Like Philadelphia has the Philly steak sandwich and Buffalo has buffalo wings, northeast Ohio has its sauerkraut balls. A popular appetizer throughout the region, they are breaded and fried balls of sauerkraut, ham and other flavors and seasonings. For the longest time, one of the premier names in sauerkraut ball manufacturing was Or Derv Foods of Akron, Ohio. The company has been around since 1964, and up until recently, that was all the company made.

Things changed for Or Derv about nine years ago, when Keith Kropp bought the company. From the onset, the focus was to add new products that were as unique and creative as the sauerkraut balls.

“Instead of making just another onion ring, we made fried banana pepper rings,” Kropp says. “Instead of a jalapeno popper, we have a wonton popper. Along the way, we started doing a lot of custom and co-packing of items.”

Last year, Kropp added Bob Shearer as his partner in the business. Shearer, founder of Shearer’s Foods, grew that company to become one of the largest salty snack companies in the country before selling it in 2012. A large portion of its business was as a private-labeler.

Shearer says that he had a non-compete clause that kept him out of the salty snacks category, but joining Or Derv Foods was an attractive option.

“The company’s been around for a long time, but I thought there were some potential possibilities here and a good foundation that we could build off of to expand the company,” he explains.

Or Derv Foods is certified by the USDA and FDA to process meat, poultry and seafood, and it also has a large line of vegetarian items, including veggie burgers, falafel and meatless meatballs. On the protein side, the company can process a wide variety of prepared meals, pizza toppings, meatballs and more.  Though it doesn’t have any items under its own name, the company distributes nationwide, with some products getting shipped to countries like India and Canada.

The company’s custom abilities make it a good partner for its clients, says Joe Rogers, vice president of sales & marketing. He came to the company with Shearer and says that some of the contacts he had selling potato chips can get his foot in the door when talking about Or Derv’s products.

“When I meet customers, I play up our custom side as well as our ability to be flexible,” he says. “We have a two-week lead time on any samples that we have the opportunity to make, and in our world, a two-week lead time is very fast.

“The big thing that separates us is the fact that we’re not a big company,” Rogers adds. “We can do a smaller minimum run, and we also have an in-house chef who can work hand-in-hand with their chef for product development.”

For instance, one customer was looking for an all-natural meatball, but could not find a supplier that was able to produce them at a smaller volume. Or Derv was able to fulfill the customer’s needs, and that successful project has led to others. Consequently, both companies have enjoyed sales growth, all because Or Derv didn’t turn away a smaller order.

“We have a really good relationship with one of the best chain companies in the world, and we probably get a project or two thrown at us every month,” Rogers says.

Or Derv manages to produce all of its products, which also include fried olives, Reuben bites and Oreos, out of an 8,000-square-foot facility. The company has recently built a state-of-the-art, 20,000-square-foot plant with more production lines and all new equipment. The company will also have more storage space for its ingredients — not the most glamorous of additions, but a vital one nonetheless.

“As you become more custom, you don’t just have one type of breading, you have several,” Kropp explains. “I compare us to a job shop; we have a lot of different parts hanging on the walls to make the products and have the quick turnaround time that we do.”

From the walls to the HVAC units, Or Derv constructed the new facility to be expandable to more than 100,000 square feet, and it plans to keep its old plant to handle its “clean” processing — the non-GMO, gluten-free better-for-you products that are a growing market. Shearer believes that a contract manufacturer like Or Derv is in a good position for continued growth.

“In today’s market, there are a lot of companies that are just marketing companies, that do not want to deal with the manufacturing,” he says. “On the large side, there are a lot of specialty items that some of the larger companies need in their lines, but they do not want to manufacture them, because it’s not as big a run as they’re used to. I think there is an opportunity for us with both large accounts and small accounts.”

Along with its quick turnaround times and its flexibility, Rogers adds that Or Derv has a secret weapon with its own in-house chef. He jokes that he can walk into a meeting with a suit and tie and get nowhere with an executive chef, but if he brings in a fellow chef, there’s an immediate connection.

“If I take my chef in there, their eyes light up, and whole new ideas come out,” he adds. “That’s a big way that we get out there and work on product development.”