility that is a mirror of the one we have in Italy — the same machinery, the same technology, the same product,” Braida says.

Rocky Mount’s convenience to the company’s growing markets was central to Nutkao’s choice. “Logistically, this is a good place,” Braida says. “We are exactly in the middle.” With raw materials coming in from abroad – mainly hazelnuts from Turkey – easy access to the Port of Norfolk was a consideration. Placing its North American location in the Eastern Time Zone means the plant shares half its work day with that of its European headquarters. “We have all the morning we can deal with Italy,” he says.

Labor costs are comparable to what the company is used to paying in Italy, an important consideration given that Nutkao’s primary competitors are also European companies. The firm is benefiting from a $210,000 One North Carolina Fund grant as it fills out its workforce, and Nash Community College is providing about $60,000 in free customized employee training. “They provide all our training,” Braida says. New hires undertake instruction in safety, hygiene, equipment operation and other topics. They are also taught the metric system, the international measures Nutkao uses to monitor and manage volume and temperature. “It’s a mindset we teach and refresh all our employees on,” he says.

The company’s Rocky Mount site employed 30 workers as of early 2017. Braida expects that number to grow as Nutkao cultivates more North American demand for its products. Its spreads are already found on the shelves of Safeway and Harris-Teeter and other grocery retailers. “We are also looking for growth in food service,” Braida says. “That can be a big business in the U.S.”

And the company’s Rocky Mount facility has room to grow. “We designed the building so that they can expand it easily to another 50,000 square feet,” says Leigh Ballance, partner at MidAtlantic Lease and Development, which developed the one-time spec building and later upfitted it to meet Nutkao’s unique needs. Ballance says the company knew exactly what it wanting in a facility, which made readying the building move quickly. “The company and its engineers had a really good idea of what they needed,” Ballance says. Effort went into creating temperature controlled rooms, installing insulated paneling and raising a section of the ceiling to accommodate the company’s tall storage tanks. “It is a showcase for a food-grade processing facility,” Ballance says of the building. “They focus on the quality of their product, and that’s what sets the company apart.”

Speculative buildings speed the ramp-up of arriving manufacturers from the location decision to ribbon cutting, explains Robby Davis, chairman of the Nash County Board of Commissioners. “We were successful with Nutkao because we had a building that met the specifications they needed,” says Davis, who helps lead the county’s economic development efforts. “Every industry seems to be in a hurry to get their plant open,” he says. In the case of Nutkao, Nash County had a fully developed industrial park that was already home to major food names like Poppies and Cheesecake Factory, as well as a large shell building awaiting occupancy. “That took maybe as much as a year off their build-out,” Davis says.

Local leaders were pivotal in Nutkao’s decision to base its North American operations in Nash County, Braida says. “The Carolinas Gateway Partnership was a big help to us,” he says, leading the company not just to the building but also to MidAtlantic as a potential real estate partner. “This was a big step for us,” he says.

Nutkao brought several key employees from Italy, including Briada’s wife, Barbara, who works as the company’s quality assurance manager. The personal transition from northern Italy to eastern North Carolina hasn’t been difficult. “We’re used to the country, not cities,” he says. “We love the weather in North Carolina. It’s quiet and it’s a nice place to live.” He also enjoys having access to Raleigh’s cultural amenities, which are less than an hour away by car. The couple takes in ballet, opera and theater performances there, recently catching a production of Madame Butterfly in its native Italian. “It’s a very active city,” he says.

[Lawrence Bivins is a contributing editor at the North Carolina Economic Development Guide.]