Most people don't know this but a salad is not just a salad.
In the Northeast, people like their potato salad made from white potatoes, while in other parts of the country, it's yellow potatoes. In the Northeast people like their cole slaw shredded. In the Midwest, it's chopped.
Ron Loeb, president and owner of Farm Ridge Foods, has known this for quite some time, and his business, now in its sixth year, has salads and other prepared foods to offer people just the way they like them, just about anywhere in the country.
“We're the largest prepared food manufacturer on the East Coast,” he says. “Our core product line is prepared salads. But don't think we're boring. From potato and macaroni salad to cole slaw to tuna, chicken, shrimp and crab salads, we have it all.”
The company's products are distributed in the Northeast.
But that's not all the company does. It has come out with an artisan line of pickles and olives, and its Untypickle Pickles – from horseradish to hot chips to garlic to hickory-smoked – have exploded into the marketplace over the last several years and are now the company's fastest-growing line of products.
Farm Ridge began by selling unique and artisan prepared, portion-controlled foods to supermarkets and restaurants. “We have everything from prepared grilled chicken to crab cakes to stuffed cabbage, twice-baked potatoes to coconut- and panko-crusted chicken to hungry man meatloaf with bacon and cheese,” says Loeb. “Everything that's labor-intensive, that's store-level and restaurant-level, we help our customers put out on a scale they could never afford to do on their own.”
Loeb says restaurants particularly like the portion-controlled element of the meals. “They don't have to worry this customer is getting a larger portion than another one. It's all portion-controlled. It's ease of preparation. Everything is fully cooked. Just open a container and it's there.”
Farm Ridge Foods makes these items for both supermarkets and restaurants. “We're upscale. Gourmet crab cakes and potatoes that taste like they're made from scratch. What restaurant wouldn't be happy to have this on its menu? Everything is made to order, nothing is inventoried. From the olives to the pickles to the entrees, we get the order, it's processed, and delivered, just like that,” says Loeb. He notes that the company does a gas-flush process with entrees that gives them a 21-day shelf life after foodservice operations first receive it.
“It's fresh, not packaged,” he says. “With salads, we make a taste profile that fits the marketplace. Many make potato salad for everyone. Our salads fit taste profiles for specific marketplaces.”
On the West Coast and in the South, salads are more sweet, he points out. “In Pennsylvania, for example, it's sweeter, Amish-tasting. When we make a tuna salad for the Midwest, we put relish in it. In the Northeast, we don't have pickles in our potato salad.”
Loeb says the key to Farm Ridge Foods is that they're always fresh. “Our ingredients, our products, are all about freshness. In addition, we save foodservice operators and retailers a huge chunk of money. If they were to make from-scratch products themselves, the cost is so prohibitive. If you think about all the ingredients they have to buy – you can't buy just a stalk of celery, you have to buy a case. The same is true of mayonnaise or chicken or anything else you put in a salad. With us, you're buying a 5-pound unit that's finished, and you're done. Think about all those costs attributed to making it yourself, then inventorying it, and having dollars sit on a shelf until they can sell through those cases. We make it for you. That's how we make you more profitable,” he notes.
Loeb points out that, with Farm Ridge, foodservice operations now have a fixed cost. “They can't just pile a sandwich till it's full. With our portion control, they know every sandwich, every platter of chicken, is portion-controlled to be 4 or 5 ounces, so they're able to lock in fixed costs. We're giving them the quality of the product, while micro-managing the costs. Great food but the waste isn't there.”
Another way Farm Ridge products help foodservice and retail markets is lowering labor costs. “A key factor in groceries today is help. You can't get the same quality of help as in the past. Everyone’s looking at labor costs. Why would someone want to tie their labor force, a chef, down to making a potato salad? It's very time-intensive, boiling and peeling those potatoes, putting them together with the mayo. We do all that for them.”
Every product run is made into a specific batch, and it's all computerized, says Loeb. “We're making 500 pounds of potato salad? The computer kicks out the recipe for 500 pounds. Our production people use specific spices. It's not a handful of this, a case of this. It always tastes the same. Consistency is key.”
Another huge advantage of Farm Ridge Foods is that flavor is introduced in layers, at different moments of tasting the food. And that goes for eating anything from pickles to salad.
Loeb is particularly proud of his growing fresh pickle empire. “We're truly from farm to container in five days. We do a process unlike anyone else. We hyper cool the pickles. When they come off the farm, the temperature could be 100 degrees. They go right into a cold bath to bring down the temperature, then into a refrigerated truck to be transported to our facility.”
Most pickle manufacturers, he notes, will take the pickle from the farm, put it in a non-refrigerated truck, and then make their pickles.
“But when you taste our pickles, throughout their shelf life, the freshness, the crispness, the crunchiness, you've never had a more delicious pickle,” he says. “They're also all graded size-wise for consistency.”
