Freedom of Choice
By SAM GAZDZIAK, SENIOR EDITOR
Chicago Meat Authority is building a reputation of being a desirable vendor, supplier and employer
Jordan Dorfman’s belief is that a company in the meat-processing industry should never have to work with another company. That belief stems from his early years in the industry — first as an employee and later as a partner in his stepfather’s business, M&M Packing, he first saw the opportunities for a customer-centric company.
“So many people I knew in the ’80s were doing business with people they didn’t particularly want to do business with, but they didn’t feel they had much in terms of choice,” he explains.
When he had the opportunity to start his own company, Chicago Meat Authority, in 1990, he kept in mind the philosophy that eventually became the company’s mission statement: “To be the preferred supplier to all our customers, the preferred customer to our strategic suppliers, and a model employer in the industry.”
From its home in the old Chicago stockyards, Chicago Meat Authority produces about two million pounds of meat each week. The company offers a full line of quality meat products, trimmed and prepared to the customers’ specifications. Pork and beef products are the majority of the company’s business, along with a smattering of veal and poultry, done upon request. Among the company’s abilities are pork loin boning, pork portion control, pork picnic boning, beef portion control and beef brisket and navel boning.
As the company has grown from an 18-employee operation with one butcher to a 350-employee business with three shifts, Chicago Meat Authority has added more specialized products and processes to its list of abilities. Customers began to turn to the company for finished goods, as well as portion-controlled items. Diced and cubed pork and beef became more requested items.
“There weren’t buyers who were willing to do it the way they wanted or could meet their criteria,” Dorfman explains. That ability to meet customers’ needs has helped the company grow from $6 million in sales in its initial year to more than $75 million sales in 2007.
Dare to dream
Chicago Meat Authority has three distinct customer bases. One is what the company calls the meat-as-an-ingredient business to further processors, where the company sells products to sausage manufacturers, pastrami manufacturers, corned beef manufacturers and others.
“They need meat in a specific way to enhance their operation,” Dorfman says. “They can buy it from many people as a commodity, but they can’t buy it trimmed the way they want it, or with a lean content the way they want it. We’re able to do that with customers that we partner with.”
The company also partners with broadline distributors that service the hotel, restaurant and institution industries. In those cases, the distributors provide thousands of items, and Chicago Meat Authority supplies a share of the meat items. The third customer base is the chain-restaurant industry. Where there is a void on a chain’s menu, Chicago Meat Authority attempts to fill it.
Much of the new product development comes from conversations with its customers. Dorfman, who prides himself on his company’s ability to listen to its customers, says the company holds several meetings with clients each year and asks them what they are looking for and not finding. “Dare to dream” is what he tells his clients, and those restaurants more often than not have a wish list of products they would love to have.
In one instance, a client told the company it would love to have a choice steak product that would taste good, could be flavored to meet specific customer profiles and could compete price-wise with a chicken breast. Dorfman says that Chicago Meat Authority got a commitment from the restaurant that it would participate in the process to find this steak, including testing the products with its customers.
“We might bring in those muscles that we can cut a steak out of inexpensively and start to play around with its characteristics,” he says. For example, “some of them may need flavoring or marination to ensure a consistent, tender product.”
The entire process to get the steak took from six to nine months and involved not only Chicago Meat Authority’s knowledge of beef but also feedback from the customer and the National Cattleman’s Beef Association. The resulting steak, originally called a beef breast filet and now known as a beef ranch steak, ended up being recognized by The National Provisioner as the most innovative product in the year 2000, and it is still a popular item to this day. The steak is versatile enough to be served in any daypart — served with eggs, on a sandwich or on a bed of rice.
“When it’s a joint effort with manufacturer and customer holding hands, it could be very successful,” Dorfman says. “By suiting their needs, it becomes a win-win deal for us.”
Some products Chicago Meat Authority creates are proprietary and will only be available to one customer. Others are created and made available to any customer that wants them. One product that is becoming more popular is a porterhouse pork chop.
“There are certain customers who are really looking to go upscale,” Dorfman says, adding that the chop has been a good way to introduce a high-end pork product to a menu.
