In 1865, the Union Stock Yard and Transit Co. opened in Chicago, becoming a major industrial lifeline for Sandburg’s “City of Big Shoulders” for much of the next century. During those times, people looking for the premier meatpackers of the day simply had to travel southwest of downtown Chicago — to “Packingtown” — to find Armour, Swift, and others, centrally located in a sprawling complex of slaughterhouses, railroad yards and animal pens.
The Stockyards (as they were called) closed in 1970, as processors closed or moved to new locations. Today, as the development of neighboring communities such as Bridgeport and the South Loop pushes its way toward the remnants of the Stockyards, one might think the heyday of meat processing in Chicago is long gone.
Yet, fueled by the city’s deeply seated tradition and ethnic heritage, Chicago’s meat-processing industry continues to thrive, albeit a bit more under the radar. Although these processors are spread across the metropolitan area today, with some still tucked away in what’s left of the Stockyards — and although they are not, in most cases, the behemoth corporations that their forerunners were — these processors are making names for themselves and developing a successful, new generation of Chicago meat processors.
In the following pages, The National Provisioner highlights only a handful of these successful companies, each of which has carved out its niche in the meat-processing world and is building toward the future. Whether serving the high-end foodservice segment or ethnically specialized retail segment, each of these processors has a story to tell and a piece to contribute toward helping Chicago reclaim its perch atop the meat-processing industry hierarchy.
 
Quantum Foods: No fear
Because of owner Ed Bleka’s desire and ability to change with his customers’ needs, Quantum Foods has built itself quickly into one of the Chicagoland area’s fastest growing meat processors.
By Andy Hanacek, executive editor
In and around Chicago’s old Union Stockyards, the legend of local blue-collar workers done well — many of them immigrants — are often whispered through the alleys and handed down generation to generation in corner pubs and at community events. Mostly, the stories follow local folks who kept their noses to the grindstone, were rewarded with success and moved on to bigger, better things elsewhere, getting out of the stench and slum of the Yards and making names for themselves.
It’s a fairy-tale type of situation that many dream to find, but few actually experience — sometimes leaving one to wonder if these workers really exist. Yet, the story of Ed Bleka, founder and owner of Quantum Foods, located in suburban Chicago, is proof that these were not fables.
 “It’s a great American story and a great Chicago-based story,” Rick Garcia, executive vice president, sales & marketing, explains. “You have a Polish immigrant that moved here, started working hard, and at the age of 27 decided to start his own business.”
Approximately 16 years ago, after working his way up through the operations side with another processor in the Stockyards, Bleka took the leap of faith and founded Quantum Foods, beginning a new leg of his journey toward success.
“He and a partner started out literally from scratch, without a single customer, without a single pound,” Garcia adds. Quantum Foods began operations those first few years in the Stockyards, until Bleka moved the company to a brand new facility in southwest suburban Bolingbrook, Ill., which offered him the flexibility he envisioned, George A. Chivari, chief operating officer of Quantum, explains.
“As you know, in the Stockyards, they are older buildings, and food safety is a very key dynamic,” Chivari says. “So, by starting from fresh, he could build and locate facilities as they fit best what he envisioned in the business and the growth. It’s the connection between that foodservice operator and the processor — from farm to fork — and Ed could control that by building the facilities the way he built them.”
Since that move 11 years ago, Quantum has grown to house nearly 1,500 employees working in two plants and one distribution center all on the Bolingbrook campus. The company remains heavily focused on supplying steaks, chops and other proteins to foodservice — in fact, Quantum ranks fifth among worldwide food suppliers to the military.“It’s a compliment to our owner’s commitment to food safety and food security,” Garcia adds. “We go to great lengths to make sure we have the processes in place to ensure the troops get wholesome and safe product.”
Quantum’s kind of town
Its Chicago location no doubt helps Quantum, just as it helps other processors in the metropolitan area. For the same reasons the Stockyards exploded onto the scene in the 1800s and dominated the landscape for a century of industrialization, Chicago remains an excellent business hub for meat processors of all kinds.
“You are in the heart of the country from the standpoint of flow of raw materials from the Great Plains into a processing center,” Chivari says. “Then, when you look at where the population is, … logistically, we are positioned very nicely to move product around the country.”
