Urschel Labs a force in consumer food processing

Even if you’ve never heard of Urschel Laboratories, chances are you’ve eaten their handiwork.

The Northwest Indiana company produces the overwhelming share of processing machinery used by its commercial clients to puree, shred, slice and dice foods from potato chips to peanut butter as well as non-food products like pharmaceuticals.

Its equipment is used by major food processors in the U.S. and more than 140 other countries. For decades, it has been the world’s largest manufacturer of industrialized food processing machinery.

Now based in Chesterton, the multi-million dollar company employs about 400 people domestically to design, engineer and manufacture equipment and parts to ship to customers around the planet.

It also has about 130 employees elsewhere around the world with sales offices located in Europe, Latin America and Asia.

After decades under the ownership of four generations of the same family, it shifted to an employee-owned business last year.

The engineering-driven firm is known for its quality, precision manufacturing and partnering with food processing companies — to help make their food manufacturing processes as efficient as possible.

Urschel Laboratories is also famous locally for its dedication to employees, having never laid off an employee in its history, said Advertising Manager Debra Novello.

“When you walk down the aisle of the grocery store, the (potato chip) bags that you see all over the place were done on our (slicing machines),” she said.

Best known for slicing potato chips, the machines they manufacture are also commonly used to make peanut butter, Novello said. In the past, local favorites like Katie’s Potato Chips and Peerless were also made with its machines.

Any cook or chef likely cannot walk into a grocery store or gas station without encountering a processed food the company did not in some way help create. It sells machines to companies large and small — ranging from small-scale grocery stores who use Urschel’s machines to slice deli meat to international companies like Frito-Lay who use it to cut potato chips.

A short list of foods its machines process for consumer manufacturers include agave, albacore, almonds, applesauce, asparagus, avocados, bacon, bagels, bananas, beef jerky, barley, biscuits, bologna, beer hops, Brussels sprouts, cakes, candy bars, caviar, cheese, chicken, cocoa butter, coffee, corn syrup, cottage cheese, crab, duck, evaporated milk, flour, gelatin, gooseberries and granola.

Its machines are also used to help process grain, grits, hamburger, ice cream, lamb, lobster, mayonnaise, noodles, onions, oysters, peanut butter, pecans, pickles, popcorn, rice, rye, salmon, sausage, soups, string beans, sugar, sweet potatoes, sunflower seeds, tea, tomato paste, turkey, vanilla, vinegar, walnuts, wheat, whey, yeast and yogurt, according to company pamphlets.

Aside from food products, its equipment is also used to help create bank notes, newspaper print, graphite, polymers, rubber, steroids, Teflon, pet food, detergent, plasma, tobacco, vitamins, ointments, peroxide, aspirin, insulin, penicillin and various other pharmaceuticals, according to company pamphlets.

It sells just under 50 types of equipment, but most of its sales focus on 10 models. About half of total sales are parts for machinery the company builds to remain functional for several decades — in some cases up to a half-century, according to information provided by the company.

It controls the manufacturing process from beginning to end at its Indiana headquarters to ensure quality control. Many of the machines also have some interchangeable parts, giving the company wider flexibility.

Over the years, the company expanded the footprint of its former Valparaiso building 28 times before searching for a place to build a new facility, according to a news release.

A few years ago, Urschel closed the Valparaiso headquarters it built in the late 1950s to spend more than $80 million on a 160-acre site in Chesterton.

At the time, the firm had searched nationwide for a new location for its headquarters. Chesterton was chosen. Town officials were ecstatic that it would relocate there and stay in the area, according to Post-Tribune archives.

“It’s an honor to keep the Valparaiso company and everything it represents in Porter County,” then-Town Councilman Jeff Trout told the Post-Tribune in 2013.

Its current corporate headquarters at 1200 Cutting Edge Dr. in Chesterton is a 385,000-square foot space built in 2015 — a 40 percent larger space that includes features like an expanded testing lab for clients looking to test new ways to process its products.

Inside the entrance, the company has also displayed mini-museum with a multitude of products it helps make. It commissioned a large-scale mural by Indianapolis-based artist Justin Vining of historic equipment surrounded by engineering sketchings.

The company was founded by William Urschel in 1910. He first developed a stemming machine two years prior called the Gooseberry Snipper that separated stems and blossoms from the fruit berry. The company estimated it automated the work of 100 people daily. It largely sold the machine to canning companies across the border in Michigan.

Since then, the company has developed innovative machinery like ones that snip green bean ends and later developed ways to chop lettuce to sell later as pre-made salad packages.

Executive Director of Manufacturing Bill Schott said he expected pureed foods and the need for their products to produce fresh cut foods — a growing trend in grocery stores — to increase as a steady part of their future business.

Today, responding to growing markets, about half of its sales are overseas, said Vice President of Sales Tim O’Brien.

“The number one thing (affecting sales internationally) is the growth of the middle class, if you will,” O’Brien said. “Populations are generally growing. People need to eat. All of those things are, I’ll say, impactful for our business.”

mcolias@post-trib.com

Urschel Laboratories

Address: 1200 Cutting Edge Drive, Chesterton

Opened: 1910 in Valparaiso, in 2015 moved to Chesterton

Number of employees on-site: 400 employees onsite; 130 internationally

Website: urschel.com

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