For the fourth year, The National Provisioner has had a bevy of top-notch options for voters in its annual Plant of the Year competition — all the processing facilities that our editorial staff visited for cover stories from June 2014 through May 2015 were nominated.

We thank all of you for your trust and access, to allow us to stick closely to our mission to give our readers that unmatched, first-hand look into the operations of some of the most innovative and progressive processors in the business.

Nearly 2,400 readers responded, and when the polls closed, Rastelli Foods’ Swedesboro, N.J., processing plant held on by a mere 19 votes to win the 2015 Plant of the Year award! It stands as the closest “photo finish” in the four-year history of the contest.

Rastelli Foods was profiled in our October 2014 issue in a story discussing the wide-ranging success this New Jersey processor has found across a variety of businesses and channels. The company truly has set an example for others in terms of diversification and growth. Read the story here.

This month, Andy Hanacek, editor-in-chief of The National Provisioner, checked in with Rastelli Foods to congratulate them and get an update as to what has changed at the plant since his visit last year. Ray Rastelli, owner and president of Rastelli Foods Group, offered the following updates on the projects that have been completed and are under way now at the facility:

Q: It’s been nearly a year since I visited Rastelli Foods’ Swedesboro, N.J., facility, and the foundation had just been laid for a major expansion when I visited, if I remember correctly. When did construction wind up and production start on that expansion? How did the startup go (assuming it’s running full bore now)?

Rastelli: Our expansion broke ground just before the opening of our second Rastelli Market Fresh store, so that was in July 2014. We completed the structural exterior and interior elements of the building in mid-July of 2015, but that was just the first step. Today we are working on putting additional production lines and distribution lines in place. It will be fully automated and is scheduled to be complete by year end.

Q: The Swedesboro facility was already producing a wide variety of protein products, but the expansion was expected to give the plant even more flexibility. What are some of the benefits that the new floorspace has afforded the company?

Rastelli: The expansion has allowed us to increase organic production, which is our fastest growing segment. We have also expanded our e-commerce fulfillment center and capabilities. Most importantly, the expansion is helping us to achieve a lower cost of manufacturing due to built-in efficiencies.

A vital aspect of this has been moving our seafood and e-commerce divisions under one roof with the foodservice teams. The lines of communication are open and all divisions are interacting on a daily basis, which is a benefit to us internally as well as our customers. We’ve truly been able to focus on our individual strengths and areas of expertise. We have a dedicated and hard-working group of people that support each other, and the company as a whole.

Q: Are any other significant improvements/renovations in the works at that plant now?

Rastelli: New, retail branded organic lines are currently in production. There has been significant automation improvement within our current lines. Finally, new and innovative blast freezing and tempering technology has been added. Overall though, we are a company built on our people. We have state-of-the-art technology in place, we make renovations and improvements to maximize production and stay ahead of the competition, but our greatest investment is in our people and that is what really keeps us running efficiently and effectively.

Q: What about company-wide? Anything Rastelli Foods would like to “boast” about since we last convened for the October 2014 cover story?

Rastelli: We have had a big and very busy year. The expansion is a tangible representation of that, but it’s the relationships and the product development that has really grown. Our e-commerce division is now working with and has sold out products on both HSN and QVC [television networks].

On the foodservice side, we have increased private-label production for several branded programs. We are also the exclusive partner of Bubba’s DeBoned Ribs (as seen on “Shark Tank” and “Beyond the Tank”). We are working directly with Bubba and Daymond John [one of the show’s investor “sharks”] on becoming what [John] has said will be his best investment to date.

We also have some very innovative product launches for meat and seafood that are planned for fall 2015 including fully prepared, microwavable product, a variety of organic products and our Rastelli Craft Burger line.

Lastly, with seafood coming under the same roof, we had to go through another SQF screening process and once again received a Level 3 certification.

In truth though, being named Plant of the Year has been one of our greatest accomplishments for 2015. We weren’t the biggest or most well-known plant on the list of nominees, but we are incredibly passionate about what we do and we are so proud to be honored for that.

Q: Although it’s not a part of the processing plant, a major part of the story in October featured the brand new retail concept you launched, Rastelli Market Fresh. How has the Rastelli Market Fresh concept and business venture played out over the past year?

Rastelli: This year was all about proof of concept for Rastelli Market Fresh, and since opening we have been widely accepted as a specialty retail destination for foodies. In addition, our in-store restaurant concepts have proven to be winners (we were recently named the best food court in South Jersey). Sales have doubled in the first year; exceeding expectations and Year One goals. We are quickly developing the retail store to work in concert with our new Rastelli Market Fresh eCommerce branding (formerly  NP

Read the full story on Rastelli Foods and its Swedesboro, N.J., plant from the October 2014 issue of The National Provisioner.

Past Plant of the Year Winners

2014: Case Farms — Goldsboro, N.C.

2013: JBS USA — Grand Island, Neb.

2012: Universal Pasteurization Co. — Lincoln, Neb.