Food plant coming to Halifax

The venture will put 200 to work making use of technology developed at NCSU.

Staff WriterSeptember 17, 2010 

Greg Hatem, who's made a name for himself renovating dozens of downtown Raleigh buildings and filling them with cafes, restaurants and bars, is getting into the food processing business.

Hatem's latest venture, Empire Foods, will open a food processing facility in Halifax County that is expected to create 200 jobs over the next five years. The company will receive state and local incentives worth nearly $2 million if it meets hiring goals.

The company will initially focus on selling large packages of fruits and vegetables to hotels, restaurants, school systems, the military and other institutions.

Empire Foods has licensed technology, originally developed at N.C. State University, that processes food in a way that allows it to retain much of its flavor and nutrients.

"It's going to be great for our restaurants," Hatem said of the venture. "The icing on the cake was being able to do it back in Halifax County where I'm from."

Hatem grew up in Roanoke Rapids and attended NCSU.

Along with his real estate business, Empire Properties, Hatem operates a stable of Raleigh restaurants under the Empire Eats name that includes The Raleigh Times, The Duck & Dumpling and The Pit.

Halifax County officials have agreed to spend as much as $1.5 million building a 35,000-square-foot facility for the company. Empire Foods also will receive a grant worth as much as $400,000 from North Carolina. The company also considered sites in Virginia and Pennsylvania, state officials said Thursday.

Hatem is chairman of Empire Foods, which was formed in November. The company began to take shape when a friend introduced Hatem to J. Michael Drozd.

Drozd, who is Empire Foods' president and CEO, spent the last four years working to commercialize technologies in the food industry through his Raleigh company UltrAseptics.

Empire Foods is licensing its food processing technology from UltrAseptics.

The technology involves rapidly heating and cooling food, such as blueberries or strawberries, so that the enzymes that cause the fruit to spoil are neutralized while the flavor and nutrients are retained.

"It has all the sterility of a can but it maintains all the good stuff of fresh food," Drozd said.

Empire Foods will buy fruits and vegetables from local farmers and convert them into purées or toppings that can be put on a shelf for a year without refrigeration.

The company expects to have its new facility operating by June. Empire Foods will be the first tenant at the new, 700-acre Halifax Corporate Park.

Empire Foods will pay average annual wages of $28,418. The Halifax County average is $25,532.

david.bracken@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4548

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