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High-Tech Facilities Gravitate Toward Land Of Enchantment

New Mexico Ben E. Keith Co.
A rendering of Ben E. Keith Co.'s new foodservice distribution center in Albuquerque.

Last updated on March 25th, 2021 at 07:18 pm

by Terrie Ellerbee/editor-Southwest

It is no small thing when a company like Virgin Galactic relocates jobs to a state. But then, New Mexico went big when it invested more than $200 million in Spaceport America, an 18,000-acre FAA-licensed facility adjacent to the U.S. Army’s White Sands Missile Range and about 45 miles north of Las Cruces. Virgin Founder Richard Branson praised the state for making good on its promise to build a “world-class spaceport.”

“Virgin Galactic is coming home to New Mexico, where together we will open space to change the world for good,” Branson said at the capitol in Santa Fe in May 2019.

To say New Mexico is experiencing a period of increased economic development that is bringing high-tech jobs to the state would understate the case. To name just one other case in point is CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s announcement on Facebook (go figure) that his company is expanding its Los Lunas data center site to almost 1 million s.f., a project that will cost approximately $1 billion.

While it may not be quite the headline-maker that Virgin Galactic or Facebook are, Ben E. Keith Co. also is expanding in the Land of

Todd Hickam Ben E. Keith Co.
Todd Hickam

Enchantment and adding high-tech amenities. The company broke ground in November for a 272,000-s.f. foodservice distribution center in Albuquerque at 601 Gallatin Place NW. It is on track to open in 2021 and will be more than four times the size of the company’s current 64,800-s.f. distribution center on Broadway Boulevard, where it has operated since 1999.

“We’re still growing—and that’s good—in the facility that we’re in and we’ll be able to continue growing with our customers until we open the new facility,” said Todd Hickam, GM of the New Mexico Division. “But the new facility will really open up additional options.”

The division’s territory covers nearly the entire state, with the exception of eastern New Mexico cities like Clovis and Hobbs. (That area is covered by the company’s Amarillo Division.) Hickam’s division also reaches into Southern Colorado, from Alamosa to Durango and Cortez.

The New Mexico arm of Ben E. Keith does not service grocery stores, though it does business with some convenience stores. Its focus is on foodservice for restaurants, hotels, country clubs, golf courses, casinos and hospitals.

Hickam told The Shelby Report that he sees the state’s economic development growth in the rise of new restaurants and hotels.

The New Mexico restaurant industry employs more than 90,000 people and is expected to add another 7,700 jobs by 2029, according to the New Mexico Restaurant Association. To put that into perspective, the state’s population was a little more than 20 million in 2018.

The addition of Ben E. Keith’s new facility is part of the company’s expansion of its foodservice distribution coverage deeper into the Southwest.

“At Ben E. Keith, we say that once the walls are put up in a restaurant, we can provide everything else to that customer,” Hickam said. “It may not all be in stock, such as a booth or table, but we can order those, including the bigger kitchen equipment that they need, and then all the small wares and tabletops. We stock a lot of those or have them just-in-time.”

The new Albuquerque facility will have high-tech features, including Dematic Multi-Shuttles, a state-of-the-art Frick Refrigeration System and security systems, LED lighting, exclusive WMS Systems, a modern test kitchen and a training center.

The Dematic automatic retrieval system will be able to hold as many as 10,000 different trays of product in one aisle per each of the warehouse’s 10 temperature zones. The zones are used for items such as produce, dairy, cheese and meat, as well as fresh center-of-the-plate items. There also is a frozen area.

In the test kitchen, the Ben E. Keith culinary resource team will be able to prepare any menu item customers want. Ben E. Keith also helps develop menus.

“We’re able to provide services to help drive sales and profitability—that allows us to differentiate ourselves from our competitors,” Hickam said.

A training room at the new Gallatin Place location will hold 138 people.  The new facility also will feature six conference rooms.

“We wanted it to be something that our customers and prospective customers can use, as well as the community,” he said.

The project will create 90 new jobs over five years. The number of employees already has increased. Hickam said the current facility had 104 employees in October 2018 and now has increased to 151 workers even before the move to Gallatin Place from Broadway Boulevard.

The new facility will be built with future growth in mind. Hickam said it could expand up to almost 600,000 s.f. if needed.

“The nice thing about that is we’ll be able to add on to those areas and never affect shipping for our current customers,” he said. “If we need it, we have those temperature zones—the dry, cooler and freezer areas—on the campus and the land to be able to add onto as needed.”

In addition to Albuquerque and Amarillo, Ben E. Keith operates in Dallas-Fort Worth, San Antonio, Little Rock, Oklahoma City and Houston.

It also is expanding in Alabama. In 2016, it acquired Kelley Foods, which had both a distribution center and a manufacturing division that produces sausages, hams and custom products. Ben E. Keith plans to expand Kelley Foods’ Elba facility and is building a 425,000-s.f. foodservice distribution center in New Brockton. The company services customers in Florida, Georgia and Mississippi, as well as Alabama, from that facility.

Hickam praised the company’s owners for being supportive of employees by giving teams the tools they need and growing the warehouses.

“We’re very appreciative of ownership investing in the marketplace. I’m excited for our customers and our customer base as they’re going to be able to grow with us, as well as our prospective customers,” Hickam said. “At the end of the day, Ben E. Keith is very conscious of their employees, their customers and their vendors, and this is going to be something that as we grow, people will recognize that we have the very best people in the industry working for Ben E. Keith and that’s what makes a difference for our culture.”

Ben E. Keith was founded in 1906 in Texas, and entered the New Mexico market in 1991, with the purchase of ABC Produce Distributors.


Walmart invests in stores, technology

Walmart also is investing in the state. It announced last April that it would spend $36 million in 2019 to remodel seven stores and add or expand technology-focused initiatives in select stores. The remodeled store locations include:

  •  2701 Carlisle Boulevard NE, Albuquerque;
  •  3500 Coors Boulevard SW, Albuquerque;
  •  3728 North Prince Street, Clovis;
  •  4600 E Main Street, Farmington;
  •  3800 N Lovington Highway, Hobbs;
  •  2250 Main Street NW, Los Lunas; and
  •  3251 Cerrillos Road, Santa Fe.

Walmart says it will continue to create a seamless shopping experience so customers can shop when, where and how they want. Examples of innovations that were launched or expanded this year in New Mexico include:

  •  Grocery pickup—Walmart’s free grocery pickup service expanded to more than a dozen New Mexico stores.
  •  Grocery delivery—The retailer’s delivery service was added to eight stores.
  •  Walmart pickup towers—The 16-ft. tall, high-tech vending machines are capable of fulfilling a customer’s online order in less than a minute once they arrive at the store. To retrieve items, shoppers go to the Pickup Tower and scan the barcode sent to their smartphone. Walmart added eight Pickup Towers to stores across the state.
  •  FAST unloader—Walmart says unloading product has been a highly manual process that has seen little innovation in 50 years. Now, it is installing a new system in backrooms known as FAST that automatically scans and sorts items that come off trucks based on priority and department. Walmart said it would expand FAST to 18 stores across the state.
  •  Autonomous floor scrubber—The autonomous floor scrubber uses assisted autonomy technology to perform the task of cleaning and scrubbing the concrete floors in stores. The company expanded it to 22 stores.

Walmart operates one distribution center in New Mexico and employs more than 14,300 people in the state. As of Oct. 31, 2019, Walmart operates 35 supercenters, nine Neighborhood Markets, seven Sam’s Clubs and two discount stores.

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