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Macaroni feeds into a packaging line at the Bektrom Foods Inc. pasta plant at Cando, N.D. Photo taken Oct. 11, 2017, at Cando, N.D. (Forum News Service/Agweek/Mikkel Pates)

Pasta revival adds jobs, wheat value at Cando, N.D.

CANDO, N.D. — North Dakota's first pasta plant is still ramping up toward profitability.

The plant that was built as Noodles by Leonardo in Cando, N.D., in the 1980s was closed in 2011, reopened in 2013 and merged with Bektrom Foods Inc. in 2015. It provides jobs for more than 50 people on a single shift in a town of 1,100.

Bektrom Foods is an international "dry grocery" manufacturer based in Syosset, N.Y., located on Long Island, and owned by the Barbella family. Since 2015, Bektrom has been an 85 percent owner of the plant after a stock swap with the Gibbens family of Cando. It produces the Loretta brand of pasta and has a large central warehouse in Monroe, Mich.

The Cando plant also ships some of its pasta to a Colgate, N.D., plant that does packaging. Bektrom sells through 38,000 stores in the United States and exports to 18 countries, according to its website.

The Cando plant's mill grinds semolina (durum wheat) or farina (spring wheat) flour and presses it into pasta, and the staff puts it in retail boxes. Among their items: spaghetti, elbows, rotini, penne and shells.

Cando farmer and businessman James R. "Jim" Gibbens, 68, says his family's farm provides more than half of the wheat for the plant. The local processing adds 25 to 30 cents a bushel to the value of the grain.

Leonard Gasparre, a Twin Cities businessman, built the Cando plant, and Jim Gibbens did dirt work for the plant construction.

"I never dreamed I was going to own it someday," Gibbens says.

Gasparre employed up to 100 people in Cando and opened a second plant in Devils Lake, N.D., but later consolidated operations back to Cando. Gasparre died June 11, 2011, at age 83, and the plant was soon closed.

New chapter

In April 2013, Jim and his cousin, Bruce, 60, a lawyer, bought the Cando plant for a "reasonable" but undisclosed price. Cando Pasta was making pasta by the end of 2013. In 2014 employees from the North Dakota Mill and Elevator in Grand Forks, N.D., helped them learn how to run the plant's flour mill.

Classically, the finest pasta has been made from durum wheat. The famed "Durum Triangle" of the upper North Dakota region shriveled after 1993 after the wheat scab (fusarium head blight) wheat disease took hold. Since then, however, the industry has learned to make better pasta from hard red spring wheat and blends with durum.

"Right now we're grinding 70 percent spring wheat and 30 percent durum," Gibbens says.

By 2015 the Gibbenses realized they weren't breaking into the market already occupied by larger pasta companies in the area. (North Dakota companies include Dakota Growers Pasta at Carrington, N.D., and Conte Luna Foods Processing Co. at Grand Forks, N.D., a sister company to Minot Milling in Minot, N.D., both owned by Philadelphia Macaroni Co.)

"We went out and found another food company that needed us to produce for them," Jim says, making Bektrom the majority shareholder.

The plant runs four production lines and is doing more than 1.3 million pounds a month, which is 15 to 20 million pounds a year. A 1,000-bushel load of wheat, or 60,000 pounds of spring wheat or durum produces about 40,000 pounds of usable straight-dried farina or semolina flour. The extraction rate for food-grade flour is up to 70 percent. The other 30 percent goes to animal feed.

According to Gibbens, the plant is a "long-term investment" and is getting closer to becoming profitable.

Plant manager Melanie Haugen grew up in the Cando area and holds an associate's degree in in sales, marketing and management. She's enthusiastic about the plant's possibilities and says says potential packaging employees are welcome. They make $11 an hour, with quick advancement potential.

"It's a great opportunity and a good town," she says.