Anyone who knows geography can see what Chivari and many other processors mean about being a central transportation hub. But Chicago’s meat-processing history and generally stable population are often unsung factors for keeping meat processors here. Chivari explains that Quantum certainly has benefited from staying in the Chicagoland area through the years.
“The relative skill sets that exist in this marketplace are predicated on meat processing, going all the way back to the Stockyards,” he says. “You have a lot of people who understand how to portion meat, and that’s a skill that just doesn’t exist everywhere.
“You can teach it, but there’s a history behind Chicago with the Yards. … It’s a sequence and progression of ethnicities working in the meat industry and understanding the skill sets needed.”
Quantum draws its workforce from nearby population centers, including Chicago’s South Side neighborhoods and the larger “collar” suburbs of Joliet and Aurora. Yet, with employees scattered about a metropolitan area, Chivari says Bleka has successfully maintained the culture of a family business within the walls of Quantum.
“Ed is a unique individual who has a great vision, and he continues to look at that vision and say, ‘Jeez, what can I do differently and better?’” Chivari explains. “He has created not only a culture, but he perpetuates the principles of the way he has done things. … He’s been very successful, yet that success in turn has been given back to the community, the church, the employees. He has created a very family-type of a setting, and that’s unique.”
But the clincher for Quantum has been Bleka’s ability to spot turning points in his customers’ needs and desires and be willing to change without diverging from the core of the company. For example, Quantum has begun dabbling in the retail market with its brand of portion-control steaks under the Quantum Steakhouse and Quantum Simply Gourmet brands. The gains on that side of the business “have been long yards,” Garcia says, but the brands are finding some success in several markets, and Quantum will continue to support their growth as it continues to reinvent itself in the foodservice arena.
“If you take a look at the [family type processors],” Chivari adds, “they found niches and continue to build off that niche. They didn’t sway too far from the core competency, which led to success.”
Quantum has found its success using the same strategy, but its wild card is Bleka, who is simply not afraid of modification, change or taking a calculated risk when the time is right.
“Every company hits a crossroads, particularly entrepreneurial companies — they get to a certain size, and then they have to make a decision,” Garcia says. “It’s like a tree: You either grow or you die; you can’t stay in the same place forever.”
With its strong Chicago meat-processing roots and Bleka tending to its persistent needs, Quantum Foods should continue to bear fruit for decades to come.
 
Chiappetti Lamb and Veal Co.
3900 S. Emerald St.
and 3810 S. Halsted St.
Phone: 1-708-995-2900
Fax: 1-708-995-2905
Key Executives: Dennis Chiappetti, President; Bryan Chiappetti, Vice President; Franco Chiappetti, Vice President of Sales; Nick Chiappetti, Marketing; Mark McCockle, Veal Sales; David Chiappetti, Plant Manager; Larry Olsen, Livestock Buyer
Founded: Chiappetti has been in the lamb business for 70 years.
Key products: Lamb and veal
Q: Is Chiappetti located in its original location?
Dennis Chiappetti, president: Yes.
Q: Does being headquartered in the Chicagoland area give you an edge over any national competitors you might have? What resources does the Chicagoland area provide that allow you to build your business?
Chiappetti: Being in Chicago, we are centrally located, which helps on freight costs. A big, big resource Chicago offers is water — and we need a lot of water for our kill plant.
Q: Do you feel as though you’re continuing the longstanding meat-business tradition of Chicago? Do you think the meat business has moved on to greener pastures on the whole, or is it still alive and kicking in Chicago?
Chiappetti: At one time, Chicago was the meat capital of the world, and now Chiappetti is the only lamb and veal slaughter plant left in Chicago. Chiappetti plans to stay in Chicago and keep the business alive and kicking as long as we can.
Q: What is the overall landscape of meat processing in Chicago? Niche processors? Foodservice suppliers? Ethnic-foods-related business? What has shaped this landscape over the decades?
Chiappetti: Our niche is the makeup of the different ethnic groups in Chicago who eat lamb and veal.
Q: How has the Internet/Web and the evolution of a global economy helped bring some of the smaller, regional processors in places like Chicago to a much greater audience? How does your business take advantage of this additional exposure, if at all?
