Land O’Frost recently unveiled its new headquarters to The National Provisioner in an exclusive tour in July. The facility was a green-field project that opened earlier this year, transferring the meat processor’s headquarters from Lansing, Ill., to Munster, Ind., and adding R&D and pilot plant capabilities wrapped in a sleek, environmentally friendly design. What follows is an exclusive one-on-one interview between David Van Eekeren, president and CEO of Land O’Frost, and Andy Hanacek, editor-in-chief of The National Provisioner, discussing the new building and why Van Eekeren believes it’s the first strike in making the company more of an innovative force.

Hanacek: Talk about why creating workspaces that inspired employees to be social was important in the design of the facility?

Van Eekeren: From my perspective, we enjoy people and like being around people. When you’re asking someone to come to a job and work for X amount of hours a week, a day, a year, you really want them to enjoy their workspace. And so when I thinkabout coming to work and having social space, I want them to be here because they want to be here, not because they have to be here. Every company does things that allow people flexibility in their time and their schedule. If I could ask someone, ‘Where would you rather be?’ I hope they’d say that they’d rather be at Land O’Frost than working out of home, because of the social interactions. I was trying to drive that concept: How do we make sure everyone is enjoying the space and enjoying each other?

Hanacek: Some of the technology you incorporated, allows that social interaction between facilities as well — video conferencing, for example. Were these part of the initial concept, or was it something added later?

Van Eekeren: It was definitely part of the initial concept. Like other meat companies, we have plants in areas of the country that are further away from the corporate center, and a lot of them are hard to travel to. Knowing that, sometimes people limit their travel to those places. It’s nice to be able to still see people and talk to them, and a simple phone call doesn’t always do it. The personalization of the face-to-face interaction makes a dramatic impact on a conversation and your communication methodology. The whole goal is to try and get people talking face-to-face at every opportunity. So every Land O’Frost plant is being upgraded with video-conferencing and video-phone systems, so we can talk more collaboratively across any location. We have been modernizing our facilities over time. Our Searcy, Ark., facility is capable today. In Madisonville, we’re installing a new system [in late summer]. Lansing, the closest facility to headquarters, will be upgrading technology in the next year, but we also spend a lot of time there in-person, because it’s just 10 minutes away.

Hanacek: How important was incorporating natural light into the design of the facility for you? What did you guys have designed that really stands out in terms of that?

Van Eekeren: Gathering natural light was vital to the design of the building. To feel open, you need to feel like you’re outside, but you can’t live in the elements. I also wanted to give everyone the experience of a window office. The concept was to give our people the freedom to move around the facility and feel like they’re in an inviting, open space. That openness creates collaboration; it creates conversation and creativity. 

Hanacek: The test-kitchen area is certainly a tremendous example of using natural light. The outside wall is practically two-and-a-half floors of windows. You almost don’t even need the lights in this room during the day — it’s cloudy today too.

Van Eekeren: Actually, most days we don’t turn on all of the lights because we simply don’t need it given all of the natural light coming in. This plays into thinking environmentally about how we reduce our footprint as well. Light pollution, both internal and external, is a factor. Internally, if we don’t have to use lights, we don’t use them.

One thing that was interesting to me about the design is that the parking lot lights — which are all LED — shine light only one foot past the lot line. As the sun goes down, the lights are designed so that you see one foot beyond the lot from the outside, minimizing external light pollution.

Hanacek: Since we’ve transitioned into some of the environmental features of the new building, explain to me the design and function of the bioswales out in front of the facility.

Van Eekeren: With these bioswales you’re taking the runoff water from your driveway, and instead of just dumping it into a drain, and then into the public storm water system, we are putting it through a more natural filter. The bioswales have several layers of earth below them, as well as gravel and pea gravel, to provide a natural filtration process, before water runs off into the detention pond, and then into the public storm water system. When you think about the road salt, the oils, and the things that are on our cars, everything we are tracking in here isn’t going into the public storm water system. It’s being naturally filtered out before gets there.

Everything we did here was based around how we minimize our use of natural resources as much as possible. All of the plantings are designed to be low-water need, so we don’t have to water with traditional irrigation. … They are not ‘drought proof,’ but very drought tolerant.

Hanacek: Shifting gears back inside now, let’s talk about the features of the pilot plant you’ve built into the new headquarters.

