Adaptability is the spice of success, as Columbia Packing Company demonstrates. a provider of meat products, such as its highly touted smoked hams, the Texas-based company couples family tradition (and delicious recipes!) with new-generation foresight, Dan Harvey discovered.
A positively powered thought helps propel Columbia Packing Company Inc. into the new millennium: We must be doing something right to last nearly 100 years.
Throughout its nine-decade existence, the Dallas, Texas-based enterprise, a small but resilient player in the meat industry, garnered a solid reputation for meat quality and company dependability. Further, success has been sustained by principles first advanced by founder Josef Ondrusek and later adopted by successive generations that carry on a proud heritage.
“To survive for almost a century is no small accomplishment, and we attribute our endurance to product quality and continuation of family tradition,” says Joe Ondrusek, the founder’s grandson and current company president.
ESTABLISHING A HERITAGE
That tradition dates back to 1913, when Josef Ondrusek, a Czechoslovakian immigrant, opened the Columbia Meat Market and Sausage Factory near downtown Dallas (he chose the name “Columbia” as the word represents “new beginning”).
“He came to this country in the late 1800s, first settling in the Galveston area and then making his way to Dallas,” recalls grandson Joe, who is steering the venerable enterprise into the 21st century. “He first worked as a tradesman before buying the meat market. Then, as a business owner, he serviced area customers. But, as time went on, he found he needed to slaughter more animals to meet demand.”
Subsequently, Josef Ondrusek found he couldn’t always buy the appropriate quality of animal. As such, in 1932, he purchased a meat packing company in the Oak Cliff area of Dallas. “That’s now our current location,” Joe Ondrusek points out.
In the 1970s, Columbia was incorporated. In the meantime, the second generation, including W.J. (“Willie”) had entered the family business; next came the third generation, which included Joe, W.J. Jr., and Bob. In the succeeding years, the company witnessed the influx of fourth- and fifth-generation family members. Currently, seven Ondruseks are actively involved in the family business. They have followed the family tradition of learning the business from the ground up and now focus on improving packaging techniques and new product and market development.
As the company evolved, it increased manufacturing parameters by expanding into a 70,000-square-foot food distribution and slaughter facility, which operates under a quality program (Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point) designed to meet the new USDA guidelines.
Today, the company has shifted focus from slaughter to food distribution. “As time passed, we found that slaughtering beef became too labor intensive, so we discontinued the beef operation and began selling boxed beef,” says Joe Ondrusek. “Later, to better compete with major meat packers, we also discontinued the pork operation and began selling the boxed pork.”
But the company hasn’t completely divorced itself from harvest and slaughter. “With the increasing influx of the Asian and Hispanic population into our area, we found that there was a growing need for a particular type of hog. So we started harvesting what we call a lighter hog, which is a lot smaller than the so-called top hog that the major meat companies slaughter,” Ondrusek explains.
Columbia now delivers the hog product in sides to meat companies. Those customers then cut up the sides according to how they want to merchandise the meat in their own particular markets, says Ondrusek.
Columbia’s distribution efforts are focused in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, but the company doesn’t limit itself to that market. “Our trucks go into Houston, Oklahoma, Arkansas and even into Mexico,” reveals Ondrusek. “But we can deliver anywhere. As we evolved, we’ve advanced from city to state and then federal inspection – and as a federally approved operation, we can send product anywhere throughout the world.”
As far as products, Columbia provides beef and pork, as well as different types of sausages and even cheese. But the company’s reputation rests upon its meats. “For as long as we have been in business, we’ve offered high-quality smoked meats based on family recipes,” says Ondrusek. “One of the things my grandfather was always proud of was the taste he could produce with his smoked hams and bacon. Through the years, we’ve made some minor modifications, but it’s still the same basic recipes.”
Through five family generations, the company essentially uses the same old-fashioned, seven-day recipe that provides its hams with the signature Columbia country flavor. Moreover, commitment to quality has undergone no modification whatsoever; all Columbia smoked hams are selected from premium pork. “Basically, we offer the same smoked hams we’ve always produced,” says Ondrusek.
Product description is enough to tingle the tongue and dampen the brow with the mere suggestion of spicy flavor. Each Columbia ham comes straight from the smokehouse with a mild cure that includes a touch of sugar and a long hardwood smoke. All hams are fully cooked, cured, smoked and ready to eat, according to the company.
Columbia’s cured and sliced country-style bacon is produced from a time-honored tradition and method: Curing is accomplished by hand-rubbing a proprietary blend of seasonings on pork bellies specially selected for their leanness. The bacon is subjected to hours of hardwood smoking and is sold in thick slabs. Afterward, the rind is removed from the slab, which is then hand-trimmed and sliced to an inch thickness (resulting in 14 to 16 slices per slab). For consumers with spicier palates, Columbia offers peppered bacon. For this offering, each hand-selected slab is first cured and then rubbed with a blend of special seasonings and spices that survive the pan-frying process.
Getting hungry yet? If not, then consider Columbia’s Texas-traditional smoke briskets. Each of the company’s lean, tender and fully cooked smoked beef brisket is carefully trimmed, hand rubbed with seasonings and smoked for 12 hours.
ADAPTING TO DEMAND
“To some degree, our products are similar to what other companies provide, but we differentiate ourselves by reacting to consumer needs. For instance, we’ve developed a niche area for ourselves by catering to the Hispanic and Asian communities,” indicates Ondrusek. “In fact, we do a much better job of responding to consumer needs than many of our customer warehouses. For instance, we’re an approved vendor for companies such as Minyards, Albertson’s, Fiesta and most of the chains operating in our area. If a market demands a particular item, and the chain warehouses are out of it, they can call us and we can place the product in their stores.”
The company has accomplished this capability by continually expanding its facilities as necessary, which includes adding a new distribution location. “We’ve pretty much completely developed our available acreage by adding office space, production area and freezer space to increase our capacity,” says Ondrusek. “When we totally outgrew our warehouse space, we wanted to further build upon the acreage we already owned. But we reside in a flood plan, and the City of Dallas wouldn’t allow us further expansion. So, a little more than a year ago, we acquired a new location to serve as another distribution point, secondary to our main facilities. We remodeled it to make it a cold storage area, and we now use it to load and ship product.”
The expansion reflects the company’s adaptability and willingness to do whatever it takes to endure. As Ondrusek points out, adaptability equates with sustainability that, in turn, translates into success. “If you try and maintain a status quo, you’ll only remain in the same place and watch as everyone else moves forward,” he says.
When you couple that kind of flexibility with a proud family tradition and product quality, you have a recipe for success – a recipe as zesty as what Columbia applies to its meat products.