In business for nearly 70 years, Foster Farms is recognized as the most trusted poultry food product purveyor in the western United States. The California-headquartered company achieved this stature by raising and processing the freshest, most natural chickens and turkeys in its expansive, sophisticated multi-state operations. Its commitment to quality extends from the egg to the store shelves, Dan Harvey reports.
If Foster Farms ever decided to adopt the popular marketing strategy of reworking a rock song into a commercial jingle, the company couldn’t choose better source material than Billy Joel’s “A Matter of Trust.” The 1986 tune contains a keyword and overriding concept that has guided the Livingston, Calif.-headquartered business from its inception nearly 70 years ago: trust.
Robert Wangerien, Foster Farms’ vice president of marketing, offers an anecdote about a seminal incident that helped shaped this core value. “When founder Max Foster wanted to start the business, he went to The Grange Company to borrow capital. He secured the loan and asked to see the necessary signing papers. The Grange representative told him, ‘Max, you don’t have to sign anything. We’ve been dealing with you a long time and we know your word is your bond.”
Wangerien relates that the expression of trust so impressed Foster that it became indelibly imprinted into his company’s operational DNA. “That attitude now pervades our entire organization,” says Wangerien.
The word-as-bond stance not only extends to the immediate customers the company deals with, such as the retailers, warehouse clubs and food-service operators throughout the western United States, but also to the consumers that ultimately bring Foster Farms products into their kitchens.
“One of the most unique things about our company, as it relates to the consumers, is the enormous amount of trust and faith that our product quality has built,” points out Ira Brill, Foster Farms’ director of advertising and marketing services. “Also, on the business-to-business end, our customers exhibit an extraordinary degree of appreciation for the level of service we provide. When you put those two together, you define what’s best about our business model.”
Thanks to its founding principles, Foster Farms is now recognized as the most trusted poultry company in the western United States. With the nation’s elevated consciousness about health and nutrition, the company realizes that consumers are simply far too aware about nutritional content and how food items are produced. As such, Foster Farms strives to provide nothing less than the freshest, most natural poultry offerings. Its chicken and turkey products haven’t been enhanced with steroids and hormones; neither are the birds laden with added sodium content. Rather, they’re locally grown, corn-fed and never injected with salt water.
TRUTH FROM IMPOSTERS
Actually, Foster Farms doesn’t need a rock song-cum-commercial jingle to convey its integrity. The company initiated a clever television ad campaign that applies the age-old technique of strongly underscoring virtue by depicting the transgressions of the sinner.
In Foster Farms’ case, the transgressors are a pair of devious chickens – puppet characters called the “Foster Imposters” – who perpetually try to pass themselves off as Foster-quality birds. The nefarious duo’s efforts are continually thwarted, as they represent everything that Foster Farms tries to avoid. For instance, they subsist on a junk-food diet, the results of which are manifested in their disreputable appearance.
Their exploits comprise one of the most enlightening and entertaining ad campaigns ever developed – and, in a skewed way, these disgraceful vagabonds have become beloved cult figures. Still, public affection only extends so far. Consumers keep them at arm’s length, if not in their hearts then at least in their minds. As with similar marketing figures (think of Charlie the Tuna), consumers may be amused by the imposters’ ambitions; but in the end, the raggedy chickens’ efforts run counter to their wants and needs.
“They aspire to be Foster Farms chickens but they don’t possess the qualities that we seek,” says Wangerien. “Our corn-fed chickens are always fresh and natural, and that has differentiated us and increases consumer confidence in our products. They know that the poultry they purchase from us is the best. The over-arching theme of the campaign is the trustworthiness of our brand.”
The campaign was initially launched in the early 1990s and was resurrected in early 2007 as a means to re-emphasize the value that Foster Farms brings to the table. The new ads, created in partnership with Goodby, Silverstein & Partners, an award-winning San Francisco-based advertising firm, contrasts the Imposters’ claims with the company’s new slogan: “At Foster Farms, Fresh and Natural Means Fresh and Natural.”
INNOVATION AND EXPANSION
Max and Verda Foster founded Foster Farms in 1939. Now headed by grandson Ron Foster, the family owned and operated business boasts annual revenues that exceed $1.8 billion. Its 10,000-plus employees help its customers deliver more than a billion pounds of fresh, all-natural and high-quality chicken and turkey products to consumers each year.
The company’s history is hallmarked by expansion, acquisition and innovation. The story began on the Foster’s 80-acre farm near Modesto, Calif., where the enterprising couple raised chicken and turkeys. By 1950, they added a feed mill and processing plant, which enabled them to provide their birds with a healthy diet. In 1959, they further expanded the business to include a processing plant in Livingston, site of the current headquarters.
In subsequent years, customer demand compelled Foster Farms to spread its wings into Southern California. Ever accommodating, the burgeoning company acquired a sales and distribution center in El Monte, which currently services a territory stretching from Santa Barbara to San Diego, and as far east as Las Vegas.
Foster Farms made a significant acquisition in 1982, when it purchased The Grange Company and its subsidiary, Valchris Poultry, which added to its turkey processing operations and enabled it to meet increasing customer demand for healthy, poultry-based lunch options such as poultry franks, bologna and lunch meats.
