Sconza Candy Co., a maker of gourmet chocolates and nuts, announced Friday that it is buying the former Hershey Co. plant in Oakdale with plans to start production this year.
Sconza is a family-owned candy maker founded in 1939. It is moving its operation from Oakland to Oakdale, where it will make chocolate-covered nuts and fruit, toffee-covered nuts, Jordan almonds and other candies.
"We outgrew our facility in Oakland, and it was an amazing opportunity because there are not that many food-grade facilities that become available on the West Coast," said Janet Sconza- Angers, vice president of customer relations. "It was an ideal opportunity."
The operation typically employs 100 to 130 people, depending upon the season.
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Sconza-Angers said the company isn't sure how many of its Oakland staff will move to Oakdale, but it expects to hire "many of our employees from the local valley communities." Pay and benefits are comparable to other valley wages, she said.
The Hershey factory had 575 employees when its closure was announced in April. In the months that followed, the company let go hundreds of workers in three rounds of layoffs.
Hershey stopped producing candy in February. The 615,000-square-foot plant has been listed for sale with Stockton-based CB Richard Ellis for $18.5 million. Sconza would not disclose what it paid.
The sale is expected to be completed by May, and Sconza plans to begin producing candy in Oakdale by October 1.
Oakdale Mayor Farrell Jackson said Sconza is a large operation that's run like a family business, which would make it a good fit for Oakdale.
"Obviously, it's a great thing, and I think Sconza and Oakdale will pair up quite well," he said.
Role in Chocolate Festival
Jackson said Sconza officials expressed interest in becoming a big part of the city and were interested in becoming involved in the city's Chocolate Festival in May.
He said Sconza had assured him that former Hershey employees would be at the top of Sconza's list for employment opportunities.
Many former Hershey workers would be thrilled to hear that news, said Rose Hernandez, who worked at the Hershey plant for 25 years and left in January.
"I'm just surprised," she said. "(The buyer) was a secret for so long. No one spilled the beans."
Hernandez, 54, said she is going to stick with her plans to retrain to enter the medical field, but she would enjoy working at the plant while in school.
Jackson and City Manager Steven Hallam said there were two key factors that attracted Sconza to the Hershey site.
One was the factory's inclusion in Stanislaus County's enterprise zone, a designation that gives tax breaks to companies.
The other was the City Council's decision last month to finish an intersection at South Yosemite Avenue and Warnerville Road with a stoplight. Doing so created a second entrance and exit for the plant, Jackson said.
Hallam said the city had heard of inquiries from as many as three companies about the Hershey site, which helped prompt the council's decision to finish the intersection.
Jackson added that Sconza officials liked that they were moving to a city small enough that a meeting with Hallam and other city leaders could be arranged at a moment's notice.
Goal: Add products, jobs
Hallam said Sconza officials plan to expand their product line, which would mean adding workers.
Sconza plans to use the Chocolate Festival not only as an introduction to the city, but as a job fair of sorts, Hallam said.
"It seems like the things they want to do will be a wonderful match for the work force in Oakdale and the region," Hallam said. "And I'm glad that factory won't be shuttered up."
One of Sconza's main products is Jordan almonds, a fresh nut in a candy shell. That could help re-establish a connection between area almond growers and the factory, which used local nuts when Hershey was in operation.
Dave Phippen, a Ripon almond grower and past chairman of the California Almond Board, said Sconza's announcement is great news for local growers.
"It can do nothing but help us," he said, adding that he hopes Sconza will need local dairy products, which Hershey used.
Sconza-Angers said the company has a "lot of great friends in the valley" that supply the com-pany with nuts and fruits for its confections.
"It will be an enhancement of that relationship," she said.
Paul Van Konynenburg, chairman of the Stanislaus Economic Development and Workforce Alliance board, said he was pleased with the quick turnaround of the plant.
"It shows great confidence in Oakdale, because if Hershey can go somewhere else, then other people can go other places," he said. "This is a good vote of confidence for what Oakdale has to offer."
Bee staff writer Christina Salerno can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 238-4574.