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KLN reaches a milestone

Four generations of the Nelson family: Albert (with Charlie on his lap), Tuffy and Kenny, left to right. What Tuffy and Kenny started in 1964 as a small father-son pet food-making business has since grown into a $500 million corporation, KLN Family Brands. KLN is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. Submitted photo1 / 2
The construction site of the new manufacturing and packaging plant being built at Tuffy’s in Perham. Marie Nitke/FOCUS2 / 2

Editor’s note: Read more stories like this, highlighting growth and economic development in the Perham area, in our latest Progress Guide.

At 50 years old, KLN Family Brands has still got it.

The years have been kind to this family-owned company, with steady success and consistent growth causing it to blossom into Perham’s pinnacle industry.

What’s more, it’s not showing any signs of slowing down.

Quite the opposite, actually. The company is continuing to grow and expand at a remarkable pace.

What started in 1964 as a small father-son pet food-making business has developed into a $500 million corporation that umbrellas Tuffy’s Pet Foods, Kenny’s Candy, Barrel O’ Fun Snack Foods and NutHeads Chocolate Factory.

In the past year alone, KLN has started construction on a new $50 million Tuffy’s manufacturing and packaging plant in Perham – the biggest project the town has ever seen – and has purchased a new Barrel O’ Fun snack food facility to expand operations onto the east coast. There have also been major building expansions at Kenny’s Candy and NutHeads facilities.

Meanwhile, recent partnerships with celebrities like Larry the Cable Guy, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and the Minnesota Twins continue to bring increased national attention to KLN’s products.

Charlie Nelson, with the family of ownership and director of sales and marketing, said he and his father, Kenny Nelson, the owner and president and CEO of KLN, will sometimes talk about how the company got its humble start, and feel grateful for how far it’s come.

According to Charlie, Tuffy’s Pet Foods was started around August of 1964, after Kenny graduated from college, finished his six months in the Army Reserves and then returned home to Perham.

“Grandpa Tuffy was making poultry and livestock feeds with a pellet mill and thought they could start with a very basic product,” wrote Charlie in an email to the Focus.

Just a little over a year later, the father and son team added their first “bonafide” pet food extrusion line, Charlie said: “Dad likes to tell the story of starting the sales portion of the business with an Econoline that held one ton. The next truck held two and a half tons. The next truck held eight tons and then came the bigger semis that held 20 tons.”

“When Dad talks about how he and Grandpa started with such a small plant and a small truck, it makes Dad and I feel good about our growth,” wrote Charlie. “And we are confident my grandpa is smiling, too.”

For a while, the company left the family’s hands. Tuffy retired in 1971, and sold Tuffy’s Pet Foods to H.J. Heinz. Two years later, Kenny started Barrel O’ Fun Snack Foods. Then, in 1987, he started Kenny’s Candy Company. By 2001, exactly 30 years after Tuffy’s had been sold, Kenny bought it back again.

“It has been an incredible buy back,” said Charlie.

Since regaining that ownership, the Nelsons have introduced new pet food lines and labels that have led to fast growth for Tuffy’s, including “super-premium” products like NutriSource, Pure Vita and Natural Planet. These kinds of healthy and hypoallergenic pet food options are becoming increasingly popular with pet owners, and producing them at Tuffy’s has allowed the company to grow its distribution nationally.

The $50 million manufacturing and packaging plant currently being constructed in Perham will help Tuffy’s continue to meet that higher demand. Charlie said the new, nearly 100,000-square-feet facility “should entice new customers along with increasing potential sales by 50 percent.”

Things are expanding at Kenny’s Candy, as well, with a recent 50,000-square-feet addition to accommodate a new gummy and fruit snacks line. The company produces popular candies such as Juicy Twists, Wiley Wallaby Australian Style Liquorice, and Dr. Pepper licorice.

The newest addition to the KLN clan, NutHeads, also got a recent expansion. Founded in 2011, NutHeads makes nut snacks and salty-sweet treats like caramel popcorn. The new 20,000-square-feet concrete production facility and warehouse enabled the company to add a second chocolate coating line and two new batch chocolate coating machines.

This newest KLN faction is still in its ‘start up’ phase and hasn’t quite taken off yet, Charlie wrote, but “we feel confident we will get it profitable soon.”

If history is any indicator, it shouldn’t be long before the Nelsons take NutHeads to the next level, just as they’ve done with their other ventures. The Barrel O’ Fun facility in Phoenix took four years to turn a profit, according to Charlie, “so while we don’t like to practice patience, sometimes you have to.”

Patience is only one of many factors that contribute to the family’s business success. Charlie credits their good fortune to a combination of things, including an investment in state-of-the-art facilities, a dedication to producing high-quality products, and, most importantly, the employees.

“The secret of our success isn’t a secret at all,” he wrote in his email. “It’s our people.”

KLN currently employs about 1,250 people, making it Perham’s largest employer, by far. According to Charlie, finding more workers to fill open positions is the company’s “number one priority moving forward.”

“We have many jobs available and will work very hard to fill positions,” he wrote. “We have focused more than ever on recruiting people to our company and community. We believe we have a lot to offer as a community.”

Another big priority the Nelsons will be focusing on in coming months is a new salty snack food facility that they’ve just purchased in Erie, Pa. Charlie said they hope to open production by late spring or early summer of this year.

“This is a key for the future of our success,” Charlie wrote, explaining that the new facility will help KLN attract new customers. It will also make shipping along the east coast faster and easier, he added, and will expand the company’s manufacturing capacity, which is currently at its limit for certain product lines.

Over the years, KLN has seen a lot of changes, both externally and internally, Charlie wrote: “When my dad and I talk about what happened 50 years ago and how business was done, it is like coming out of the dark ages.”

In the company’s early days, for example, there was no such thing as OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration), a national agency that monitors working conditions. There were fewer rules and regulations than there are today.

There are also more food allergy issues to consider today, Charlie said, and there’s a greater emphasis on food quality, for both humans and pets.

“Talking about a germ-free plant being built at Tuffy’s versus the olden days is crazy, but that’s how far we’ve come,” he wrote.

Of course, there have also been many advances in technology, and a growing reliance on it. There were no computers when Tuffy and Kenny first started their small pet feed operation; that’s something that has completely changed, and rapidly. As recently as just a few years ago, KLN had only one person working in information technology. Today, there are closer to 10.  And packing machines today package items 10 times faster than older models, with 100 times more accurate weights.

Overall, the changes have been very positive, resulting in safer, healthier workplaces and increased efficiency.

Today and into the future, as things continue to change and evolve within the snack and pet food industries, KLN is poised to remain at the top of its game.

With the company growing in every way imaginable as it reaches its 50th birthday milestone, it’s proving to be one of those things that just keeps getting better with age. 

Marie Johnson

Marie Johnson joined the Detroit Lakes Tribune in November 2017 after several years of writing and editing at the Perham Focus. She lives in rural Frazee with her husband, Dan, their young son and daughter, and their yellow Lab.

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