Mom And Pop Still Dream Big Small Companies Gone Successful

OU Kosher Staff

“There’s no business like food business, like no business I know!” It may not be the lyrics you’re familiar with, but for every company-founder of any segment of the industry, be it beverages, dairy, baked goods, or flavors, the dream to make it big definitely rings true – and when it happens, the taste is mighty sweet.
Many of today’s most successful food companies started out small. Through hard work, perseverance and consistent innovation, they rose to the top – keeping the time-honored American Dream alive and kicking.

According to Rabbi Yisroel Bendelstein, RC, it’s all about offering a unique, quality product. “If a company has a niche product and especially if it is one that kosher consumers tend to flock to, that helps them to be able to market in and outside the kosher community,” he says. He should know; he’s watched quite a few companies coming from modest beginnings not only take off, but also continue to maintain their success and their humility.

In 1976, Bill and Carol Lawler of Humble, Texas, set out to create the ultimate cheesecake. They rented office space, plugged in a freezer, cooler, and oven, and with just one employee to assist them, went to work. The couple knocked on doors, selling cheesecakes to the local restaurants. One satisfied palate led to the next, the employee pool grew to eight and the Lawler cheesecake recipe boasted six additional flavors. “[Initially], there was a lot of trial and error,” says Mike Lawler, president, and Lawler’s second generation. “They got good at it and built their client base by driving their own trucks and we started getting bigger clients.”

Sam’s Club, for instance. “It started out as just an item for a season,” says Mike, “what we call an ‘in and out.’” It sold so well that Sam’s Club (fewer than 20 clubs at the time) decided to stock them year round. “It became a huge part of our percentage of sales,” says Mike. With a little over a handful of employees and a typical order of no larger than 125 cases, the Lawlers went full throttle, working day and night to produce three semi-loads of cheesecakes. As Sam’s Club grew Lawlers grew, keeping up in order to service the account.

Mike reports that the kosher aspect was in place since day one. “OU is the umbrella; if you are OU all the other designations are satisfied,” he says.
Rather than sitting on their cheesecake laurels, Lawlers chose to sweeten the pot and diversify, creating new products and adding on larger chain restaurant accounts. They manufacture cheesecakes, layer cakes, brownies, pies and started making products that serve as the ingredients for other companies’ items. The original make-shift bakery grew into multiple buildings on 21 acres with 360 employees. In addition to its long list of national restaurant chains, Lawlers services regional and national grocery chains, wholesale clubs, and retail outlets in the US, Canada, Mexico and Europe.

According to Mike, the company simply got better and better at what they did, evolving through R&D and capital expenditure, all the while increasing their efficiency. He emphasizes the pivotal role of focusing on company morale. “Our workforce is proud of the product they make,” he says. “We don’t have a lot of turnover; all of our supervisors are people who have come up through the years here. It’s a recipe that works.”
Freeze-Drying Niche– a Sizzling Success

Wonder how those bananas and blueberries got into your cereal? Thank Van Drunen Farms in Momence, Illinois, a thriving business that dates back to the 1850’s. The company created a niche market back in the 1970’s that has become the primary processor of freeze-dried culinary “functional” food ingredients, which include a variety of the fruits and vegetables found in sour cream, cottage cheese, and vegetable dip mixes, instant soups, bagels, and more.

The original Mom and Pop Van Drunens came to South Holland, Illinois, from the Netherlands. They farmed their land, providing customers with potatoes, peas, beans, onions, cabbage and carrots. By the 1960’s, they started selling fresh and frozen chives to the Chicago market. A decade later, taking advantage of the advancements in freeze-dried technology, Van Drunen Farms ventured into the processed foods industry, offering custom freeze-dried chives to dairy companies to add to their products.

By the next decade, detecting a fertile market trend, they bought their own freeze-drier and sold freeze-dried fruits and vegetables to a growing number of manufacturing companies. “The advantage is the products are always frozen while they are being dried,” says Kevin Van Drunen, president. “The cell structure stays intact; the products don’t shrivel up like a raisin would. A blueberry will look the same when it goes in and comes out.” The company currently has two freeze-drying factories, as well as a drum-drying factory and has added pumpkin and cranberry flakes, used in pie and muffin mixes to their roster of goods.
Kevin attributes the company’s growth to the convenience food market phenomenon. “People don’t have to cook from scratch,” he says. “Adding fruit to cereals, instant soup and dip mixes are popular shortcuts. We are constantly changing products, reacting to what people are looking for and then trying to meet those needs.” As they sold to more multinational companies packing kosher products, they realized the direction they had to take. “A lot of customers were using OU, or accepted OU,” he says. “[OU Kosher certification] enabled us to sell into these larger customers and certainly aided our growth and opened doors.”

Knowing that its continued success depends on rapid response to customer needs, Kevin and his brother Jeffrey constantly strive to create new products. “Freeze-dried strawberries is a big item for us,” says Kevin. “So we offer it in 40 different sizes, diced, sliced, piece sizes, to meet every customer’s demand.” On 1,200 acres of farm land, Van Drunen Farms (500 organic and 700 conventional) employees 350 workers.

