Former Winchester Cold Storage celebrates long shelf life
- By ONOFRIO CASTIGLIA | The Winchester Star
- Sep 20, 2017
WINCHESTER — The Winchester Cold Storage of 2017 in many ways resembles the Winchester Cold Storage of 1917, but much is different.
Walking through the WCS facility on Loudoun Street, which received its first shipment of apples 100 years ago today, a person can see forklifts taking bins of apples coming off trucks, stored rows of metal barrels of banana puree (to be processed into baby food), great stacks of bagged powdered milk, aisles made up of packaged beverages, and hundreds more products, some of them from right here in the Shenandoah Valley, some of them from other continents.
A century ago, you mostly would have just seen apples.
“It is an almost entirely local enterprise,” read an article in a Sept. 20, 1917, edition of The Winchester Evening Star.
“With the completion of this plant Winchester will, with [other storage facilities existing at the time] have the largest storage capacity of any city or town in the United States.”
A project of Harry F. Byrd Sr. and partners, the facility, three multistory buildings on what was North Main Street and is today North Loudoun Street, carried “a storage capacity of approximately 125,000 barrels, and is absolutely fire proof.”
An advertisement published in The Star in 1917 heralds the building as a “model of efficiency” entirely “enveloped in three to four inches of pure cork” and “combined with hollow tile walls” that prevented the transmission of temperature through themselves. The whole thing was built “with special effort directed towards lengthening the storage life of York Imperial apples.”
There was need for more apple storage at the time, as The Star reported: “That [there] is ample room in the Winchester fruit district for new and enlarged cold storage facilities has long been apparent to those engaged in fruit growing.”
Today the cold storage, operating as WCS Logistics since 2014, continues as a third-party logistics property, temporarily storing huge quantities of foreign and domestic food products for private manufacturers and distributors, the federal government and other clients.
Overall, WCS has the capacity to store 1 million bushels of apples for cold storage, but apples only make up about 20 percent of the varied products it stores in 1.7 million square feet of storage space in six facilities in Winchester (three facilities), Berryville, Front Royal and Charles Town, W.Va.
“One of the focuses we’ve had is to try and diversify and catch up to the rest of the industry,” said Brian Beazer, general manager and CEO. The company has been successful in that endeavor, but it hasn’t been easy. “We’re on par if not better than most of our competitors.”
Modern cold storage facilities are built to be sprawling, single-floor, easier to clean, and easier to move around in and update with modern safety techniques, and so on, Beazer said. For example, new cold storage facilities won’t use concrete flooring, like WCS has, because concrete is absorbent, making it a challenge to attain “the highest standard of sanitation and safety.”
But meeting that challenge has given WCS an edge in the modern market. Regularly, industry tour groups come from China, Russia, Afghanistan and elsewhere around the world to observe how contemporary standards were met in an old facility, which is often much like the facilities they have in their own countries. This is important, as it helps establish uniformity of international standards in a global trade economy, Beazer said. “We want to make sure our food is coming safely.”
Incorporating digital technologies, electronic monitoring and inventory control, and LED lighting are also among the changes that have been made to keep with the times, Beazer said.
WCS Logistics, which is operated by a seven-member board with about 50 shareholders, is part of both World Food Logistics and the Global Cold Chain Alliance, two international organizations based in the U.S. that oversee advancement in food logistics all over the world.
This kind of involvement has also allowed WCS to sit on small-business boards and committees of federal government agencies, like the Environmental Protection Agency and the Office of Trade and Economic Analysis, as they’ve considered new regulations on things like ammonia, which WCS uses in its temperature-regulating process. “They target big businesses … but sometimes hurt small businesses without knowing it.”
Beazer, who has been with the company 16 years, said he is optimistic about the future for the company and its 48 full-time employees for a few reasons.
For one thing, the company’s location is solid, Beazer said. Its location in the Northern Shenandoah Valley makes it close to Washington, D.C., which is another part of why it gets as much international attention as it does, but outside of the bustle of a large metro area. Also, the city’s portion of Interstate 81 is within a one-day drive of 70 percent of the nation’s population, which is attractive for both the companies that use WCS to store product and contracted transportation services. “Our location is great.”
New relevance comes with change, Beazer said. When he started in 2003, apples were still 80 percent of the product stored at WCS. Today, that has shifted to a mix of frozen products (about 22 percent), cool and dry storage (each about 25 percent) and specialty storage, which are products stored between 40 and 70 degrees Fahrenheit (an example would be chocolate). The company is working to increase its share of frozen storage.
“Any temperature range, pretty much, we can store,” Beazer said. That range goes from ambient dry storage to 20 degrees below zero.
The company has become considerably better at storing apples since 1917 also, Beazer said. Traditional cold storage techniques will keep an apple fresh for about four months.
But apples stored in a controlled atmosphere of 32 to 35 degrees, with all the oxygen vacuumed out of the room and replaced with nitrogen, will keep “almost the same state as when they came in” for up to two years. “That stops the fermentation process. They go to sleep.” It’s a technique used for apples that are going to be processed into sauce and cider and other products.
Some services at WCS have stopped entirely.
The company used to make ice — 300-pound blocks of “just pure ice” with no air bubbles, Beazer said — which it would break up and sell to the public on a small retail dock along Loudoun Street.
That stopped about 10 years ago, Beazer said, because they couldn’t compete with the influx of cheap ice sold at convenient stores. It’s a shame, he said, because WCS produced ice that would last, on average, 40 percent longer than typical store-bought brands, which are usually made with air pockets to freeze more quickly.
“People didn’t want to pay the 10 cents extra.”
In the WCS engine room — a control center for temperatures throughout the Loudoun Street facility — old and new mesh together, as they do throughout the company; a nearly century-old gauge hangs next to a new digital monitor, and lever-operated iron machinery still sits near the newer computer-controlled models that replaced them.
Dennis Cowgill has worked in the engine room for 40 years. “Here, we haven’t really changed a whole lot,” he said of the process of using ammonia and salt brine to produce the cold temperatures.
Cowgill has been “in with the old and out with the new” as far as converting to digitally commanded machinery, not the lever-activated reactors of the past.
But the chemical process is still much the same. He said he feels work at WCS is “very important” and “a lot to keep up with.” He still keeps the old machinery and tools around for posterity, even though they aren’t used anymore.
“I like my job,” he said.
— Contact Onofrio Castiglia at email@example.com