Chiappetti:  I think the Internet/Web has made it easier to help locate different products and suppliers.
Q: Do you believe that private or family-owned businesses can thrive and grow in the type of marketplace we have today, particularly in the meat business? What is the secret to success for growing into a large processor?
Chiappetti:  I do believe a family-owned business can thrive and grow in today’s business world, but I do not think it is easy.  
Allen Brothers Inc.
Phone: 1-800-548-7777
Key Executives: Todd Hatoff, President; Robert Hatoff, Chairman and CEO
Founded: 1893
Key products: USDA Prime Beef (the top 1-2 percent of all beef produced), and the finest in lamb, veal, seafood, and other fine gourmet foods

Q: Is Allen Brothers located in its original location?
Todd Hatoff:Allen Brothers originated in the heart of Chicago’s fabled Union Stockyards, where we remain today.
Q: Does being headquartered in the Chicagoland area give you an edge over any national competitors you might have? What resources does the Chicagoland area provide that allow you to build your business?
Hatoff: Our central geographic location provides us with a distribution channel that is remarkably efficient for delivering orders to all of our customers nationwide. Additionally, we have fostered invaluable relationships and friendships with many Chicagoland organizations and representatives alike.
Q: Do you feel as though you’re continuing the longstanding meat-business tradition of Chicago? Do you think the meat business has moved on to greener pastures on the whole, or is it still alive and kicking in Chicago?
Hatoff: Undoubtedly, we continue to pride ourselves on our heritage and tradition of providing the very best of beef and other fine meats. While many have struggled to sustain an effective business model, we have continued to experience explosive growth year after year. 
Q: How has the Internet/Web and the evolution of a global economy helped bring some of the smaller, regional processors in places like Chicago to a much greater audience? How does your business take advantage of this additional exposure, if at all?
Hatoff: Our customers and potential customers have truly benefited most from the rise of the Internet and Web retailing. Customers in rural areas can, with a few clicks of the mouse, order the very best steaks and gourmet foods that might not otherwise be accessible, to be delivered to their home in a most convenient fashion. We continue to advertise through a diverse composition of media channels to share our passion for the very best in fine dining.
Q: Do you believe that private or family-owned businesses can thrive and grow in the type of marketplace we have today, particularly in the meat business? What is the secret to success for growing into a large processor?
Hatoff: We have, and we will continue to grow our business by maintaining our scrupulous standards for product excellence and delivery. While it has not been easy, we are certain that we have developed a business model that affords us with the opportunity to provide every customer across the nation with the very best in product selection and quality.
Bobak Sausage Co.
5275 S. Archer Ave.
Chicago, IL 60632
Phone: 1-773-735-5334
Key Executives: Stan Bobak, President & CEO
Founded: 1967
Key products: Smoked sausages, deli meats and smoked bacon with traditional Polish flavor profiles.

Q: Is Bobak’s located in its original location?
Stan Bobak: We started out primarily as a retailer with the open of a 1,000-square-foot deli on the North Side of the city — we lived on top on the second floor and made product in the back of the store. That evolved into having a few traditional Polish delis around the city, North and South sides, still making product in the back of the store. Then, in 1975, we bought a 3,000-square-foot building in the Stockyards which became the dedicated processing facility that was Illinois inspected. That was the beginning of our wholesaling along with retail. We were there until the late 1980s. We built this facility and moved here in 1989 — it was originally 14,000 square feet and now it’s two buildings combined at 120,000 square feet. We have a restaurant a retail store, and we have an import and distribution operation as well.
Q: What resources does the Chicagoland area provide that allow you to build your business?
Bobak:  Chicago is geographically centrally located. We have a lot of diversity from a consumer base, as we certainly sell our products throughout the U.S. and export as well. No doubt, though, our core base is Chicagoland, and it is a diverse group of people — a melting pot in every sense of the word. Consumers here are more open to trying different products [because of that], and grocers around Chicago are very strong in that regard and very receptive to that diversity.
Q: How has the Internet/Web and the evolution of a global economy helped bring some of the smaller, regional processors in places like Chicago to a much greater audience? How does your business take advantage of this additional exposure, if at all?