Great-grandfather Rockus Van Drunen would be proud; the farm is thriving. “We grow about a thousand acres of culinary herbs, basil, parsley, oregano (Van Drunen is the largest supplier of organically grown culinary herbs in the country), which are sold primarily frozen,” he says. “We dice it also and sell it to pesto manufacturers, frozen pizza and frozen entrée companies.” After over two decades, the Van Drunen brothers genuinely “like coming to work each day.” And it shows.
Reaching for the Stars – the “Milky” Way

The unwavering belief in one’s product and in oneself propels startup owners to take chances where others might not. In 1932, during the height of the Depression, Matthew V. Byrne secured a loan and started a bottling business, using milk from local farms. Byrne’s first plant offered door-to-door fresh milk delivery. Today Byrne Dairy, an operation with over 1,200 employees, runs 260 farms, all located in the New York region, most within an hour’s drive from the dairy’s three plants. It packages and ships over one-half billion pounds of milk per year.

The fourth generation of Byrnes continues to milk the company’s bountiful benefits, as they take the family’s commitment to quality, innovative mindset and willingness to take calculated risks into the twenty-first century. In 2004, the company established Ultra Dairy, a new plant, featuring a technologically advanced system that significantly extends its products’ shelf-life. “Longer shelf-life gives our customers added value,” says Carl Byrne, president. “The ESL process yields products with a shelf-life of up to 90 days with refrigeration.”

Expanding its production line, the dairy offerings now include flavored milks, as well as cheeses, yogurts, sour cream, dips, and ice-cream; the company also co-packs products that have become household names. Stagnation is not in the Byrne vocabulary. It built an ice-cream plant in the 1970’s and doubled the size of its fresh milk plant in the 1980’s and adds two to three stores per year (57 thus far).

The Byrne family believes in investing in its workers as well. If they want to enhance their professional development and earn bonuses, the company offers additional training in each field of expertise. And they promote from within. “I remember a woman who started as one of the people who oversaw the filling machine,” says Rabbi Evan Shore, RFR. “She’s now the head of the lab.”

Ultra Dairy’s 115 employees glean inspiration from the Byrnes’ obvious dedication to their work. “One day the filler machine backed up,” says Rabbi Shore, “Bill Byrne, (Carl’s cousin, president from 1997-2006, currently VP of Quality Control), rolled up his sleeves and started picking up the milk containers falling on the floor. When employees see that, it’s a powerful example.”

OU Kosher certification facilitated Ultra Dairy’s entry to states across the US and Puerto Rico and into such giants as Walmart, Target, and Topco. “We needed an organization that was respected and well noted throughout the country,” says Nick Marsella, COO and senior vice president. “Our customers want the OU on the product.”

A Most Flavorful Foray
In 1991, Joey Allen, a 30-year veteran of the flavor industry, teamed up with Michel Allen, who graduated with a BS in Food Science, to launch Allen Flavors, Inc., of Edison, New Jersey. Starting out as a two-person, one-room operation, today Allen Flavors, Inc.’s manufacturing facilities total close to 150,000 square feet, housing multiple laboratories including a complete flavor lab and state-of-the-art research and development lab. With nearly 100 employees, it is the main distributor for Nestle coffee and tea and creates flavors for customers throughout the US, as well as Canada, Mexico, Asia, Europe, and the Caribbean.

The Allen’s combined credentials put them in a prime position for a big break. They got that break a little over 15 years ago when two enterprising young men presented them with an idea – flavorful tea in a can; they wanted the Allens to provide the flavor. The product took off. As more and more private label brands called on the company’s tasty touch, its customer list burgeoned.

A world renowned OU-certified proprietary beverage flavor company, Allen Flavors formulates thousands of beverage concentrates that include specific flavors, as well as juice, vitamin, and tea blends. “We develop beverages that are stable, taste good and are affordable,” says Bruce Weber, vice president of technical services. “We price it so that everyone in the chain can make a profit.”

Dan DeClarke, owner of Flavor Infusion, in San Clemente, California, took an innovative concept, combined it with manufacturing know-how and fashioned a booming business. A flavorist since 1969, DeClarke came out of retirement in 1997 to launch a new flavor company. The turning point that secured his second success story came with a call to OU Kosher headquarters. “He told me he was not able to fulfill a customer’s kosher requirements,” says Rabbi Chaim Goldberg, RC. “It was his biggest account and he needed it done quickly.” According to Rabbi Goldberg, the company was, at the time, a step above a Mom and Pop business. “[Going OU Kosher] was a very big part of their success.”

Flavor Infusion carefully follows the consumer trend via its consumer research center. “When we go to our customers, we say this is what the consumer wants; here’s the research, the way the whole category is trending and this is why this beverage product fits your company,” says Dan.

Small companies just starting out have chosen to follow the wisdom of their predecessors. Coalescence, in Columbus, Ohio, founded in 2005, produces custom blends, listens closely to their customers’ needs, while keeping an eye on innovation. The company’s chef and food scientist work intensively in the R&D department creating the myriad tasty blends, which include spice blends, sauces, rubs, as well as flavors and fortification blends to be used in food facilities. “We want to be on the forefront and develop food systems that not only taste great, but provide healthful nutritional value,” says Theresa Potter, president.

In five years, the company, originally housed in a 7,500 square foot facility, now encompasses 35,000 square feet and it has gone from six initial employees to 40. Coalescence’s schedule A currently lists over 500 ingredients. Apparently, the start-small/dream-big formula still holds true.

Mike Lawler, heading the granddaddy of small-gone-big companies says it best, “It’s a lot of hard work; as long as you put out an honest high-quality product for a reasonable price, then the opportunities will come.”