Natural Advantages

By Sam Gazdziak, Senior Editor

Innovative poultry products and the resources of a major corporation give Hain Pure Protein a boost in the retail and foodservice markets.
For consumers who make it a point of buying natural and organic products, brands such as Celestial Seasonings, Soy Dream, Terra Chips and Earth’s Best are well-known names. All of those brands are part of The Hain Celestial Group, one of the leading natural and organic companies in the country. With such a large number of food and personal care products in its portfolio, it was only a matter of time before it entered the protein market.
Last year, Hain Pure Protein launched its FreeBird line of chicken products into the natural and organic market. This year, the addition of Plainville Turkey Farms has put Hain Pure Protein in the position to offer a full range of poultry products to the retail and foodservice markets.
“FreeBird is a branded business that’s committed to the highest level of authenticity and integrity in what we do,” said Joseph DePippo, president of Hain Pure Protein Corp., which is headquartered in Fredericksburg, Pa. One of the things that set it apart is its definition of “natural,” which is even more stringent that the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
“All of our chickens are raised without antibiotics, and we are what we call a ‘never, ever’ program,” he says, meaning that at no point in the process are antibiotics ever administered.
Their chickens are fed a vegetarian diet and humanely raised on family farms throughout central Pennsylvania.
“As consumers continue to gain more knowledge about the definition of natural and leading natural and organic retailers such as Whole Foods continue to expand and reach more consumers, we think we will see more consumers interested in purchasing products like FreeBird that are ‘never, ever’ [and] guaranteed to be 100 percent vegetarian fed,” DePippo adds. The type of chicken that Hain Pure Protein offers is gaining popularity across all sectors, DePippo says.
“We see growth in retail, meaning natural, gourmet-specialty retail, but also in the conventional retail sector and club sector, and in the foodservice market,” he says.
Further, DePippo explains, the growth trend with natural and organic protein is a reverse of the usual method. Typically, a new food product gains popularity in the foodservice industry first, and then it makes its way into the retail stores. This time around, natural and organic chicken has become popular in the retail market, expanding from places like Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s into the conventional grocery stores. That popularity has reached more and more into foodservice, where restaurants from fast-casual to fine-dining are becoming interested in “clean” proteins on their menus.
Celestial guidance
Hain Pure Protein’s roots go back to the 1930s. It was formerly College Hill Poultry, a small, vertically integrated processor that had been producing a commodity product. DePippo became associated with the company around 2000 as a consultant and was eventually asked by the then-owner to run the company.
DePippo says that the commodity market has become increasingly difficult to compete, so he helped to transition the company into the fast-growing natural and organic market, selling chicken products to consumers under the Raised Right brand.
Then, around 2004, the company’s majority shareholder decided to divest himself of the business, and DePippo helped find a good home for the company.
“I met Irwin Simon, who is the founder of The Hain Celestial Group, at a food industry conference,” he explains. “We had some dialogue about the potential for natural and organic meat and poultry and the fit for a business like this within Hain Celestial’s expanding business. Our business strategy, company values and product lines fit very well into The Hain Celestial Group’s strategy.”
The deal for College Hill Poultry was concluded by Hain Celestial and its partner, Pegasus Capital Advisors, in 2005. The new company, Hain Pure Protein, had use of the Raised Right brand for one year, and the company teamed with its marketing and communications partner, Vittles, to re-brand the business.
“We wanted a brand that was contemporary, fun and memorable,” he says. “In today’s competitive world, you’ve got to have a brand that is appealing in terms of look and feel. It’s got to have a little bit of fun and have a little personality, and it’s got to be something people remember.”
The end result was the birth of the FreeBird brand, which was launched at the Food Marketing Institute show in 2006. Apart from striking a chord with anyone who’s ever heard of Lynyrd Skynyrd, the FreeBird name conveys all of the things that Hain Pure Protein is known for — chickens raised free of antibiotics and animal byproducts and free to roam inside the barns where they are raised.
“Those attributes are important to the consumers who buy our products,” DePippo says. The reaction among consumers so far has been very positive. Along with a popular brand, Hain Pure Protein also has the resources of Hain Celestial behind it, a relationship DePippo says brings nothing but positives.