Bobak:  As it does for other industries, it has worked phenomenally for us. We promote our Web site on our packaging, cartons, product labels, etc. We offer reasons to go to our Web site with recipes and in the case of retail we have promotions on there and sales ads. From the manufacturing and wholesale side, we’re constantly changing recipes and giving people ideas for what to do with the products. It allows a relatively small, family-owned, Chicago-rooted company to play in a larger market.
Q: Do you believe that private or family-owned businesses can thrive and grow in the type of marketplace we have today, particularly in the meat business? What is the secret to success for growing into a large processor?
Bobak: Everyone knows you have to have quality and good customer service and the other key essentials, and that’s true for any company in any industry. But what’s very important is, it’s all about the brand. Everything we do has to, in some way, work toward enhancing and promoting our brand. Sausage products come and go; trends come and go; flavor profiles come and go; but brands are what stick in people’s heads. As generations move along, it allows companies like us to say we’ve been around and doing well for 40 years. I also feel very strongly that the diversity of our business helps the manufacturing. We all go through cycles, trends, up times and down times, no doubt. But being that Bobak’s also has retail, is importing and has a line of private-label imported products — pickles, mushrooms and other items — we’re expanding our offerings, but that goes a long way toward the longevity of the business. Maybe we go into a cycle where sausage is down, we can weather the storm because of the diversity of the other products we offer. The key is, they all carry the Bobak’s brand, and during all that we’re constantly promoting the brand regardless of the product.
Chicago Meat Authority
1120 W. 47th Place
Chicago, IL 60616
Phone: 1-800-383-3811
Key Executives:  Jordan Dorfman, President; Peter Bozzo, Vice President of Portion Control; Ray Kozlowski, Vice President of Business Development; John Nault, Director of Operations
Founded: January 1990
Key products: Pork Chops, Pork Ribs, Steaks, Cutlets, Diced Beef, Diced Pork, Meat for further processing

Q: Is Chicago Meat Authority located in its original location?
Daniel Mulka, marketing coordinator: Chicago Meat Authority (CMA) is still in the original location. CMA has expanded seven times during its existence, now occupying 60,000 square feet.
Q: Does being headquartered in the Chicagoland area give you an edge over any national competitors you might have? What resources does the Chicagoland area provide that allow you to build your business?
Mulka: Chicago Meat Authority is Your Authority on Quality Meats, and being headquartered in the historic Chicago Stockyards supports our position. We learned from the storied experience of surrounding businesses when starting our company. We’ve hired experienced employees with great ideas and artisan-like skill with a butcher’s knife. Living in this great city also gives us the opportunity to mix in top talent with fresh ideas, helping us adapt to industry trends.
Q: Do you feel as though you’re continuing the longstanding meat-business tradition of Chicago? Do you think the meat business has moved on to greener pastures on the whole, or is it still alive and kicking in Chicago?
Mulka: Although it’s important to embrace history and learn about what has gone right and wrong for local businesses in this industry, each company has to go out and make its own tradition. You might be able to get a cheaper, shoddier product from some of the bigger guys throughout the nation, but when you’re looking for a top-notch product, you’ll see the quality that’s still alive in Chicago.
Q: What is the overall landscape of meat processing in Chicago? Niche processors? Foodservice suppliers? Ethnic-foods-related business? What has shaped this landscape over the decades?
Mulka: There are many great meat companies in the city of Chicago. From sausage makers to hamburger patty manufacturers, the city is full of great businesses producing quality meats.
Q: How has the Internet/Web and the evolution of a global economy helped bring some of the smaller, regional processors in places like Chicago to a much greater audience? How does your business take advantage of this additional exposure, if at all?
Mulka: Smaller niche players are able to get in front of a much larger audience with the growth of the Internet, and companies in Chicago are no exception. A smooth, slick Web site is important and can earn a company the shot at some business. CMA’s Web site is an informative resource that shows how much we are an authority on beef and pork.
Q: Do you believe that private or family-owned businesses can thrive and grow in the type of marketplace we have today, particularly in the meat business? What is the secret to success for growing into a large processor?
Mulka: As a private-owned business in the meat business, it is definitely possible to thrive and grow in the current marketplace. The secret is finding your area of the market and being an authority in that area. Customers will find you.