China's hunger for chopsticks gives Ga. town a lift

A customer uses chopsticks to eat her lunch at a restaurant on March 23, 2006 in Beijing, China.

AMERICUS, Ga. - Every week the factory floor of Georgia Chopsticks churns out 10 million chopsticks that are sold in China.

But, as CBS News correspondent Mark Strassmann reports, the chopsticks are made in Americus. Americus, Ga., that is - a town desperate for the 80 new jobs the plant has created.

"There was nothing here, vacant building," said David Hughes. "It's a sad situation around here."

Hughes and his partner Jae Lee started Georgia Chopsticks last May. Hughes said local leaders were skeptical. "They were looking for people to hire folks. But then as it went on, it was like, 'Are they really joking us?'"

What seemed absurd - selling chopsticks to the Chinese - turned out to be a perfect business model. China uses 45 billion disposable wood chopsticks a year. But China's low on lumber. South Georgia has forests of poplar and sweet gum trees - ideal for chopsticks.

WATCH: Tax on chopsticks shakes China

Around Americus, closed factories left thousands of people looking for work. Hughes said there was a big response for the (then) 50 open jobs. "There was like 400 who came the first three days."

The county's unemployment rate is 13 percent - more than four points higher than the national average. The building that currently houses the Georgia Chopsticks had been a bumper factory a few years ago. Many of those employees had been out of work for two or three years.

Ricky Hart went two years without a paycheck. His family of six lost their apartment and moved in with relatives. Hart said his friends laugh at him when he tells them he makes chopsticks. But, he said, "it pays the bills."

"There's lessons in this in that small town America could be a manufacturing center for a lot of small to mid-size companies," Hughes said. "Governments are easier to deal with. Regulations are a whole lot less. It's just a better environment to work in."

New machinery from South Korea will allow the company to soon produce 10 million chopsticks a day. By March, the company hopes to hire 70 more workers. They may not be the only ones hiring. Asian companies have contacted local officials about possibly opening more factories around town.

  • Mark Strassmann
    Mark Strassmann

    Mark Strassmann has been a CBS News correspondent since January 2001 and is based in the Atlanta bureau.