“First of all, the customer relationships are very strong in all market segments, and we’ve been able to leverage those relationships to help our business. They’re doing business with a large number of leading customers across the market that we weren’t doing business with, and we’ve been able to connect our business to those customers,” he explains.
The advantages stretch from farm to fork, he says. Hain Pure Protein essentially operates as an independent business unit, but it is able to take advantage of key areas within Hain Celestial, such as the sales and marketing team, as well as the quality-assurance, research-and-development, and regulatory groups.
“Of course, we work very closely with the financial group, which has helped us tremendously. We’ve been able to capitalize on purchasing synergies and other synergies just across functional areas,” DePippo says. “If you don’t have a big sister or brother, you don’t get those opportunities.”
Growing markets
FreeBird chicken products are distributed largely on the East Coast, from New England to Florida, west to Chicago and in the north-central part of the United States. The chickens are processed in the company’s Fredericksburg facility at a rate of 12 million birds per year.
The company offers fresh products both in the natural and organic markets, and although the organic market is much smaller, both are growing categories, DePippo notes. One of the latest developments has been a line of eight new fully cooked chicken products, which have been well-received in both the retail and foodservice market.
“All the ingredients that are used to make the recipes are 100-percent clean, with no additives, preservatives or chemicals,” he points out. As much as consumers are gaining interest in products that are antibiotic-free (ABF) and humanely raised, he points out one demand hasn’t changed.
“At the end of the day, these products have to taste great,” he says.
The line of products includes three types of fully cooked wings, in barbecue, Buffalo-style and rotisserie-seasoned flavors. Breaded products include breast nuggets, strips and patties, as well as a Chickasaurus Rex product — dinosaur-shaped chicken nuggets.
One of the most popular items in the line is char-grilled chicken strips, which were recognized by one grocery trade publication as one of its best new products of 2007. Part of the product’s success was that it is usable either as a standalone item or as an ingredient for salads, pasta or any other dish that requires cooked chicken. The convenience of the product makes it useful for any customer.
“We want to bring more convenience to the consumer and also to the foodservice restaurant operator that is looking to buy quality — but they also want consistency — and they want to buy from people they have confidence in,” DePippo says. “They’re looking to add more value-added products that not only deliver on taste and flavor, which is paramount for their success, but they help in the back of the house because it eliminates a lot of the preparation work.”
The development process for the fully cooked items lasted about a year, and it was aided considerably by the resources within the parent company.
“The Regulatory Group and the R&D Group within The Hain Celestial Group have been very helpful to us through projects such as this,” DePippo says.
Along with the internal growth, the company has been able to grow through the acquisition of Plainville Turkey Farms, a leading antibiotic-free, vegetarian-fed turkey company located in Plainville, N.Y. DePippo says this allows the company to be a full-service provider of ABF poultry products.
“It’s a business that has been in one family for many years, and we believe that ABF turkey is in strong demand, just as ABF chicken has grown in popularity.”
He adds that the values and systems in the company, which had been run by the Bitz family, matched up very well with Hain Pure Protein and its parent company.
Plainville’s products include a comprehensive line of fresh turkey items, as well as all-natural, clean-ingredient turkey products and a full line of deli products. Premium retail outlets and foodservice companies are customers of Plainville, much like Hain Pure Protein. The acquisition was completed in August, and industry veteran Jim Reed was brought on board to serve as chief operating officer.
“Not only did we buy a brand and company that makes, we think, some of the best-tasting turkey that’s available on the market today, we’ve got a really strong management team up there that has a lot of experience and is going to be very instrumental in helping us grow the business,” DePippo says.
With the addition of Plainville Turkey, Hain Pure Protein now totals more than 400 employees. DePippo credits the company’s team for most of the success, saying that the team’s experience, combined with the experience and resources from Hain Celestial, will enable the company to have a successful future.
“We believe in a team effort, and it’s the team working synergistically with the Hain Celestial Group that’s going to take us to the levels that we want to get to,” DePippo says.
Hain Pure Protein Corp., a division of The Hain Celestial Group
Founded in 1929, acquired by Hain Celestial in 2005
Headquarters: Fredericksburg, Pa.
Employees: 400
Facilities: 2 (1 for FreeBird Chicken, 1 for Plainville Turkey)
Brands: FreeBird, Plainville Turkey