Posted on September 6, 2006

Coleman Natural’s post-merger strategy goes ‘beyond organic’

New strategies to penetrate foodservice market relies on industry ties

Before and after the merger late last month, Coleman Natural Foods was America’s largest producer of naturally raised meats. But the company’s size alone will not achieve its market share goals.

Coleman Natural’s reach into new retail and foodservice markets means relying on patience in educating consumers and retail meat buyers, ingenuity in adding new products, and leadership in collaborating with leaders of the sustainable food movement.

Booth Creek Management Corp. combined sister companies Golden, Colo., -based BC Natural Foods and Gainesville, Ga., -based KDSB Holdings, LLC, which operated Snowball Foods and Kings Delight, food processors of turkey and chicken products, on Aug. 22, creating Coleman Natural Foods, LLC.

Company Chairman Mel Coleman, Jr. and Chief Administration Officer Dan Keefe hooked up with other company executives in Chicago last week for strategic meetings, sifting through strengths and weaknesses, concocting a recipe for success.

Sustainable Food News caught up with both for an exclusive look at what plans the natural and organic meats company is cooking up for the future. And there’s plenty on the menu.

Make mine a Hampshire
The two chuckled when asked what new products customers can expect as a result of the merger.

“We just came out of a meeting where we got about 10 or 12 new items we’re talking about,” Coleman explained.

But while company officers debate the merits of some of those product ideas, Keefe suggested some were a bit outside the pale of its core products.

But there was one unique, future addition to the product mix that Coleman was especially proud to announce.

“The biggest thing we’re going to do is come out with a new, breed-specific pork program that goes beyond the natural and organic standards,” he said.

The company is using the Hampshire hog to kick off its first breed-specific program. Originated in England, the Hampshire breed is black with a white belt encircling the shoulder and front legs. Advantages to using the breed include a lean, heavily muscled, high quality carcass.

The breed specific program offers value to consumers in terms of taste and consistency, and provides retailers with consistent quality and cutting specifications to limit margin variations, Coleman said.

The company is now the America’s No. 1 pork producer in terms of volume, depending on the week, thanks to the growth of its overall pork program in the last 18 months, he said. Other breed-specific programs are slated for the near future.

Focusing on foodservice
Coleman Natural now operates four business units.

The Poultry Division; the Meat Division; the Prepared Foods Division, which manages the company’s sales of processed meat products including bacon, sausage, and hot dogs; and a Food Service Division, formerly the Kings Delight operations.

Keefe said adding the Kings Delight brand brings on board scores of new customer accounts, and the key personnel that service them.

“We have expertise now to grow the foodservice side,” he said. “It’s a reflection of what our strategy has been, and an opportunity to expand product offerings.”
For the past 20 years, Coleman Natural’s strategy focused on growing its retail business, supplying its natural and organic beef, poultry, lamb and pork to first just a handful of natural food stores, and now a nationwide audience.

But as consumers’ demands stretch from retail to restaurants, so does the increased sourcing by foodservice buyers for naturally raised, multi-species meats.

“In restaurants, you are definitely seeing a larger emphasis on healthy eating,” Keefe said. “You see some of the big restaurant chains that are moving, if not exclusively, pretty closely, towards natural and organic meats. That’s a growing opportunity for us.”

Coleman Natural is especially focusing on ripe interest at the more progressive side of the foodservice sector, targeting institutions such as hospitals, universities and even school districts, “which we think is a great opportunity,” Keefe said.

To help the company pursue its foodservice agenda, Coleman Natural is relying on some of the most prominent foodservice professionals in the industry.

Calling on Cool
“We’re partnering up with some of the pioneers on the restaurant side of the sustainable food business,” Coleman said.

He named sustainable food groups such as the Chefs Collaborative and Slow Food as “influencers” in the movement, but singled out one pioneering chef/restaurateur for leading the industry on the path to sustainability: Jesse Cool.

By hitching its wagon to the nationally renowned, sustainable food leader, Coleman Natural is able to channel conceptual and practical applications of sustainable food models at the restaurant level into strategies of supplying this underserved segment of the foodservice market.

Cool serves as spokesperson, consultant and advisor to several nonprofits and corporations, educating clients and the public on how to best navigate the path toward sustainability.

When she’s not jetting between coasts for speaking engagements, Cool runs a $3 million foodservice operation in the San Francisco Bay area including the catering company CoolEatz; three restaurants: Flea Street Café, jZcool Eatery and Catering Co; and the Cool Café on Stanford University’s campus.