Untypickle pickles come in wasabi, devilish dill, atomic spicy, bread and butter chips, harvest blend spears and many others. “We're the artisans in the industry,” says Loeb. “Nobody else in the industry makes these pickles. We've created a unique niche. Every restaurant wants its own signature on its meals and sandwiches, and we give them the opportunity to have a signature pickle. With a pulled pork sandwich, you might want a smoked pickle; with roast beef you want horseradish. It really entices people. And that helps foodservice operators differentiate themselves. It's like a surprise, a cut above normal.”
Loeb recalls a time when anyone could walk into a deli and choose a fresh pickle out of an open barrel. “You helped yourself. But then the Board of Health says you can't do this without a refrigerator. The fresh pickle business went away to the supermarket, where now you have Classic and Claussen, whose pickles are loaded with sodium to retain shelf life. Our pickles have 20% less sodium than the others out there. And it doesn't hinder the taste. Our R&D director is from Starbucks and he formulates all our recipes, the biggest trends hitting the marketplace. He's the one who came up with the ability to introduce different flavors to the palate at different times.
For example, with one pickle, first you taste the wasabi, then the ginger to calm the palate down. “We have layers of taste. And we're doing it for millions of pickles so when you taste that horseradish or atomic, it will be consistent each time you taste it. Everybody loves a fresh pickle.”
The company is about to open in the Canadian market next week, and will be shipping pickles there in 30 to 90 days.
“There's a report that tracks UPC numbers and tells you how well you're doing in different marketplaces. We are the leader in the country when it comes to pickles. We represent over 25 of the top 100 pickles in the U.S.,” says Loeb proudly.
Once people taste the product, they're hooked. He says people ask if they can buy the pickles direct or online, but that's not happening. “We support our retailers and foodservice accounts. We're not looking to service directly. We want people to go through our customers,” he says, adding that the company has brokers, distributors, and wholesalers who sell throughout the country.
“We have a very good story for them to tell,” he says. “We're constantly changing the taste profiles for the marketplace. We have a spring-summer line, and a fall-winter line for our pickles. We have a new Mediterranean pickle line and a Greek pickle and autumn spice (pumpkin spices, really very unique) coming out in the fall.”
In its entree line, Farm Ridge will offer grilled srirarcha chicken, a chicken Parmesan meatball, sweet chipotle barbecue chicken, Thai grilled chicken, turkey chili, a kale and sweet potato quinoa cake, a pastrami potato pancake tower, and French Country meat loaf with Dijon mustard, along with others, in the fall.
“We change the menu up for each season,” explains Loeb. “You've got to change things up all the time. But we do keep some items on all year. Stuffed cabbage is a traditional item we sell year-round. It's one of our biggest-selling entrees. It's a family recipe for 80 years, with a sweet and sour sauce. That's one thing we never take off the menu.”
Everybody has a crab cake, or a turkey burger, but Farm Ridge works hard to keep changing up its offerings. “It's how we help foodservice operators, distributors and brokers,” says Loeb. “That gives them a great conversation starter. They can offer all these great new products every season. Here's something new to keep your loyal customers coming and get new customers, a whole new range of things on the menu.
Olives are yet another market segment for the company that's growing. “Everyone either uses canned or fresh but we have the traditional olives, the Kalamatas, the blacks, the greens. People eat olives differently throughout the world so we have a Greek olive, an Italian olive, a French olive, a Spanish olive and we blend it. In Spain we have a sweet and spicy olive with green sugar-cured olives with red pepper flakes and different spices. We also have artisan olives like our Caribbean-type olive, seasoned with spices that are used in Latin American cuisine, and black olives spiced with crushed red peppers, garlic cloves, jalapenos, cumin and cilantro. We take the olives and make a recipe opposed to a plain olive,” says Loeb.
They're particularly popular at the olive bars now appearing in supermarkets. “We're using the same business model as our Untypickle Pickles. It's just like a salad bar. If you keep the same stuff, people get tired of it. You have to change it up, freshen it, educate the customer. It's a whole mindset. It's more for the grocery stores, but everybody is looking for avenues to help their margins, to give different offerings to customers. Restaurants have a Greek salad. Our Kalamata olives give that customer the option of a different taste for the olive. Anyone can immediately tell the difference between canned olives and really good ones in a Greek salad.”
What's coming up for the company? “We're in the midst of developing macaroni and cheese with lobster fried balls. It's like a crab cake but with mac and cheese and lobster. You're going back to that restaurant because it's different, it's unique, it's not the same skirt steak, or chicken Parmesan. He's got to change it up and we help him. Italian, French and Spanish olives with different blends are also coming out,” he says.
Especially important to foodservice operators and retailers is the fact that Farm Ridge Foods' facility is certified Safe Food Quality (SQF) Level 2. The designation means that an organization has a rigorous system to manage food safety risks, provide safe product and provide customers with a recognized food safety certification. “We know where everything's coming from,” says Loeb. “You just can't buy things and say mix it in. We have the best suppliers, the best growers. We work with the best ingredients. Everybody says, cut back on quality. We don't do that.”