California-based Day-Lee Foods “mainstreams” ethnic food choices. Its success significantly changed American consumers’ home menu options. No longer is Asian fare an exotic choice. Dan Harvey describes how and why.
Day-Lee Foods Inc. offers a compelling metaphor to define its purpose: The river.
Not a specific river – like the Mississippi or Missouri, or the Amazon or Nile – but the “old man river” that carved its inexorable current through geology, history and, most importantly, ethnography. A life-sustaining force, this “great river” fostered development of community, culture and business – and taste!
For Day-Lee Foods (located in Santa Fe Springs, Calif.) and its parent company (the Japan-based Nippon Meat Packers, Inc.) the “great river” forms an enterprise-wide philosophy.
Nippon Meat Packers (NMP) was founded upon the concept of an ongoing stream of high-quality foods (both fresh and frozen) provided to clients that ultimately turn them over to consumers. Day-Lee Foods advances this concept. Committed to innovation and product development, the company has helped mainstream Asian foods into the American cuisine.
Originally, Day-Lee Foods was a supplier of products mainly to the restaurant and other institutional trade. It was purchased by NMP in 1977. Since then, it has helped advance the parent company’s mission to deliver quality products to food service and general consumer markets. In the process, Day-Lee Foods became a major force in the mainstreaming of the Asian menu.
“Initially, in the early years, we were focused on supplying and expanding the Asian food business area. Later, we expanded to packing private label-type requirements. Then, in the late 1990s to early 2000s, we started to distribute our products to the mainstream supermarket accounts. At first, success was somewhat limited, due to a hesitancy on the accounts’ part,” recalls James Johns, Day-Lee’s assistant vice president and business director.
However, the Western world came to embrace the Asian option, and its cuisine hasn’t been the same since.
Today, Day-Lee Foods consists of three business units: export, restaurant sales and processed foods. The primary focus of the processed food segment is to manufacture and distribute Asian-style food items at wholesale to retailers. Product availability is as diverse as the offerings. “You can find our products in large quantity boxes at warehouse retailers, club stores and in smaller units placed conveniently in grocery stores,” says Johns.
Increasing popularity of menu items fostered company growth. Its home-style recipes bring tasty meals to households all over the United States. Some of the Day-Lee Food’s most popular products include gyoza (which American consumers know as “potstickers”), broccoli beef, Mandarin orange chicken, teriyaki chicken, and sweet and sour chicken, which has become a favorite with consumers, says Johns, adding that it is “comprised of a medley of vegetables with tidbits of pineapple.”
That ingredient provides extra flavor, and you’d have to look to the music industry to find a more harmonic medley. The sweet and sour sauce was specially developed for Day-Lee to bring out the product’s unique and original taste, adds Johns.
Among its Chinese food dishes, Day-Lee Food’s Mandarin orange chicken is a favorite with the American public. The company’s recipe includes plump pieces of battered chicken glazed with a highly flavorful Mandarin orange sauce. Added rice and vegetables make for a complete and well-balanced meal.
The teriyaki chicken is an eclectic offering, as it can be served in several ways: over rice, noodles, or vegetables and with a salad. The product not only makes for a delicious entrée but it can also serve as a tasty appetizer or a healthy after-school snack. The broccoli beef is a traditional Chinese stir-fry recipe that combines crisp broccoli with tender USDA Choice beef strips. A distinctive Asian-flavored sauce provides a finishing touch that makes for a healthy lunch or dinner meal.
Gyoza, or “potstickers,” has proven to be an especially popular product among American consumers. Indeed, Chinese gyoza has endured throughout centuries and now represents the number-one trend in Asian foods, according to the company. Production of this dumpling-style food product is an art that links Chinese generations, the company adds. “Potstickers” can be used as a meal or in soups and salads or as an appetizer. Ingredients include boneless chicken, cabbage, onion, soy sauce, sesame seed oil, enriched wheat flour dough, among others. Further as the dough is enriched with niacin, iron, thiamine mononitrate, riboflavin and folic acid, gyoza makes for a very healthy menu option. This versatile product can be prepared by steaming, boiling, microwaving or pan-frying.
“We began production of ‘potstickers’ in the mid-1980s, a year or two after we purchased our production facility in Santa Fe Springs,” reports Johns. “Since then, they’ve become one of our most popular items. These were once considered an ethnic product, but we’ve helped them become mainstreamed.”
The company will also be offering a lemon pepper chicken product. Indeed, with Day-Lee Food’s help, U.S. consumers not only subjected their palettes to experimentation with exotic flavors, they soon embraced these new tastes. Now, western cuisine is extremely eclectic, and Asiatic options present themselves upon the dinner table as easily as a dish of meat loaf and gravy drenched mashed potatoes. Day-Lee Foods not only helped advance this shift, but benefited its own business. As ethnic taste choices blossomed like wild flowers, so too did Day-Lee’s success.
But it’s not just about taste; it’s also about health. The company prides itself in providing natural, healthy products. “We don’t use MSG [monosodium glutamate], trans fats, preservatives and additives,” reveals Johns. “So, we’re not just moving forward with shifting tastes but with the shifting consumer concerns.”
The company’s mainstream Asian entrees uses the healthier white chicken meat (or breast meat) and top round beef, a cut that doesn’t include much fat and, as such, is much more protein rich. “At the fundamental level, we are a meat packer, but we take a great deal of pride in the type and quality of the meat we supply to our customers and, in turn, the consumers,” reminds Johns.
Day-Lee not only focuses on consumer health but product safety. It strictly adheres to the safety standards imposed by the Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point guidelines. At the same time, the company doesn’t regard the guidelines as a tightly binding handcuff. It willingly ensures that food safety and quality is maintained throughout in every business element (e.g., procurement, handling and manufacturing).
Such measures help define the company’s production facilities, a 90,000-square foot space of cutting edge technology serviced by about 150 employees and situated upon a 3.74-acre Santa Fe Springs campus. In recent years, the company upgraded its production capacities with new equipment and installed new, fully stainless steel freezers. “These upgrades have helped us substantially increase our sales,” reports Johns.
In fact, in the last several years, Day-Lee Foods has realized double-digit annual sales increases. This is not just due to technological upgrades; rather, a big part of it relates to the increasing popularity of the items Day-Lee offers.
And that comes back to the concept of the “river.” Day-Lee’s embraced metaphor recalls the lyrics to a song:
“The River flows/It flows to the sea./Wherever that river goes/that’s where I want to be.”
The “sea” is consumer need. And that’s precisely where Day-Lee wants to be and how it charted its future course. Day-Lee plans to continue growth by providing Asian-type products that meet the everyday consumption patterns of the U.S. public.
“We’re looking to build our business by supplying meal concepts that are nutritious and taste great,” says Johns. “This keeps us in line with the demands of American consumers and their ever-changing tastes.”