“Sustainability means absolutely knowing where the food comes from,” Cool told SFN.

“It means having a person to whom I can communicate about issues regarding the production, handling and safety of the food,” she explained. “We’re shifting to Coleman, which has ranches in California, because we we’re going to get that.”

But that emphasis on quality and value during the production stage can cost a lot more than raising conventional meat products.

Listening to Coleman, there doesn’t appear to be anything wrong with that. In fact, to grow the category, the entire supply chain through the end-user needs to clearly understand that distinction.

Paradigm shift for meat buyers
“One of the hurdles [to sales growth] is a paradigm shift in thinking with the retail meat buyer,” he said. “They’ve spent their career and their lifetime buying on price, but what they need to understand is that the consumer is willing to pay for value.”

Retail chains can better grow their business in the natural and organic meat category by focusing more on the presentation of these products and communicating their attributes, than fighting with suppliers over price.

But Keefe explains that while retailers may be catching on to the evolving dynamics of rapidly growing marketing opportunities within the category, changes in the retail meat case will only happen one shopper at a time.

“At the end of the day, it’s the person pushing that shopping cart that has to make the decision,” he said. “And the better we can communicate with them, the better off we are long term for developing a pretty steady customer base that understands the value they are getting from our products.”

Coleman said consumer research conducted by the company showed shoppers are looking for “high standard,” natural and organic products.

Coleman qualifies “high-standard” as the same livestock and poultry growing practices the company has employed for years.

In 1980, the company petitioned the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 1980 to define ‘natural’ as raising livestock and poultry without antibiotics and growth hormones, and feeding the animals an all-vegetarian diet.

One grain away from organic
Coleman explained that the only thing keeping the company’s animals from being considered organic were being fed organically grown grain.

“The Coleman Natural standard is kind of one grain away from being organic,” he said.

But a few years later, the federal government changed the definition of ‘natural’ then the definition was changed to allow any product that was minimally processed and contained no artificial ingredients.

“It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know that doesn’t mean squat,” Coleman said.

The result is today’s hodgepodge of labels affixed to meat products at the retail level jockeying for market share.

Phony labels?
That poses another hurdle for the company to clear: “dealing with all these phony labels that are out there,” Coleman said.

In its market research, supermarket shoppers told the company they were tired of walking along an 80-foot meat case unable to distinguish fact from fiction according to information on numerous labels.

Coleman admitted the best way to combat misinformation at the retail level is doing its best to educate consumers.

“We are heavily involved in point-of-sale materials in the supermarkets,” Coleman said. “What we’ve done over the years is spent huge amounts of money on point-of-sale materials and signage at destination points.”

While Coleman Natural tried television and radio advertising “years ago”, the company found that its markets were not concentrated enough to make it worthwhile.

“It’s very difficult to educate consumers about what natural and organic meats are in a 30-second spot,” Coleman said.

Still, the company hopes to bolster its retail marketing presence in the future with more multimedia platforms to connect with shoppers in the store.

Building brand awareness
The new company will sell products under the following brand names: Coleman Natural, Coleman Organic, Coleman All Natural Deli, Rocky the Range Chicken, Rocky Jr., Rosie the Organic Chicken, Hans’ All Natural and Hans’ Organic.

The company will also offer the Kings Delight, Clux Delux, Lake Lanier Farms, Anchor Bar, Executive Chef and Snowball brands.

While the roster of brands could suggest to some a company soon to become too large to remember its humble beginnings, Coleman – a fifth generation rancher – quells any notion of corporate ambivalence.

Doing good, in a big way
“What’s happening is that our company is getting bigger, but the philosophy of dealing with the small family farm and ranchers, and bringing economic viability to them by providing them an outlet to market their products remains the same,” Coleman said. “We still have this grass-roots mentality.”

But it’s the company’s size that Coleman hopes will help spread its philosophy and business practices around the country.

Coleman envisions a grass-roots network of farms and ranches adhering to the company’s livestock and poultry raising standards and practices, while supplying the public with naturally raised meats.

“But you’ve got to get some kind of scale before that kind of thing can happen,” he said. Neither retailers nor consumers are served without a consistent supply, he said.

“Conceptually, that’s where we’d like to go,” Coleman said. “That’s what we are working toward, but it is very difficult to do.”

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