Every parent has been through their share of struggles when it comes to meal times. Moms and dads want their children to eat healthy and sensibly; the kids, on the other hand, want their favorites and could care less about all the traits that some adults find desirable. One California company has found a way to bring the two sides together by creating a line of frozen chicken products that are also GMO-free and natural.
Hip Chick Farms was founded by Serafina Palandech and her partner Jennifer Johnson. For more than 25 years, Johnson has been honing her craft as a chef, including time as a sous chef at Chez Panisse, a Berkeley, Calif. restaurant that was one of the originators of the farm-to-table movement. More recently, she has been a personal chef for the Getty family in San Francisco.
“Jen has this amazing culinary background: very high-end, sophisticated, very well-developed palate,” Palandech says, noting that she’s cooked for numerous dignitaries, including President Obama three times.
The Getty family also runs a Montessori school in their house, and Johnson has been able to translate her cooking background and culinary expertise into kid-friendly recipes.
“Every kid loves chicken nuggets, but most parents are suspicious about what goes into a chicken nugget,” Palandech explains. “Jen created a chicken finger recipe that was simple, beautiful, delicious and incredibly well made, and she would make it for the children. The children would go home and tell their parents, ‘We want Chef Jen’s chicken finger recipe,’ and then the parents would come and ask for her recipe.”
That spawned the idea to fill a need in the freezer case of grocery stores. Palandech notes that there are many choices in the frozen category, but not as many options when it comes to natural and organic meats and poultry.
“We wanted to start with something simple like chicken fingers, but we wanted it to be transparently sourced, we wanted to have a strong relationship with the farmers that we source from, and we wanted it to be incredibly well made,” she says.
Hip Chick Farms started in California, and thanks to strong consumer response and partnerships with Whole Foods, the company now offers its natural and organic lines of chicken nuggets, fingers, meatballs and wings across the country.
Not only has Hip Chick Farms gained national distribution, it has gained national recognition as well. Most recently, Time Inc.’s Fortune and Food & Wine jointly presented their 2015 list of the Most Innovative Women in Food and Drink, featuring Palandech and Johnson along with other leading entrepreneurs.
Palandech and Johnson live in Sebastopol, Calif., so as they moved forward with Hip Chick Farms, they began talking with their local agricultural community.
“When we first started, I went out and interviewed, toured and got to know every family farm, every poultry family farmer that I could find. We wanted to source locally, and we wanted to create lasting partnerships with the farmers that we sourced from,” Palandech says.
Eventually, the company formed a partnership with Mary’s Chickens, a Sanger, Calif. family farm that is known for its sustainability and humane animal standards. The company uses controlled atmosphere stunning in its on-site slaughterhouse.
“They go through extraordinary lengths to ensure that the chickens are raised in a humane environment and that they are processed in an incredibly humane way,” she says.
Mary’s Chickens does not have further-processing capabilities, so to produce the chicken nuggets, meatballs and other products, Hip Chick Farms partnered with several West Coast processors in California and Oregon. Due to the nature of the Hip Chick Farms products — some are baked, some are fried, some are organic, some are gluten-free — it’s been easier to work with several companies, each with their own capabilities, than find one partner. The initial challenge was finding co-packers that would be willing to work with the start-up company.
“When we started out two-and-a-half years ago, our volume was incredibly small,” Palandech explains. “When we went to talk to co-packers, a lot of them had minimums that were too high for us to meet. A lot of them basically said, ‘Come back in 5 years.’
“What we were looking for was a manufacturing plant that could see our vision for what we were trying to accomplish and could see the potential for our company and create a long-term relationship,” she adds. As a result of the partnership, some of Hip Chick’s processers now are adding equipment to keep up with the demand.
After gaining distribution quickly throughout California, the company was able to expand beyond those borders with help from Whole Foods. The company gives out grants to local producers, and Hip Chick Farms became the first company to gain such a loan through Whole Foods’ meat department, Palandech explains. With Whole Foods providing marketing support and making necessary introductions, Hip Chick Farms has expanded out to the East Coast and can now be found in specialty food stores across the country.
Palandech says that the company’s niche in the frozen foods sector has helped the company grow so quickly.
“The category of frozen meats has some big players and some little players, but there hasn’t been much innovation in the category in a long time,” she explains. “We’ve found that grocery stores and distributors are really responsive to our product line. Grocery stores seem to be coming to us.”
Along with a growth in distribution, the company also has plans to expand its product portfolio. Products in the works include a chicken pot pie, a chicken corn dog and an unbreaded “naked” chicken nugget.
“Jen has endless recipes that she wants to work on,” Palendach says.