Apart from Valparaiso University making it to the Sweet 16 round of the NCAA basketball tournament two years ago, this unassuming town of 25,000 situated amid the seemingly endless cornfields of northwestern Indiana never has had much to put it on the map.
Except for Orville Redenbacher, the homespun, bow tie-wearing entrepreneur with red suspenders and white hair parted in the middle, who lived here for 40 years while painstakingly growing 30,000 different hybrids of corn in search of the perfect popping kernel. Along the way he became a national celebrity as he toured the country to promote the gourmet popcorn that bears his name.
Redenbacher, who died in 1995, became to popcorn what Col. Harlan Sanders and Frank Perdue were to chicken: an instantly recognizable, down-home company pitchman. And his Orville Redenbacher's Gourmet Popping Corn became the leading seller among microwave brands.
In gratitude, town officials staged 21 consecutive annual Valparaiso Popcorn Festivals, the most recent of which was held in September with floats, marching bands, craft booths and games--all with a wholesome, Middle American quality that seemed to fit Redenbacher's image. Visitors poured into town from Chicago and all over the Midwest to honor the man the locals dubbed "Saint Orville" and celebrate popcorn as the nation's favorite healthy snack.
But in a world of corporate megamergers and growing global competition in business--even the popcorn business--of downsizing and boardroom fretting over excess manufacturing capacity and other bottom-line considerations, there's little room for sentimentality.
ConAgra Grocery Products Co., the $24 billion-a-year California-based conglomerate that bought Orville Redenbacher Popcorn, is closing its factory here in June and shifting production to plants in Ohio and elsewhere. With it, the company is taking more than just the 240 jobs in the nondescript factory on the edge of town.
"Orville's dream was born here, his vision happened here," said Glennas Kueck, executive director of the Valparaiso Popcorn Festival, which has a year-round storefront office on the town's main street that is filled with popcorn memorabilia and lots of photographs of Redenbacher. "That's our claim to fame. It's what put us on the map. No one ever knew where Valparaiso was, but with him they had at least heard of us."
Kueck said that when ConAgra executives first signaled their intent to close the popcorn factory last June, "It was like when Orville passed away. That plant has been a part of the community forever."
Mayor David Butterfield, who like most folks in "Valpo," as the town is called by locals, knew Redenbacher, said it is not so much the loss of jobs that hurts. With unemployment barely more than 2 percent and a new corrugated paper manufacturing plant moving in with 400 jobs that will pay higher wages than ConAgra, the economic impact will be minimal, he said.
"For ConAgra, it was a bottom-line corporate decision, but for us it's a symbolic loss for the community," Butterfield said. "I think [Redenbacher] would be sickened by it because as famous as he got, he didn't change his Midwestern values."
Charles Bowman, who in the 1940s teamed up with Redenbacher to experiment with corn hybrids from Purdue University and develop a popping corn that would expand to 40 times the size of its kernel, said, "I hated to see that [plant closing] decision, but it didn't really surprise me. A lot of everything is cutting costs these days."
Bowman said Redenbacher "would be very disappointed because he was always part of Valpo."
In 1976, Bowman and Redenbacher sold their popcorn company to Hunt-Wesson Inc., which subsequently was bought out by ConAgra.
ConAgra spokeswoman Kay Carpenter said "lots of factors" were involved in the decision to close the plant, including the age of its equipment and the firm's overall manufacturing capacity.
"It was a very difficult decision because of the kinds of associations with that community," she said. "But you know, with business these days you're looking for cost savings when you have excess capacity. We just realized we could do manufacturing somewhere else."
William E. Smith, executive director of the Chicago-based Popcorn Institute, an industry association, said that while he had known Redenbacher for almost 50 years and regarded him as "absolutely passionate about popcorn," he understands ConAgra's decision.
"Companies in this day and age of a world marketplace have to make very difficult decisions," Smith said. "Popcorn is a global commodity now, and I'm sure there were some overriding considerations there."
But Butterfield said the values Orville Redenbacher cherished include seeing a silver lining even in the worst of times. He noted that ConAgra plans to leave behind about a dozen technicians to operate a small research and development kitchen in Valparaiso. What's more, the company will donate the popcorn from the R&D kitchen to the festival each year for use in making the popcorn floats.
Call it Midwest moxie if you will, but Butterfield reckons the folks in Valpo will accept the Orville Redenbacher plant shutdown as a "challenge to the community to make the festival bigger and better than ever." After all, he said, the annual parade is held not to honor a company's product, but to celebrate the life of a man and his dream.