The dispute, involving the use of the company's aging, 40,000-square-foot plant on Knowlton Road, could jeopardize Johnsonville Foods' plans to keep Habbersett in the Philadelphia area.
Before its unpublicized sale to Johnsonville for an undisclosed price, Habbersett was facing "prohibitively expensive" costs to modernize the plant, said Ralph Stayer, president of Johnsonville Foods.
As a result, Johnsonville hoped to move Habbersett into a new 20,000- square-foot facility in neighboring Aston Township - if it could sell the old plant.
A local real estate firm approached Middletown Township on July 6 with a proposal to redevelop the 7.5-acre property, which is zoned for residential use, as an office, warehouse and light manufacturing facility. Habbersett was exempted from the residential designation because the plant pre-dates township zoning laws.
Tom Hibberd of Hibberd Bros. Real Estate in Media said this week that his firm had offered Johnsonville $500,000 for the plant and land, but "backed away" from the deal when its proposal for the site was rebuffed by all three members of the township council's land planning committee on July 6.
Hibberd said the land can only be developed profitably as a commercial site
because the zoning designation for home sites of at least a half-acre each would not allow a large enough residential project to recoup land-clearing costs.
Middletown Councilman Norman Shropshire, a member of the land planning committee, said the township was not opposed to continuing commercial use of the site "if it involved food processing."
But Stayer said the township's stand puts at risk Johnsonville's plans to relocate Habbersett to the Aston site, which would cost "well over $1 million." He said a move to Aston "depends heavily" on the company's ability to sell the Middletown property.
Without a sale, Stayer added, the company may be forced to move Habbersett
from its "outdated and inefficient" plant to one of Johnsonville's other plants in Wisconsin in an effort to cut costs.
"I do not want to do that, and I will resist that," he said. "I told the employees that I would keep the plant here, close to them, because it is their expertise that has made this the highest-quality product of its kind anywhere. It's also a Philadelphia product, and you sure as hell don't just start making a Philadelphia product in Wisconsin."
Each of Habbersett's 43 workers has been working for the company for an
average of 22 years, said Otto Ritter, plant manager. He said he was confident an accord could be reached with Middletown Township officials.
But whatever the outcome, Stayer said, it will not mean an end to Habbersett's historic line of sausages and scrapple, a locally savored loaf of pork and pig organs bound together with corn meal and flour.
Scrapple accounts for about 80 percent of Habbersett's estimated annual output of six million pounds, according to sources close to the business. It is regularly shipped throughout the nation.
Stayer said Johnsonville, a 42-year-old family-owned business with five meat-packaging plants and sales in 25 Central states, bought Habbersett to enter East Coast markets. The company, he said, wants to capitalize on the ''excellent brand loyalty" among Habbersett customers by marketing several of Johnsonville's products under the Habbersett name.
In the past year, Johnsonville has introduced its bratwurst and Italian sausage under the Habbersett label in three Philadelphia-area supermarket chains, Ritter said.
Habbersett Bros. Inc. was perhaps the first major commercial producer of scrapple in the nation, according to historian Kenneth Finkel, curator of prints at the Library Company of Philadelphia. He said Habbersett has ''developed a reputation as the Rolls-Royce of scrapple."