Growing up in the 1950s, Jim Capraro remembers the sweet aroma of cookies that wafted through homes on the Southwest Side, one of the perks of living near the giant Nabisco plant at 73rd and Kedzie.
Capraro says he used to tease relatives who lived several miles away.
“My cousins who lived in the Back of the Yards lived next to the stockyards and we used to say our smells are better than your smells,” he said.
Decades later Capraro got to visit the factory — then the biggest bakery in the world — and witnessed a Willy Wonka-like operation.
“The top floor is a whole floor of these huge mix masters. Each one of them looks like an 18-foot swimming pool,” Capraro said. “The flour and sugar and chocolate all goes to the top floor and then the dough is put on conveyor belts and it’s actually gravity that brings them down to the second floor where they’re cut into cookie shapes.”
Oreo cookies, one of Nabisco’s most beloved, best-selling brands was baked there. But that will soon change.
Parent company Mondelez International is shipping the production of the cookie, and 600 jobs, to Mexico instead of upgrading the local facility.
For years, Oreos and other iconic brands like Chips Ahoy generated huge profits and provided thousands of well-paid union jobs. Many lived in the surrounding neighborhoods of Chicago Lawn, West Lawn and Marquette Park.
Then, more than 20 years ago parent company RJ Reynolds threatened to move those jobs out of state. By this time, Capraro led the Greater Southwest Development Corporation.
He remembers getting a call from Valerie Jarrett, Chicago’s commissioner of planning and development at the time. Jarrett is now a top adviser to President Barack Obama. Back then she worked with Capraro to keep the plant on the Southwest Side by giving Nabisco $300 million in tax increment financing dollars. The TIF money helped pay for infrastructure improvements.
“I justified in my own mind working to support them. One was that ‘the jobs would stay here,’ I thought, forever. Turns out I may be very wrong on that,” Capraro said.
This summer Nabisco’s current parent company, Deerfield-based Mondelez International announced it was shipping 600 jobs — half the plant’s workforce — to Mexico.
That could affect Michael Smith, a utility worker at the plant. He said workers often wore shirts of the snack they baked.
“We proudly wore that shirt because we represented a company that said you produce a product that’s televised, that’s on the radio and kids and adults alike across the country love,” Smith said.
Fellow worker Sabrina Pope is known as the Oreo queen. She’s a processor at Nabisco who earns more than $26 an hour. The 35-year veteran originally had only planned to stay for three.
“The pay was good. I was raising a son at the time and it was the American Dream that I had security there. I had security,” Pope said. “Right now, I don’t even know what my future’s going to bring because I’m not old enough to retire. I got the years to retire but I just don’t have the age to do it.”
The city said it wanted to work with Mondelez to keep the jobs here and discussed various incentives, but the company never took officials up on it.
Mondelez officials said its upgraded facility in Salinas, Mexico will open in the middle of next year. The jobs in Chicago will be phased out and Oreos will be made at other U.S. sites. Company officials said the Nabisco plant won’t shut down entirely.
But Jim Capraro worries about the future of an area that already has a higher unemployment rate than the city’s average.
“It was places like Nabisco and the companies around it that gave me hope that we could offer alternatives to the underground economy that exists on the South Side of the city to young people who need to live, who need to work,” he said.
Capraro points to another big plant that used to be on the Southwest Side. More than a decade ago the Kraft-owned Kool-Aid factory closed its doors.
Hundreds of jobs were lost and never came back.