Watching intently from behind her safety goggles, Latonja Harris tests each burner on a gleaming stainless steel range, ensuring that their blue flames fire properly before she turns them off and places a “Made in America” sticker on the kitchen appliance manufactured in Greenwood, Miss. (pop. 15,205).
“I’m proud to slap that sticker on everything we build,” says Harris, 34, amid the popping sounds of the gas stove produced by Viking Range Corp.
In the heart of the Mississippi Delta, where cotton was king for generations, Viking Range Corp. now is Leflore County’s largest private employer, providing jobs for more than 1,000 workers and making kitchen appliances the area’s primary export—thanks to Fred Carl Jr., 64, who brought the company to his hometown of Greenwood in the late 1980s after the textile industry began to decline.
A fourth-generation homebuilder, Carl conceived the idea of an upscale, heavy-duty stove while building a new home in Greenwood for him and his wife, Margaret, an avid cook who asked for a range like the Chambers model that her grandmother used.
“I searched everywhere, but nothing,” recalls Carl, who was surprised by the market void for commercial-style ranges for the home.
“I figured if my wife wanted one, others might too; and since no one was making them, I decided I’d do it myself,” he says.
Carl devoted more than a year to researching and developing a high-end residential gas range—while continuing to build homes. When he introduced his idea to kitchen equipment company executives, they laughed. After meetings with five manufacturers, one in Los Angeles, Calif., agreed to produce ranges using his design. “I almost threw in the towel several times, but I’m a little hardheaded,” says Carl, who opened Viking’s corporate office in Greenwood in 1987.
That same year, the first Viking ranges rolled off the assembly line in California, and consumers liked what they saw. “We couldn’t keep up,” Carl says of the huge demand.
Carl then made a decision that would significantly boost the Mississippi Delta economy—moving production from coastal California to Cotton Country beginning in 1989.
“Greenwood is my home, my grandfather settled here, and I’d watched it decline,” Carl says in a smooth Delta drawl. “I wanted to help and knew that basing the company here would bring hundreds of jobs.”
Today, Viking’s 235,000-square-foot manufacturing plant hums as 400 employees work with machines, bending and welding sheets of stainless steel and assembling 450 parts into elegant precision kitchen ranges—each of which takes seven hours to build and ranges in price from $3,750 to $14,500. The company’s product line has expanded to include refrigeration and ventilation equipment, grills and other upscale kitchen appliances and culinary products, and Viking’s total manufacturing space in Leflore County tops 500,000 square feet.
“Now I have these hard-working people helping me realize my dream, and we all share the feelings of ownership and pride,” says Carl, praising his employees for their 99 percent annual attendance rate.
Charlie Bell, 52, has never missed a day in 18 years on the job. “I’m proud of what I do,” Bell says as he delicately buffs the finish on an oven door.
Just as Viking has benefited from America’s reawakening to the joy of home cooking, downtown Greenwood has experienced a renaissance with the success of homegrown Viking Range Corp. The company’s headquarters is housed in a block of historic buildings once used for storing and grading cotton. Nearby, its affiliated Viking Hospitality Group operates a luxury hotel and a cooking school. Other Viking cooking schools are franchised and operate in 11 other states.
Manufacturing in the United States remains a challenge, but Carl says he’s committed to producing his kitchen appliances in the Mississippi Delta.
“I could never walk away from them,” he says of his employees. “Patriotism has a lot to do with it too. I can’t see sending jobs out of this country when we need them and have people willing to do them.”