“Of all of the acquisitions we’ve made over the years, that was one of the most important, as that placed us firmly in the turkey business, and we’ve continued to be a major player ever since,” says Wangerian.
The following year, to match consumers’ busier lifestyles, Foster Farms introduced its Select Servings line of fresh and faster-tocook lean boneless, skinless chicken breasts and thighs. Then, in 1987, Foster Farms introduced Oregonians to its fresh products when it purchased Fircrest Farms in Creswell. Today, Foster Farms is the leading poultry brand in the Pacific Northwest region.
In 1990, Foster Farms expanded the chicken processing side of the business by adding a plant in Fresno, Calif. The added space enabled it to expand its product lines to include even more convenient products. Company growth continued through the decade, as Foster Farms purchased Lynden Farms in1994 and Pederson Farms in 1997. In 1998, it built its first plant outside of California in Kelso, Wash. In 1999, Foster Farms had a banner year in terms of growth. It added another new plant, in Porterville, Calif., and, more importantly, it expanded its turkey operations by purchasing ConAgra’s Butterball Turkey business in Turlock, Calif. In the process, it became the West’s largest producer of turkey products for the foodservice industry, as its line now included a wide selection of turkey breasts, corn dogs, smoked deli meats and ready-to-prepare meal kits.
In October 2001, Foster Farms acquired the chicken operations of El Monte, Calif.-based Zacky Farms, the second largest poultry business in the West. “The Butterball and Zacky acquisitions have been the most important in our history,” indicates Wangerien.
Indeed, the Zacky Farms acquisition not only included a plant but a hatchery, feed mill, and 35 live production ranches as well as a Los Angeles distribution center. As a result, Foster Farms upped its annual poultry production by 165 million pounds, substantially broadened its customer base, increased its workforce and added to its product line.
FROM NEST TO STORE
Foster Farms’ commitment to quality is evident in the total control it exercises in poultry processing. The company is there every step of the way, from hatching of the eggs to delivering product to store shelves.
It begins with the hatcheries. Foster Farms selects only the healthiest chickens and turkeys for breeding at its carefully maintained ranches (no “Imposters” need apply). Resulting eggs are meticulously checked, cleaned and taken to hatcheries where they are incubated.
After hatching, birds are taken to a local ranch where optimal living conditions promote natural growth. The closely monitored environment, surrounded by a “buffer zone” of empty land, is comfortable and sanitary. The chicks receive a balanced diet of high-quality corn-based feed and are allowed to mature naturally, without steroids or growth hormones.
“Consumers have started demanding the safest food products, and providing safety can be complex when you don’t use enhancers and added chemicals. One of the ways we address that issue is through investing in high-pressure pasteurization for much of our ready-to-eat product line,” explains Wangerien. “It achieves food safety through mechanical pressure, as opposed to chemical additives or heat treatment. We’ve made a substantial recent investment in the technology, as it aligns with what consumers look for.”
AGAIN, IT COMES DOWN TO A MATTER OF TRUST.
As far as feed, Foster Farms produces its own. The company employs precision milling machines to blend corn, soy and other natural ingredients to provide the highest protein food source. Further, veterinarians assess a flock’s progress. Each flock is then tested and receives USDA certification for quality and safety.
When it comes time for processing, Foster Farms boasts the most technologically advanced operations in the country. All sites are efficient and sanitary and utilize the most comprehensive food quality control and safety management systems.
Further, the company owns a fleet of refrigerated delivery trucks. Cleaned and sanitized to strict standards, and monitored by a shipping department equipped with computerized delivery and tracking systems, the vehicles help ensure prompt delivery of fresh products that are properly handled.
STRONG MARKET PRESENCE
Moreover, quality commitment extends to packaging. “The packaging we utilize represents the best available technology, particularly focused on leak resistance, which we offer across our entire product line,” says Wangerien.
Currently that line includes the Fresh & Easy brand, introduced in 2003, that includes individually-wrapped, pre-washed boneless, skinless breasts and thighs; the best-selling corn dogs and mini-corn dogs in the United States; as well as fresh chicken and turkey, cooked frozen chicken and turkey, individually frozen chicken, deli lunchmeats, chicken breast strips, frankfurters and savory servings.
Foster Farms’ conscientiousness has been rewarded with robust revenue growth and strong market positions. “In the past several years, we’ve recorded growth in the mid-single digits. Relatively speaking that’s fairly strong, as we operate in a food category that has been growing slowly,” informs Wangerien. “We’re also a top player in every market we compete in within the western United States. In our key business areas, we are either number-one or a strong number-two, and our share continues growing.”
As it proceeds into the future, the company remains true to the vision and passion established by its founders, Max and Verda Foster. “We’ve managed to position ourselves as a leader through our commitment to our customers and to the consumers. For the consumers, we meet the demands related to quality, convenience and good taste. For the customers, we develop a collaboration that helps them grow their own businesses.”
Indeed, consumers have product they can trust and the customers have a partner they can trust.