Van Eekeren: We have a USDA-inspected pilot plant, and it is designed after the 11 principles of sanitary design. It uses a straight-line process: raw material in one side, finished goods out the other side. It’s capable of producing any Land O’Frost product across all of our operations. We had a very small pilot plant in our old building, but it was stuck in the middle of the building and was getting close to 40 years old. It didn’t really function as we needed it to function. This new pilot plant will help scale things up better, as we have all the equipment that we really need in one spot.

Hanacek: So, let’s step back and look at this from a 40,000-foot viewpoint for a minute: What does the design and construction of this headquarters facility mean for Land O’Frost in the grand scheme?

Van Eekeren: It better supports our growth efforts. The last several years, we’ve continued to innovate, continued to focus on bringing new products to the market. This facility is the next step. We have great potential to grow, both within our categories and outside of our categories. This sets the stage for breakthroughs that get the team thinking differently: breaking out and saying, ‘What can we do that’s new and dramatic, not only to Land O’Frost, but also for the industry?’ I believe this facility delivers that message to our employees and the industry.

Our segment is interesting. Lunchmeat continues to be a flat category, with a lot of cannibalization to grow. We continue to be successful there, as evidenced our recent national launch of Simply Delicious, and will continue to be successful in the future. But I think there are other spaces — the sausage, the snacks, the protein segment in general — that we can have a say in and be a powerful force.

Hanacek: What innovations have occurred within the last year or so but prior to the opening of this facility that has you hopeful for the future?

Van Eekeren: We launched a series of bold flavored products: DeliShaved Bold, Premium Bold and Bistro Bold. We are also re-launching a new Land O’Frost sausage called Simply Savory. Instead of just a Land O’Frost brand, we translated the benefits and brand equity of our Simply Delicious lunchmeat line to Simply Savory for sausage. There’s a lot of space being taken up by 100% pork sausages and space for growth in a pork-chicken blend sausage. We believe that there are consumers who want a flavorful, lower-fat, alternative sausage. So, Simply Savory is a pork-chicken blend to reduce fat but still deliver on flavor.

We did a lot of consumer research about who’s not buying sausage. Moms aren’t buying sausage, because it’s a male-oriented category. We know Mom will buy sausage if it fits her needs. She buys some chicken sausage today, and we know she’s going to start buying an alternative sausage, in Land O’Frost Simply Savory.

Hanacek: Simply Savory, however, is not cutting into any of the brands purchased in the Wimmer’s acquisition, correct? What’s the update with those brands now that you’ve gotten some time to assess and strategize around them?

Van Eekeren: The four brands we bought are Wimmer’s, Ambassador, Fairbury and Bassett’s, which are still strong brandsthat we continue to support in their respective markets. They still have growth opportunities within their regions, and continue to dominate in those regions. We want to make sure that continues by delivering the same quality of product that the Wimmer family developed and designed, and the Ambassador folks put into place. We want to make sure we keep that heritage. With the Land O’Frost brand, we can come out with something new and innovative and do something different, in a space where we’re not currently playing.

Hanacek: Now that you’re several years into owning the Wimmer’s business, what has surprised you about that business?

Van Eekeren: I think that a surprise was that the science behind sausage is slightly different than the science behind lunchmeat, and there is a lot of complexity in making really high-quality sausage. That fun and challenging learning experience is always a part of trying to develop new things.

Hanacek: Obviously, this building alone is not the only signal that Land O’Frost is trying to push the envelope of innovation. What else have you done to spark innovation with employees and communicate it out to the marketplace?

Van Eekeren: We’ve continued to bring in more talent in R&D. Our marketing team is also doing more trend research and communicating the learnings to our employees. Part of getting people excited about this building and what we’re doing, is keeping them informed about how our business is doing and what our future potential looks like, and also demonstrating that by providing them with innovative new products.

Hanacek: Building and opening this headquarters is obviously a big deal, and you guys are obviously going to take a minute, catch your breath. However, what are you working on now that you can share?

Van Eekeren: Something we’re launching right now is a new package for our Simply Delicious line. Nothing about the product itself has changed, but we’ve changed the package. The first thing you notice on the new package is a pull tab — it’s indented off the lid, which is a new invention from Land O’Frost. Next, the new package features an easy-open FreshSeal™ lid. We’ve created a hinge that prevents the lid from falling off, getting lost, or landing on the floor and getting dirty. Also, the lid snaps into place. It is also a stand-up package — the only one in the market.

This new package addresses the question of how do we differentiate from other brands? How do we make it better and add more value? We created this new design during an ideation session with our packaging supplier. It took a complete retool and a new line, but we think it’s a worthwhile investment that consumers want.  NP