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Kessler’s expands, riding wave of higher-end labels

This article was published on Cumberlink.com on February 28, 2016.

By Zack Hoopes

Bob Kessler knows good meat when he sees it.

There was a time when that didn’t make as much of a difference as it does now, a time when Americans were less conscious of what went into their food and more fixated on quantity rather than quality.

But now, with organic, antibiotic-free, and naturally preserved products in high demand, Kessler’s Quality Foods is in a great position.

“We pride ourselves in what we make and how we make it,” said Kessler, President & CEO of the company started by his grandfather in 1916. “It was a conscious decision that was made a number of years ago to differentiate ourselves from everyone else.”

The company recently completed their largest footprint expansion in 30 years, by Kessler’s reckoning, adding 4,500 square feet of space for dry storage and a corridor that allows access to it without going through the storage area for ready-to-eat products.

“In order to prevent cross-contamination, we had to do this. The addition was necessary in order to obtain our SQF certification,” Kessler explained.

SQF – for Safe Quality Foods – is an industry-designed certification for meat processors, the tightest set of controls used. SQF goes above and beyond what is required by government regulators, namely the FDA.

The certification is also required by many retailers of their vendors, and is now being adopted by Whole Foods, Kessler’s biggest private-label customer.

“Getting SQF will open doors for us to private label products for larger stores and companies like Ahold, Giant’s parent company,” Kessler said.

The facility expansion was financed by a $100,000 loan from the Cumberland Small Business Fund in conjunction with the USDA, administered by the Cumberland Area Economic Development Corporation.

Kessler’s sells the bulk of its products under its own brands, such as Kessler’s Nittany Lion Franks, a local favorite. But further growth for the company lies in private labeling, meaning producing meats to customers’ specs and packaging them under the customer’s brand.

Whole Foods, for instance, produces two of its brands at Kessler’s – the store’s signature “365” label, as well as Wellshire Farms, a brand based out of New Jersey and sold exclusively at Whole Foods.

Kessler’s is a natural fit for these brands, seeing as the company was producing higher-quality products long before “gluten free” and “no MSG” were buzzwords.

“We’re producing a lot of different franks, but all of them use muscle cuts of meat. There’s no mechanically separated stuff in there,” Kessler said.

All but two of Kessler’s dozens of products are also gluten-free – the only reason they would not be is if grain-based fillers are added to the ground meat, as is the case with most cheaper processed foods. All products have no monosodium glutamate (MSG) added, and are naturally preserved without added sodium nitrite. The Whole Foods-branded products also use antibiotic-free meat.

While Kessler’s used to slaughter and butcher on-site, that part of the operation was eventually cut out. The facility now receives prepared cuts – about 50,000 pounds of meat per week, Kessler estimated, in 2,000 pound containers that, to the layperson, appear to be 50-gallon drums full of steak.

“We are one of the top 200 meat producers in the US,” Kessler noted. “But the difference between us and the top few facilities is massive. There are a handful of corporations that take up most of the market.”

Kessler’s will also do product development for private label customers, taking the buyer’s general ideas for flavor and texture and blending meat and spices to get the right product.

“We’re working on one right now where we’ve probably made them four or five test batches. They’ll come back and say ‘the color is good, the bite is good, but we need more of ‘x’ spice,’ for example,” Kessler said.

The company also sources internationally, hence the need for the expanded dry storage area. Boxes containing thousands of sausage casings each come in from Germany. One rack is filled with giant bags of spices from Korea, for use in a private-label product for a Korean grocery company in New Jersey.

Many spices also come pre-mixed in pre-measured containers from the suppliers. What’s in them in semi-guarded.

“We’re not like Coca-Cola where the formula is a life-or-death secret,” Kessler said. “Our vendors could probably figure out most of our recipes. But we prefer they don’t.”

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