EAST PEORIA — It was an unusual announcement. So, when Roy Sorce called the all-building meeting in his office at Sorce Enterprises earlier this month, many of his loyal employees must have feared the worst.

"They probably thought we were shutting down," Sorce said during a recent interview in that same office where the meeting was held. "I had a surprise for them, but shutting down wasn't it."

When the state's new legalized marijuana laws went into effect on Jan. 1, Sorce saw opportunity. He told about 10 of his 25 or so employees this month that he was exploring the possibility of growing craft marijuana and producing edible cannabis products in the facility in East Peoria that has served as a trucking operation and warehouse for the food industry since 1979. A changing and consolidating business climate had squeezed out independent suppliers to fast food restaurants leaving Sorce Enterprises with a dwindling workforce and a boss motivated to find new ways to keep his employees gainfully employed.

"Adapt and grow," Sorce said. "That is sort of our unofficial motto."

Although he has nurtured and attended to the family business for most of his life, Roy Sorce doesn't think of himself as some great Titan of Industry. He doesn't belong to the East Peoria Chamber of Commerce. When he went before the city's zoning board in early January for the marijuana business, he didn't know any of the individuals on the board; they didn't know him. Same with the City Council.

He always paid his property taxes without a whimper, challenge or complaint, more than $1 million so far, and had always remained hard at work, but out of sight.

"We've always been pretty low-key," Roy Sorce said. "When I needed to go to city hall I had to ask for directions. I wasn't sure where it was. They told us 'you've been here 40 years and have no idea what you do.'"

City officials were not alone in their lack of knowledge about Roy Sorce and DeHater Sorce Enterprises. The company headquarters at 3201 N. Main St., is one of the many nondescript and vaguely industrial buildings that line the access roads along what used to be commonly referenced as Caterpillar Trail.

The name on the side of the building, Sorce Enterprises, reveals nothing about the work being done within. Passers-by are more likely to think someone accidentally dropped the "u" in the name — "shouldn't it be SOURCE Enterprises?" — rather than know it is a business formed in Peoria in 1971 by Allen Sorce and now run by his son, 60-year-old Roy Sorce.

Allen Sorce borrowed $1,000 to buy Dehater Paper Co., located at 114 S. State St. in Peoria. The business originally sold school supplies and janitorial products. Roy Sorce started working for his father when he was about 12, sweeping the loading dock and unloading railroad cars. Within years, the business shifted into supplying paper supplies to local fast food restaurants, mostly Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurants, now KFC.

"Cups and buckets," Sorce said. "That's what we sold. Cups and buckets."

Sorce moved to East Peoria in 1979. It added its first cooler in 1985 and expanded into food supplies like cheese for Godfather's Pizza and chocolate cake for KFC. In 2000, Roy Sorce took over much of the administrative duties, and became company president after his father died in 2018. In the meantime, the company lost nearly half of its workforce, down to 23 from a top end of about 50.

"We never laid anybody off," Roy Sorce said. "The reduction in staff was from attrition, people leaving and us not filling their positions."

Adapt and grow teetered closely toward expand or die. When the idea of growing pot seemed to be a distinct possibility, he enlisted Canna Advisors, a marijuana consulting firm out of Boulder, Colorado, to teach him the details of growing marijuana and the business essentials to make it a profitable enterprise. They have helped him develop the 500-page application to the state with the hope that it will be one of 60 craft growing operations licensed by the state. He'll know by July 1. He also has an application to be a recreational marijuana dispensary, although he said that operation, if approved, would be at a different, undetermined location.

The city has been supportive of his craft license attempt. The zoning board recommended approval of a special use exception at the Main Street location, the city council last week approved the recommendation. Sorce said he visited all of the businesses in the area to tell them of his plans.

"I got support everywhere I went," he said.

Sorce said the enduring philosophy of Sorce Enterprises is its effort to give hard-to-hire employees a second chance at the workforce. People with spotty work histories, even those out on parole and struggling to find jobs have always been welcome to give Sorce a try.  Learn the job, work hard, be dependable, and warehouse workers, truck drivers and administrative staff alike will succeed in a job that pays a living wage, with benefits, for as long as they want it.

That's worth fighting to keep, Sorce said.

 "People have told me they think my dad would be proud of the decision we made to look for ways to expand the business and keep it going strong," Roy Sorce said. "I like to believe that is true."

Scott Hilyard can be reached at 686-3244 or by email at shilyard@pjstar.com. Follow @scotthilyard on Twitter.