The building at 150 Pilgrim Park Road in Waterbury was once a bustling center, with trucks loading and leaving.
But the company once known as Green Mountain Coffee Roasters has laid off 266 people since 2016, and that activity has ceased. The production facility is virtually empty, occupied by a few ladders and scaffolding and office chairs that have been shoved beneath the staircase behind the building’s glass facade.
Yet the lights at each loading dock still blink green all day, beckoning an industry’s return. And they’ll have it.
The Darn Tough sock company of Northfield is on the way.
As of February, the company will lease 72,000 square feet of the building from its new owner, Malone Development of Berlin, for production, office space and electronic commerce.
The sock knitter will renovate the 52,000-square-foot north wing for manufacturing and distribution and use 20,000 square feet of the second floor for offices. By early 2021, the company plans to have 100 employees in Waterbury.
And it will need that space. The company is growing fast, said Darn Tough CEO Ric Cabot, 25 to 30 percent each year.
The Waterbury space is “a little more than we need right now,” he said, but he’s looking to the long term.
“This year alone, we brought on over 60 knitting machines” at the Northfield factory, said Brooke Kaplan, Darn Tough’s marketing director, which brings the count to 250.
“We simply have run out of space in our knitting mill,” she said. “That’s where Waterbury comes in.”
Waterbury fit the bill
The company spent a few years weighing expansion options — expand in Northfield or add operations elsewhere — and started considering the Waterbury building six months ago.
Kaplan said the search had a wide scope, but Waterbury was the best option with a great location, a building that would suit the company’s needs, and just far enough from Northfield to tap into a different labor pool.
“Waterbury would just be an extension of the knitting process,” Cabot said.
Socks knitted in Waterbury will be taken to Northfield for finishing –– washed, heated, pressed and packaged — and then travel back to Waterbury for online order fulfillment. With its multipurpose space and proximity to Northfield, the building is a perfect fit, the company decided.
Alyssa Johnson, Waterbury’s economic development director, was delighted by how things came together. In conjunction with state economic officials, Johnson said, she helped make the match, even as Malone Development was preparing to buy the building.
“Their long-term use and stewardship is my priority there,” she said
Malone Superior finalized the building’s purchase last Thursday, completing its collection of buildings in Pilgrim Park.
“It’s a huge commitment for us,” said Wayne Lamberton, an owner of Malone Superior. “We’re excited to own the park.”
‘Timing was just perfect’
Darn Tough reached out to Malone Superior in the last couple months to inquire about the space.
“It’s just one of those things where the timing was just perfect,” Cabot said.
“We worked through the process and I think we came up with something that will work well for both of us in the long term,” Lamberton said.
The deal is nearly final, contingent on approval of Darn Tough’s grant applications, Lamberton said
Cabot didn’t want to comment on what grants the booming company has applied for, but “we take assistance as we need it.”
Johnson said Darn Tough is a reputable company and fits well in the industrial space.
“That work is all so much easier when you’re working with folks who are looking out for the good of the community,” she said.
Jobs in socks
Labor access was a big driver in the decision to expand to Waterbury.
“We’ve done some great growth here in Northfield, but as we grow and get bigger, we’re looking for more space and access to more workers,” Cabot said, mentioning Morrisville, Burlington and the Interstate 89 corridor as an expanded labor pool.
“It’s a really exciting time. It’s a great ride,” Cabot said.
Cabot said the first hires will be for the office and, once the manufacturing and warehouse space is renovated, Darn Tough will hire factory workers.
He wasn’t sure when all that will happen, considering that Darn Tough will be buying new machines for the Waterbury space and retrofitting the building from coffee work to sock knitting, but guessed the bulk of office hiring would happen in 2020, and factory hires toward the end of 2020 into 2021.
“I remember when we had 35 employees,” Cabot said, but he has a good memory; 360 now work at the Northfield plant.
Some employees will be relocated from Northfield, but the company plans to add staff at both locations.
Cabot expects the company will employ 500 people by the end of 2021.
Local and state officials are happy with how things have worked out in Pilgrim Park. As the coffee operations receded, they worried about the loss of jobs and economic activity.
“They have a proven product that people will pay good money for,” said state Rep. Theresa Wood, D-Waterbury. “It’s a very big deal for Waterbury,” Wood said.
And don’t forget the contributions made in the past by Green Mountain Coffee Roasters, which morphed into Keurig Green Mountain and then Keurig Dr Pepper, posting billion-dollar sales year after year.
“Having Keurig Dr Pepper and all their iterations here has been great,” Wood said.
State Rep. Tom Stevens, D-Waterbury, agreed. “It’s a real privilege they had been based in Waterbury,” he said. “They built some quality buildings that will be used by Darn Tough.”
State Sen. Anthony Pollina, P/D-Washington County, was more critical of Keurig Dr Pepper.
“Darn Tough socks is a Vermont company, and that’s really important,” he said.
“These companies get so big, they lose connection with the community,” he said, referring to the former occupant of 150 Pilgrim Park. “I think Waterbury will be much better with this company in the long run.”
Cabot said the move into Waterbury is about growing the company and meeting demand, but also about the security of those 360 existing workers in Northfield.
“Waterbury means that to them, and it’s also about expanding into another Vermont town and helping there as we do,” Cabot said.
“It’s a great Vermont story. We’re privately held and we answer to our employees,” Cabot said. “We’re just trying to share the benefits of a growing company.”
Will Darn Tough’s legendary fall sock sale have a Waterbury venue? Don’t bet against it.
While its still unknown whether the annual sock sale will happen in Waterbury next year, the result of this move is almost certain.
“We’re creating jobs, providing more jobs, and ultimately more socks,” Kaplan said.