They employed hundreds of workers and generated huge tax revenues for their host communities, which were long associated with the satisfying aroma of the refreshments they produced. Coffee-maker Nescafé, a Freehold anchor, and Nabisco, which made cookies in Fair Lawn, evoke fond memories—and more than a little anger at their demise.
The closures—the iconic Nabisco factory shuttered in 2021 and is now being replaced by a storage facility; Nescafé will begin shutting down this month as operations are outsourced to Mexico—are indicative of a decades-long trend across the state. Manufacturing has declined enormously in New Jersey since its heyday in the mid-20th century, according to James W. Hughes, distinguished professor of urban planning and policy development at Rutgers and author of multiple books on economic and demographic issues in the state. “Manufacturing peaked by 1969 or 1970,” Hughes says, “and then it really started hemorrhaging.”
New Jersey during that era boasted a seemingly endless supply of factory jobs paying wages that could support a family.
They supported families like Bruce Springsteen’s. His father, Douglas, spent much of his career at the Karagheusian Rug Mill, Freehold’s only other factory besides Nescafé, until it closed in 1964. The ensuing pain, 20 years later, inspired Bruce’s classic lament “My Hometown”: “They’re closing down the textile mill across the railroad tracks; Foreman says, ‘These jobs are going, boys, and they ain’t coming back.’”
The same resignation tinges the voice of Craig Slininger. The Allentown resident has notched 27 years with Nescafé’s owner, Nestlé, moving from the production side to refrigeration and storage to his current position as a safety technician at the 440,000-plus-square-foot plant, which opened in 1948.
“I wouldn’t have been here this long if it wasn’t a good place to work. You wanted the place to survive; you were loyal to it,” says Slininger, who considers himself fortunate that he’s approaching retirement age and needs only find a replacement position to “bridge the gap” for a few more years, unlike so many of his younger colleagues. “It’s been really hard on morale for a lot of people.”
Sometime after November 11, 55 salaried staffers who do not belong to a union will have their last day at Nescafé’s only coffee production plant in the United States. Nestlé, its Swiss parent company, has five other New Jersey locations in its health science division, with U.S. headquarters in Hoboken.
But for the facility’s 170 employees who are members of Teamsters Local 11, union representatives have been negotiating to secure better exit terms, despite what a company spokesperson calls “a difficult decision” regarding Nescafé. The collective-bargaining unit has also been helping with job training, resumé writing and relocating, where applicable.
“We can’t keep the doors open at Nestlé, but we can help the workers with what they need to get,” says Local 11 spokeswoman Anita Clarke.
The situation was similar two years ago, when the bakers union representing Nabisco’s 600 workers spent many hours with representatives from Chicago-based owner Mondelēz, trying mightily to forestall closure of the sprawling Fair Lawn complex, a mainstay in the community for decades.
Remnants of the factory are still visible to all who pass on Route 208, a reminder of the bustling operation that put Oreos and Ritz crackers in kitchens all over the United States and dinner on the table for its hundreds of employees.
“The place was iconic,” says John Cosgrove, Fair Lawn historian and a lifelong resident, who served as mayor from 2013 to 2018. “When people ask where you live and you say Fair Lawn, they reply, ‘Nabisco.’”
Cosgrove notes with regret that the erosion of such a large workforce has had a negative impact on area businesses. “There’s a real downward effect. The people who went and bought a bagel in the morning or did errands at lunch, those places suffered as well,” he adds.
One of those employees still speaks wistfully of his nearly four decades at Nabisco prior to his 1999 retirement. “You work there for 38 years, it’s part of your life,” says Tom Da Casto of Glen Rock, who managed distribution and oversaw pallets on the factory floor. “You get up in the morning and go to work and have so many friends there.” Friends like John Lucente, who died years ago but whose long career in Nabisco’s shipping department—49 years—is still fresh in the memory of Lucente’s daughter Denise Diamond. She fondly recalls the annual company picnics her father organized, initially, at her childhood home, and later, as attendance grew, at a local park. “And when I was in Girl Scouts, we toured the plant and all went home with a goodie bag with their cookies,” says Diamond, of Pompton Lakes.
The factory has been partially demolished, but the scheduled implosion of the remaining buildings was canceled earlier this year due to concerns that the process could spew dangerous toxins into the air. Contractors for the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection are carefully remediating the area, according to a department spokesperson.
Meanwhile, the tower where Nabisco stored and mixed all of its baking ingredients remains the tallest structure in the borough, despite the opening of a large and bustling mixed-use commercial/residential complex just south of it along Route 208.
In Freehold, Mayor Kevin Kane expressed frustration at the loss of the borough’s biggest taxpayer, which he called “a staple of the community,” garnering more than twice the tax revenue—$562,488 this year—than its second biggest taxpayer, the Freehold Raceway harness-racing complex. Kane worked at Nescafé himself in summers during college and says officials are doing all they can to support the 225 area residents who have helped bring Nescafé Clásico and Taster’s Choice instant coffee to the public. He and Teamsters liaison Clarke are hopeful now that the nonprofit New Jersey Manufacturing Extension Program, which represents manufacturers, is trying to pair the workers with local employers that may have openings.
Statewide, it’s not all doom and gloom; for factory employees hoping to stay in manufacturing, the outlook has actually improved in the last five years, notes one expert. Despite the “incredibly disappointing” turn of events with Nestlé, says Tim Sullivan, CEO of the New Jersey Economic Development Authority, the state has 3,900 more jobs in the manufacturing sector than it did in 2018.
This recent trend is evident even within the food and beverage industry, he adds. Sullivan cites Campbell Soup Company’s “great decision” to consolidate its snacks division, which includes its Pepperidge Farm, Goldfish and Stella D’oro brands, into Camden from several out-of-state locations. The move has generated more than 330 new jobs in South Jersey.
Still, that’s small consolation to those still feeling the loss in Fair Lawn. The same goes for Freehold, where the planned closure, which could extend from this month into March 2024, is evoking feelings as bitter as signature Nescafé coffee served without sweetener.
When Bruce penned Springsteen on Broadway, his concert residency that ran 2017-2018 and briefly in 2021, the bard of blue-collar America could not have known that his hometown’s coffee factory would go the way of the long-departed rug mill that had employed his father. “When it rains in Freehold, the moisture in the humid air blankets the town with the smell of moist coffee grounds lofting in from the Nescafé plant on the town’s eastern edge,” Bruce told the audience at every performance. “I don’t like coffee, but I love that smell. It’s comforting.”
Pamela Weber-Leaf has written extensively about the environment.
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