B&M Baked Beans in Portland
The iconic B&M factory on Portland's East Deering waterfront on Sept. 1. It will produce its last cans of baked beans, brown bread and other food items later this year after being sold to the Roux Institute of Northeastern University. (Portland Phoenix/Jim Neuger)
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The closing later this year of one of Portland’s most recognizable landmarks, the B&M Baked Bean factory in East Deering, will leave nearly 90 workers  – some of them generational – out of work.

But a union official representing many of those workers said the plant’s demise will not be as difficult as it may seem because employees will receive a strong severance package and help to find new jobs.

Burnham & Morrill employees in 1934
Women at the Burnham & Morrill plant in Portland fill cans with fish flakes in 1934. (Courtesy Maine Historical Society)

John Jordan, business agent for the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers’ International Union Local 334, said factory workers suspected the closure was coming for a few years as employment declined from a peak of 300.

And when the announcement came on Aug. 30 that the 13.5-acre factory property will be sold to the Roux Institute, an education and business incubator affiliated with Northeastern University, Jordan said the announcement was handled the right way: Company officials met with the workers face to face to explain the decision.

“They were courteous and sympathetic,” he said. “… As far as plant shutdowns go, there’s nothing good about it, but in my opinion, it’s been handled very professionally.”

The decision to close the 154-year-old business and move its production to the Midwest, to be replaced by a graduate-level education and research institute campus with emphasis on technology, data sciences, engineering, and business development, will undoubtedly have an emotional impact on current and former employees – including one former worker most people know best as the face of Fox News Channel: Tucker Carlson.

Fox News host, and former B&M employee, Tucker Carlson. (Courtesy Fox News Channel)

“It had to be one of the last 19th century manufacturing plants left in the United States,” Carlson, who spent a college summer working in the factory, said in a statement released to the Phoenix. “How perfect that it’s being replaced by some vanity education project, paid for by a billionaire and named after himself, designed to prepare students for an economy that won’t exist by the time they’re 35. Might have been better to build another factory.”

The billionaire referred to by Carlson is tech entrepreneur and Lewiston native David Roux. He and Northeastern opened the Roux Institute last year with a goal, according to its website, to “establish a tech corridor stretching from Boston to Portland and beyond.” The institute now leases space in the Wex Inc. building on Portland’s eastern waterfront.

The B&M sale by parent company B&G Foods, for an undisclosed amount, was negotiated by a nonprofit organized to develop the campus, the Falmouth-based Institute for Digital Engineering and Life Sciences, or IDEALS.

Cast Iron bean pots crafted by the Portland Co. awaiting shipment circa 1900 to the Burnham & Morrill Co. a mile away in Portland. (Courtesy Maine Historical Society)

B&M – which began in 1867 as the Burnham & Morrill Co. – has been synonymous with Portland. In 1913, the company built a four-story fish canning facility on the city’s waterfront. A few years later, it began experimenting with brick-oven baked beans to offset declines in other products. Eventually, those brick-oven beans were being packed into cans and sold at retail.

B&M was eventually acquired by Pillsbury Co. and sold to B&G Foods in 1999.

“It is a continuation of what Portland has been seeing, and quite frankly what the country has been seeing with manufacturing,” Jordan said. “All our work is being sent to the Midwest, which makes sense logistically. Our focus is taking care of the membership. That has been a priority for us. That’s where my attention is now for these guys.”

He said the company informed workers they would continue to be paid until Dec. 2, would keep their insurance until the end of the year, and will be given a good severance package. He said employees weren’t left feeling the company “turned off the lights and said ‘good luck.’”

He said the company has also committed to helping displaced workers find opportunities elsewhere.

“The job market is in a place right now where people will be able to find other employment in the general community,” Jordan said. “Maybe not in Portland, but in the surrounding communities. There are a lot of companies hiring. We’re going to work diligently to place these guys in good-paying, high-quality jobs.”

Carlson, the conservative talk-show host, wrote a 2006 opinion piece in The New York Times Magazine about the summer he spent working at B&M.

“Most of my jobs were safe enough,” Carlson wrote. “One week I scraped charred beans from the insides of the ovens. The next I ran a machine that stacked cans onto pallets. For two weeks after that, I extracted the hot cans in which B&M baked its brown bread. They were made in enormous pressure cookers that looked like missile silos and were called reefers, for some mysterious reason.

“By the end, I got curious about the bread and tasted some,” he said. “Surprisingly, it was pretty good.”

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