FULLERTON — Hunt-Wesson Inc. said Friday it will close its historic Hunt Foods tomato processing plant, one of Southern California's largest remaining food canning facilities, laying off 325 full-time workers and eliminating 450 seasonal canning jobs.
The Fullerton plant was the late billionaire Norton Simon's first food-processing business, which he grew into the multibillion-dollar Hunt-Wesson powerhouse. He used proceeds from what became the world's largest tomato processing operation to assemble his renowned art collection.
The shutdown is part of parent ConAgra Inc.'s recently announced plan to lay off 6,500 of its 90,000 workers in a major restructuring of the nation's second-largest food company.
The 62-year-old Hunt-Wesson plant, which is scheduled to be closed next year, is the victim of Orange County's urbanization. Company officials said it no longer made sense to keep an operation that is next door to thousands of homes, saddled with expensive environmental control requirements and miles from the nearest tomato fields.
Other units of ConAgra's Fullerton-based ConAgra Grocery Products Co. subsidiary, which includes the Hunt-Wesson operations, will not be affected by the corporate downsizing.
In all, ConAgra Grocery Products has about 2,000 employees in Orange County, most of them working for Hunt-Wesson.
Industry analysts said the relatively light hit in Orange County was not surprising. Most of the cutbacks were expected to fall on the conglomerate's troubled frozen foods units in the East and Midwest. In addition to the Fullerton tomato processing plant, Hunt-Wesson also will close a 230-employee can-making factory in Hayward in Northern California and a 33-worker peanut-shelling operation in Georgia that serves its Peter Pan peanut butter processing plant there.
The Hunt-Wesson division of ConAgra Grocery Products, with about $2.4 billion in annual sales, is one of the company's most profitable operations, said Weslie Moultrie, an analyst with Duff & Phelps Credit Rating Co. in Chicago.
Hunt-Wesson canning plant workers will be offered severance packages, said spokeswoman Kay Carpenter. Terms for hourly employees must still be worked out with the Teamsters and Office Employees union locals that represent them, she said.
With the closure still a year away, the plant and its white-coated, rubber-gloved, juice-reddened workers will get one more season to process millions of pounds of tomatoes into catsup, tomato paste, tomato and spaghetti sauces and canned tomatoes.
But after June 1997, Hunt-Wesson's tomato processing will be handled by newer, less expensive plants in three Northern California cities, said Hunt Foods Predient Ed Snell.
The Fullerton plant began in the late 1920s as an orange juice processing facility that quickly went bankrupt.
In 1931, it was acquired by Los Angeles entrepreneur Simon, then 36, for $7,000. Simon turned it into a $9-million-a-year company and in 1943 used proceeds from his orange juice business to acquire a San Francisco-based tomato processing business, Hunt Brothers Packing Co.
He move the headquarters to Fullerton, turned the juice plant into a tomato processing operation, changed the name to Hunt Foods and started turning out tomato products in a bright red can.
Simon acquired Wesson Co. in the early 1950s and merged the vegetable oil processor with the food company to form Hunt-Wesson Foods Inc., a company that became the foundation of the late industrialist-art collector's Norton Simon Industries.
Hunt-Wesson's ownership remained stable for the next 40 years, until Chicago-based food conglomerate Esmark acquired Norton Simon Industries in 1983. Several ownership changes quickly followed as Chicago's Beatrice Co., a private investment group and finally ConAgra acquired Hunt-Wesson.
The closing of the Hunt plant in Fullerton adds to the woes of a canning industry in Southern California that has been declining for the last two decades. The seafood canning business on Terminal Island, for example, has lost most of its canneries and the thousands of workers there.
Total employment in the state's fruit- and vegetable-canning industry has held relatively steady in the last two decades at about 50,000, but the work has continued to shift to the Central Valley, closer to the foods' source, analysts said.
"Canning is going to be where the products are," said Ellie Jordan, an analyst with the Employment Development Department in Orange County--where most of the orange groves have long given way to tract homes and industrial parks.
Times staff writer Don Lee and researcher Janice Jones contributed to this story.