KANKAKEE — Longtime Kankakee manufacturer J.R. Short Snack Products recently announced an expansion to keep up with the demands of its snack pellets the company produces over three shifts a day.

J.R. Short Snack Products began as J.R. Short Milling in 1910 in Kankakee and has transformed itself into an international leader in the industry.

“We do business with the biggest snack food companies in the world,” said Craig Petray, CEO of J.R. Short Snack Products. “So from little Kankakee down here we develop and make snack products that are sold in different parts of the world by some of the biggest companies.”

Business has grown so fast that J.R. Short has expanded its footprint in Kankakee by purchasing a building on Festival Drive near the 308 interchange of Interstate 57. It is looking to hire 10 to 15 more production workers to keep up with the demand. The goal is to increase sales by 25 percent by next year.

“We’re growing like crazy just in the U.S. and Canada, but we sell to Mexico. We ship over to Europe,” Petray said. “Most of our sales are in the U.K., but we also have some sales in Belguim.”

Gov. J.B. Pritzker proclaimed October as Manufacturing Month in Illinois, the fourth largest manufacturing state in the country. J.R. Short Snack Products is the largest manufacturer of snack pellets in the world.

“We’re very committed to Kankakee, the city and employee base,” Petray said. “It’s a good base, we just need more.”

Kankakee Mayor Chasity Wells-Armstrong, who recently toured the Festival Drive facility, said manufacturing is vital to the city’s economy in a news release.

“I learned that more jobs are being created, new products are being produced, and I wish J.R. Short Snack Products who has been a leader in our community many more years of success,” she said.

J.R Short produces hundreds of varieties of the snack pellets from straw types, rings, chips, different shapes, twists to micro pellets.

“If you can make a flour out of it, we can extrude it and make a better snack out of it,” Petray said. “It’s only been happening here the past five to 10 years, these kinds of snack pellets have taken off.”

Petray, 59, started with the company in January of 2014. J.R. Short only employed about 40 people, and it has more than tripled its workforce to 140. The main plant is at 1580 Grinnell Road in Kankakee, and it bought the Festival Drive facility in February. It also has a warehouse at 1735 W. Court St. in Kankakee.

“We recognized the fact that this category was taking off, and we just needed to add a different level of innovation to our extruders so we created more sophisticated forms of making these kinds of pellets,” Petray said. “(We created) a more robust quality system that bigger companies would embrace, and we just wanted to become more customer-friendly. … We wanted to make J.R. Short really easy to deal with, and I would say we made progress on each of those.”

WHAT ARE SNACK PELLETS?

You take the ingredient flour — potato flour, corn flour or rice flour — add some water to it and extrude it through a two-system process. An extruder is a big barrel with a screw in it. A mixer is used to add water to the flour, mixing it up, and is pushed through one of the big barrels with a screw. It’s then transferred after heat is applied, and it’s pushed through another extruder and then pushed through a dye.

“Imagine Play-Doh,” Petray said. “… We have a dye that this dough is being pushed through, and we have set of knives that cuts all these kinds of pellets at different lengths. All the pellets that we produce are then processed by either heat, by frying, add oil and they expand, or you put them in compression popper, and they become like a popped chip.”

Through its processes, J.R. Short can also add fiber, proteins, vegetables, casaba and chickpea.

“The versatility of the extrusion process allows us to add things that make these things better for you,” Petray said.

The snack food companies use the pellets in the production of its products consumers find on store shelves.

“What we’re proud of is that we produce the DNA of a snack food,” Petray said.

Petray said the snack food industry is very consolidated and there aren’t many players in the industry. What makes J.R.Short easy to work with on a business-to-business relationship is its structure. In addition to Petray, the head of operations is Nick Ladin and the head of technology is Dr. Bhima Geera.

It expanded by 18,000 square feet at the Grinnell Road location in 2017 but has no room for additional production at the main plant, so that’s why it added the Festival Drive facility.

J.R. Short is in desperate need of more employees and uses employment agencies to get the ball rolling. It has competitive wages and benefits.

“We need people who can pay attention, who are quick learners, are dedicated to come in everyday and work our hours,” Petray said. “We’re really loyal to our good people.”

J.R. Short’s international sales make up about 15 percent of its total sales, as the U.S. market continues to grow.

“I’m just super proud that a small little company in Kankakee does business with the biggest snack food companies in the world,” Petray said. “Not only do we produce for them, but we help develop their products. We should be very proud as a city that we do that.”

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