Cooked back and spare ribs are also popular items, as are custom steak items and marinated beef items. Dorfman says that the company can marinate the meat items in a variety of flavors, but spicier flavors, such as Tex-Mex, Cajun and barbecue, have been garnering more interest lately. Along with marinating, aging and precooking options are also available.
Another recent addition to the company’s product list is formed diced pork, which the company says would be ideal for products such as stew, sweet-and-sour pork and chili, among other entrees. The one-inch cubed pork is trimmed and prepared so as to be lean and tender enough to serve in hospitals and nursing home facilities, but tasty enough for country clubs or restaurants.
Convenience in packaging is another company strength, as Chicago Meat Authority has the capability to utilize a variety of packaging methods for increased convenience for its customers. In the case of its formed diced pork, the cubes are individually quick-frozen for ease of handling. They are sold in two five-pound bags per box so that cooks will be able to efficiently use the product without waste. Last year, the company also changed the way it packaged its ground pork, moving to five-pound vacuum pouches instead of polybags, increasing the product’s shelf life and ease of handling without any changes with the price.
Building a reputation
At its start, Dorfman said that Chicago Meat Authority got its start asking customers what they wanted, promising to meet those needs and working hard to follow up on the promises. That work was supplemented by a strong marketing campaign, making use of the then-fledgling Internet when possible. One of the biggest challenges was to get awareness in the largest foodservice and portion-control distributors.
“They may have 3,000 vendors, and we wanted to be a vendor that their salesforce associated with their meat group,” he says.
One of the company’s biggest assets has been its production facility in Chicago. It is approximately 70,000 square feet in size and includes modern processing facilities, quality-control lab, test kitchen and more. Dorfman says that even back in the company’s first year, he knew of the potential that was in the facility. “We had a pretty good opportunity, if we wanted, to use the plant and our capacity and our talent to be able to grow the business.”
The latest addition to the building is a new office complex. As the company grew, offices were located in several parts of the building. The company purchased a contracting facility located next to the plant, gutted it and connected to the two buildings.
“Now we are all on one floor, and we are all seeing each other on a frequent basis,” Dorfman says. “We are far better by having interaction. It really helped us execute our strategic vision.”
The expansion also includes a recreation area, complete with a workout room, pool table, foosball table and a television area.
“That’s in keeping with our ‘model employer in the industry’ credo,” he adds. “We have no problem putting our money where our mouth is.”
The production facility has as much high-tech equipment as possible, and everything in the plant is automated to some level, but there is still a high degree of hand work when it comes to cutting.
“We like the craftsmanship and the artisan quality to be able to hand-trim at saw level,” Dorfman says. Chicago Meat Authority’s production is complicated because of the variety of product it sells. The company solves that dilemma by producing enough beef and pork, for example, to sell for a week or two.
“We try very much to sell out of our inventory,” Dorfman explains. The bulk of that product is kept in the company’s state-of-the-art freezers.
Talented workers are needed to manage that workflow, so the company has an extensive mentoring program to help new employees adjust. Anyone who has worked at the plant for less than 90 days wears a yellow bump cap. Line supervisors, who wear blue hats, are responsible for training the new hires and keeping an eye out for them. The company’s managers (who wear red hats) also spend a significant amount of time on the floor and can add their expertise to the mix. More than 40 percent of the employees have been with the company for five years or more, making for an experienced workforce that knows how to maximize production and get the best cuts.
To get to where it is, Chicago Meat Authority has had to convince many companies that it was a different type of processor, and it has worked hard to spread the word about its abilities. Dorfman says that the word finally felt like it was starting to pay off about seven years ago.
“Around 2000, when we’d been in business for 10 years, I started feeling as if maybe we were over the freshman stage and deserved our place as a player,” he notes. Now, the company is ready to expand its customer base even more.
“We found that the market is ready again to find niche suppliers, stepping out of the commodity orientation so many processors had in the early 2000s,” he points out. “We’re looking to partner again with value-added processors.”
Chicago Meat Authority
Founded in 1990
Products: Beef and pork in a variety of cuts, sold to chain restaurants, HRI distributors and further processors
Facilities: A 70,000 square-foot facility located in Chicago