Chapel Hill News

McCrory opens Japanese candy plant in Orange County

Hi-Chew is a fruit-flavored, chewable candy similar to Starburst.
Hi-Chew is a fruit-flavored, chewable candy similar to Starburst.

Gov. Pat McCrory and other local officials and leaders spoke Thursday at the Morinaga American Foods Inc. grand opening ceremony in Orange County.

After over three years of planning, Morinaga American Foods, Inc., a subsidiary of Morinaga & Co., Japan’s largest international confectionary and candy maker, celebrated the opening of its first production facility in the United States.

The grand opening ceremony was held at the 21-acre site in Mebane. Morinaga expects to invest $48 million at the new plant by 2017 and has hired 87 employees so far.

While Morinaga & Co. makes chocolates, caramel and biscuits, ice cream and more, the Orange County plant will produce “HI-CHEW,” a chewy fruit-flavored snack, similar to Starburst, that holds the No. 1 spot in Japan.

“I plan to do my part by making HI-CHEW my favorite candy,” said Earl McKee, chairman of Orange County commissioners.

The grand opening included guest speakers, a ribbon cutting and a traditional Japanese sake-barrel breaking, in which a wooden mallet is used to break open the lid of a sake-barrel. On Thursday, this sake-barrel contained HI-CHEW, which McCrory tossed out to the crowd.

McCrory said Morinaga’s management team brought HI-CHEW candy the first time he met with them.

“That’s all it took, one bite and we were friends for life. I took every color,” he said. “I’ve been eating it ever since, and now to have it made right here in North Carolina will mean a lot to our country and to our state.”

Morinaga has been promoting HI-CHEW across the United States by setting up store displays at Target, COSTCO, 7 Eleven and Kroger. HI-CHEW comes in bag and stick varieties in over 140 different flavors. Strawberry, green apple, grape, mango and cherry can be found in the United States. Locally, HI-CHEW can be found at The Streets at Southpoint.

Gota Morinaga, chairman of Morinaga & Co. and grandson of the company’s founder, flew in from Japan to speak at the grand opening. He said they would do their best to contribute to Orange County’s society.

Morinaga began a multi-state search, also known as “Project Rainbow,” to find a HI-CHEW manufacturing location in early 2012.

Steve Brantley, the director of Orange County Economic Development, said Morinaga considered two dozen North Carolina counties, three other states and Canada for the new production facility but ultimately selected Orange County after making repeated visits over the course of 18 months.

He said company officials were impressed with Orange County’s quality of life and values. The site in Mebane also gave them interstate exposure, which would allow their company name to be seen by those driving past on I-85.

Toshiaki Fukunaga, president of Morinaga America Food, Inc., said: “When I began working here I expected that North Carolina, Orange County and the city of Mebane would be wonderful and would provide easy access and excellent workforce. After working here for two years, my expectations were surpassed.”

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Morinaga has agreed to hire up to 90 workers, invest up to $48 million in land, buildings and equipment, and have a $3.4 million annual payroll by Jan. 31, 2018, in return for an incentives package worth more than $2.5 million. The average worke’s salary would be $37,979, with health insurance.