published Thursday, June 16th, 2011

Georgia plant makes chopsticks for China

By Craig Schneider, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
  • photo
    Jae Lee, the president of Georgia Chopsticks, saw a business opportunity. Lee started his chopsticks business in Cochran, Ga., last November, sent a couple of samples overseas, and within a few months needed to expand. The Americus plant cranked up in May and can already produce 2 million chopsticks in a day, sending them primarily to supermarket chains in China but also to companies in Japan, Korea and the United States. (AP Photo by Gero Breloer)

AMERICUS, Ga. — Let it be known that when China needed more chopsticks, the country of 1.3 billion people turned to the south-central Georgia city of Americus.

It may seem strange that for all the products that China exports to this country, it should need to look outside its borders for — of all things — chopsticks. But the country does not have the wood needed to manufacture enough of the slender utensils, which the majority of Chinese still use and throw away.

In that gap, Jae Lee, the president of Georgia Chopsticks, saw a business opportunity. Lee started his chopsticks business in Cochran in November, sent a couple of samples overseas, and within a few months needed to expand. The Americus plant cranked up in May and can already produce 2 million chopsticks a day, sending them primarily to supermarket chains in China but also to companies in Japan, Korea and the United States.

“I knew there was a need,” Lee said. “I thought I could make a profit.”

Americus turns out to be the perfect place to make chopsticks. The poplar and sweet gum trees that grow like weeds in this region have just the right balance of hardness and softness. Harder woods would dull the blades on the stick-producing machines.

The area also has an active forestry industry, most of it geared toward producing pine construction and paper products.

Moreover, Americus — a city of 17,000 people about a two-hour drive south from Atlanta — has an abundant labor force because of its 12 percent unemployment rate (metro Atlanta’s is 9.7 percent) and numerous moribund manufacturing plants.

The plant is expected to offer 150 jobs.

Still, city officials admit they were taken by surprise when the term chopsticks came up. While China has a few hundred producers of them, the U.S. has this factory and little else.

“We tend to think that the Asians take care of that pretty well,” said David Garriga of the Americus-Sumter Payroll Development Authority, the economic agency that owns the plant that Lee rents in the city’s old industrial park.

For Americus, the chopsticks factory represents a flashback to its days as a manufacturing center, Garriga said. But as many companies shifted work overseas, many shops shut down.

Then, about four years ago, tragedy struck in the form of a tornado that ripped apart the city hospital and nearby business district. The city has struggled to right itself since then, relying in part on historic preservation to attract tourists who also visit nearby Plains, the childhood home of former President Jimmy Carter.

The down economy hit this place with brutal force. Since opening a few weeks ago, the chopsticks factory has received 450 job applications. When Jennifer Hooks lost her job at a chicken plant a month ago, she and her 10-month-old daughter quickly slipped into financial trouble. She visited the Labor Department office three times a week looking for work, but the job openings she applied for came to naught.

“The standards were so high. Most jobs wanted 12 to 24 months of experience,” said Hooks, 22.

She and her daughter moved in with her grandparents for a time. Then she heard about the openings at Georgia Chopsticks. It seemed as if everybody in town was talking about the place. She didn’t need prior training because the nearby college, South Georgia Technical College, has offered to train the employees to operate the machines and forklifts.

Hooks started working in the factory last week.

More opportunities lie ahead for the business venture. Lee, the owner, plans to use the inland port expected to open soon in Cordele, about 30 miles away, to ship chopsticks by rail to the water port in Savannah. That will save freight costs. He expects his plant to produce 10 million chopsticks a day when fully staffed.

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And with all those Chinese people using disposable chopsticks, Lee’s employees aren’t likely to face waning demand for their product any time soon.

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