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FREMONT — For one day at least, no chickens moved down the assembly line at Costco's new Nebraska-based processing complex Saturday.

This was a day for the public to go behind the scenes of the operation, considered a key cog in Costco's rotisserie chicken business. 

The 400,000-square-foot complex, located on the outskirts of town, began processing chickens Sept. 9 and has slowly been scaling up operations.  

"People have been incredibly welcoming," said Jessica Kolterman, spokeswoman for Lincoln Premium Poultry.

The plant run by Lincoln Premium Poultry is the culmination of a multi-year effort, including not only planning for the plant but lining up farms to provide the chickens amid persistent opposition.

Construction on the plant began in 2017. It's in the sixth week of a 45-week plan to reach full-scale operations.

The plant will increase its workforce from 600 employees now in place to 1,000, adding a third line of processing and expanding the number of chickens processed from 500,000 a week to about 2 million. 

"We've seen a lot of interest in applications and we have a lot of training to do," Kolterman said. "The team here has done very well six weeks in." 

Costco is one of the world's largest retailers, bringing in more than $100 billion in revenue in 2018. Poultry products, specifically its $4.99 rotisserie chickens, make up a sizable bulk of that revenue.

The company sold nearly 100 million rotisserie chickens last year alone, according to a  recent CNN report. It's no surprise that number is so high, considering Americans are expected to eat an average of 94 pounds of chicken in 2019, according to the National Chicken Council. 

At the same time, traditional chicken suppliers such as Tyson and Koch Foods are selling fewer whole birds, opting instead for larger birds that are broken down into specific cuts such as breasts and thighs.

In an effort to reduce dependence on traditional poultry suppliers and control the growth of its birds, Costco set out to build a processing complex and contract with Nebraska farmers to raise the birds. 

Walt Shafer, chief operating officer for Lincoln Premium Poultry, called the process to get to this point "a great new adventure." So far, the feedback on the birds already shipped and sold has been great. 

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Now, Shafer said, he just needs to continue supplying quality products. 

"The pressure is just to deliver," he said. 

Processing the nearly 100,000 chickens that come through the plant each day is primarily automated, save for a few instances of manual work. It starts in what Kolterman described as the "kill/pick room." It's a large processing floor where chickens are brought in and stunned using gas. 

"It's a humane way to end the bird's life," Kolterman said. 

From there, the birds are hung up and de-feathered and cleaned before moving to one of two air-chilled rooms. From there, the chicken's temperature gradually declines as it moves to a second processing room. 

In the largest area of the facility, everything from whole chickens to breasts and thighs roll through dozens of assembly lines to be prepared and packaged for shipment. 

Shane O'Connor, one of the plant supervisors, said he's enjoyed the first month-and-a-half of operation. 

"It's been good, it's been fast-paced," he said. "It's a great company, it's a great culture. I love working here." 

The plan to bring a production plant such as this to Fremont was hailed as a significant economic boost for the state, but its plan to line up poultry farms across the region drew opposition in many areas, including around Lincoln.

Kolterman said the open house, combined with more poultry producers coming online, should help dispel those concerns. 

"There was a lot of discussion about it because there wasn't a lot of familiarity with it," she said. "We wanted to do this to take away some of the mystery."  

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Reach the writer at njohnson@journalstar.com or 402-473-7214.

On Twitter @noahjohnson1996

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