Sweet potatoes have been around since the dawn of man. Wayne E. Bailey Produce, Inc.
(WEB) has been in existence since 1935. Here's the history of the company:
When Strawberries Were King
Wayne E. Bailey and his partner, Bernard Peal, were big buyers of strawberries back in the 1930's and 1940's when Chadbourn, NC was known as the Klondike strawberry capital of the world.
"Bailey owned part of the strawberry market in Chadbourn", recalled George Wooten, current president of the company. "One day in 1942, the market was opening up and he and his partner said they were going to buy every strawberry that came across the market. At 2:00 in the afternoon, the local banker, Lacy Tate, who had a lot of loans out to local farmers, saw all the out-of-town buyers on the street and was worried that the market had closed. When he asked the buyers about it, they said they couldn't buy anything with 'those two playboys' down there.
"That was how we got the Playboy label, but in those days, a playboy was a classy, outgoing kind of guy, not what you think of today."
New Leadership in 1970
In 1970, Bailey's son, Elroy, took the leadership role and with it challenged and changed the sales paradigm of the company. These changes served as a springboard for his successor, stepson George Wooten, who joined the company in 1977. "I told my stepfather I'd like to try to sell some sweet potatoes," Wooten remembered. "He said we didn't really have any to sell, but told me I could take the Blue Book (a produce industry credit reference book) and start calling. But he said not to drop the price. I called for a couple of years without much success."
One reason is that sweet potatoes were traditionally a seasonal, holiday item back then. Wooten, however, saw their potential and set out to market them year-round.
A Devastating Fire Leads to Unprecedented Growth Opportunities
In 1978, the company's warehouse and packing facility burned to the ground and they had to build a new facility. "In the old facility," Wooten said, "we handled sweet potatoes in bushel baskets which we were stacking by hand. We could only store about 50,000 bushels and in those days our packout was 85 to 90 percent.
"When the building burned, we built storage for 90,000 to 100,000 bushels and my stepfather let me be a little more aggressive since we had some extra supplies."
That same year, Wooten attended the annual convention of the Produce Marketing Association for the first time and began to get ideas. The company began exhibiting the following year and has not missed a show since. They also had to build more storage.
"Our original new building had 30,000 square feet and now (2006) we've got about 90,000 square feet," according to Wooten.
In 1989, WEB bought Sampson Produce Company in Clinton, NC, and changed the name of the firm to Pride of Sampson. It has approximately 70,000 square feet of storage. "When we started exhibiting at the conventions, we started expanding and our sales became greater than we could handle at our own facility. We buy sweet potatoes from farmers in the fall and then we also buy them from farmers who have their own on-market storage. Then we market them," Wooten said.
It was back then that Wooten began eying the foodservice market. The firm decided to purchase an electronic sizer from Hagan Engineering, Inc. to pack not only retail packs but also sizes that would meet the diverse needs of restaurant chains and other foodservice customers.
"It's been steadily growing ever since," Wooten said. "It's going to continue to mushroom. There is more and more interest. A lot of steak houses serve sweet potatoes and quite a few family restaurants are serving them every day."
George Wooten Named President in 1991
Wooten's gift for marketing, development of customized packs, and thirst for innovation has driven the company to be a leader in the sweet potato industry.
The results have been beneficial not only to this company and to the entire sweet potato industry, but to the local economy as well. Sales of approximately 50,000 bushels (2.5 million lbs.) per year in the 1970's have increased to over 1.5 million cartons (60 million lbs.) per year. Employment has gone from five full time employees to over 30 full-time and approximately 400 total employees.
"We have since added several local storage facilities as well as storage and packing facilities in Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas. On August 30, 2007, we moved into a brand new facility that has 229,000 square feet featuring the most modern equipment in the industry," he continued.
George Wooten is the driving force to push the company into the future with innovative ideas facilitated by state of the art technology. The company utilizes forced air curing to enhance the taste and extend the shelf life of the sweet potato. Climate controlled storage helps to maintain good quality. Computer sizing allows WEB to sort and pack their product to meet the customers’ preferred size and quality. With the assistance of research and expertise from North Carolina State University and other consultants, the company is constantly striving for a more efficient operation and the development of a high yield, top quality sweet potato variety that will be more appealing to the consumer and more profitable for the farmer.
Fourth Generation Set to Continue Growth
Now with George Wooten III and Adam Wooten, George’s sons, working in the company, it is a fourth generation family business.
Wayne E. Bailey Produce Company employees see this company as the innovator in the sweet potato industry. This innovation has sparked our growth and the ideas and opportunities continue to develop. We provide an extensive market for the farmer's crops through creative marketing to the retail, wholesale, and food service industries throughout this country, Canada, and the United Kingdom. Along with these industries, we also work with hunger relief organizations as part of our ministry effort. For the last 20 years we have been able to provide sweet potatoes to these different segments of the industry year-round.
Wooten is doing everything he can to make sweet potatoes convenient - and attractive - for consumers. WEB packs sweet potatoes in size ranges from the standard pack to the large pack. The company offers special packs for foodservice and other customers who want specific sizes within a two-ounce range, starting with five-to-seven-ounce packs in two-ounce increments all the way up to 16-to-18-ounce packs.
"We strive to give each customer the pack they order," Wooten mentioned. "Our biggest opportunity is in consumer bagging. With the positive press sweet potatoes have been receiving (as a superfood), we see tremendous growth ahead!"
As indicated above, Wayne E. Bailey Produce has grown tremendously through the years. The company has constructed, enlarged, rented, and bought facilities in various locations. Multiple locations have advantages when they are strategically located based on supplies, customers, etc. Such is the case with having multiple locations in North Carolina, Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas.
New Products for a New Century
Additionally, we have been innovative with our marketing strategies. Now, with the addition of George Foods to our family in 2006, we have a great opportunity to bring value-added processing capability of sweet potatoes as well as other agricultural products. This will provide opportunity for greater profit margins for the growers and packers for off-grade product.
George Foods now offers the following fresh-cut sweet potato value-added products:
- Sliced (with or without skin)
- Slabs (with or without skin)
- Crinkle-cut Slabs (with or without skin)
- Whole Peeled
- Puree - Chilled and Frozen
Wayne E. Bailey Produce is poised to continue serving the world with fresh sweet potatoes. New facilities, new equipment and growing the sweet potato category will ensure the company's future.