Volume 4 | Issue 6 | Year 2001

Thirty-four years ago, Atlanta-based Eastern Foods opened with a $10,000 investment, a handful of employees and a 4,000 square-foot warehouse. Today, the company is approaching $100 million in annual sales, operates from a 288,000 square-foot state-of-the-art facility and has more than 300 employees across the country.

Founded by current Chairman Robert H. Brooks, the company started with just one product — a vegetable-based, refrigerated coffee creamer it sold to the airlines. During the 1970s, Brooks expanded Eastern Foods into specialty foods for institutional customers. To better serve them, he opened the first of 21 distribution centers across the United States.

In 1980, Eastern Foods launched the Naturally Fresh® brand of preservative-free products, which initially included all-natural salad dressings, dips, oils and vinegars. The company later added Naturally Fresh® Mountain Spring Water and developed Classic® bar mixers and Jackaroo® meat sauces. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Eastern Foods expanded its retail business into leading supermarkets such as Kroger, Albertsons, Publix, Safeway and Winn Dixie. It also increased its market penetration into quick-serve, casual and fine dining restaurants.

It’s a Natural
The Naturally Fresh® name has come to mean more to Eastern Foods than just a product line. Since its introduction, Eastern Foods has handled the products from preparation and packaging through delivery; customers receive the products in Eastern Foods’ company-owned and -operated refrigerated trucks. The company also encourages feedback. “Each product package invites customers to call or write Mr. Brooks if not completely satisfied with their product,” says Alan Mesches, director of sales and marketing for the food giant. “Mr. Brooks believes Eastern Foods must do something for the customer. Naturally Fresh® — it’s our name and our promise.”

Mesches believes that Eastern Foods’ ability to do many things in house keeps its production streamlined. “We can produce quality products and deliver them to our customers on a timely basis because we do it ourselves,” he says. “We’re privately held and that allows us to do things without a whole lot of other people telling us what to do to. Owning the fleet of trucks and having our own drivers and 21 distribution centers across the U.S. allows us to ship to all the major markets. It makes for a very comprehensive and effective system.”

Selling a perishable product with a guarantee of freshness takes some manufacturing finesse. “From the time our product leaves our back dock and arrives at the customer’s door, it is only handled by our people,” explains Mesches. “Our shelf life is up to 180 days, sometimes as low as 90. When we make a product, we don’t have a lot of finished goods. We usually ship it all out in a week so the customers can be assured they get the freshest product possible. To accomplish this takes a solid production schedule and a flawless logistical system.”

Pure Quality
Eastern Foods’ facility in Atlanta boasts 15 mixing blenders and 15 packaging lines, which run 300 different types of products measuring from a quarter-ounce cup to a 55-gallon drum. The “superior” rating Eastern Foods received from the American Institute of Baking is a high-level tribute to its quality control measures. “It’s quite a compliment to receive such a designation,” says Mesches. “Our employees are painstaking about the work they do on the line. They know what a mistake can cost us.”

But the perfectionism displayed by Eastern Foods’ employees doesn’t surprise Mesches. “Our people are involved in profit sharing on all levels,” he says. “The better we do, the better they do. It’s not unusual for a production employee to ask how a particular account is going. They care about it. We’re committed to our products and we know we have to generate our own success. That’s the kind spirit that moves this organization.

“The nice thing about not having a lot of layers in our organization is that when a customer needs something created, like a new product, it’s a quick process. There are no committees or approvals. If there’s a viable opportunity to create a product for a customer, we can react fairly quickly,” Mesches adds.

Fresh from the Start
A lot of Eastern Foods’ custom products start out in the food-service area. Then other applications for the product emerge out of that development. “We’ve used our food-service division to generate a lot of ideas that we take to different markets,” says Mesches. “Our Classic Caesar salad dressing was originally developed for food service. We took it to retail and it’s been an excellent seller. And some of the barbecue sauces that we make for the food-service trade also make sense for deli departments in grocery stores.”

Eastern Foods recently launched a line of fruit and vegetable dips for companies that offer cut fruit and vegetables to their customers. For this new line, the company created a 4-ounce prepackaged cup filled with cream cheese-type dips, which can be easily inserted into ready-to-serve trays. It also developed a gravity-fed rack that’s less than 18 inches wide, holds 60 cups filled with various dips and sauces, and is easy to fill and display. “This rack doesn’t take up a lot of space, it’s highly visible and it’s a big piece of our business,” Mesches says. “It’s opened up some business opportunities for us in the deli departments or in the home meal replacement areas of finer grocery stores.”

Eastern Foods is always looking at how it can be more impactful for its customers, and how it can help drive both its customers’ and its own business. The company recently created a tear pad with a $1.00-off coupon, account specific for two of its product lines, tartar sauce and cocktail sauce. Mesches says, “We like to provide valued-added concepts. We think it’s a great way to grow our volume.”

All in all, customer satisfaction drives Eastern Foods to continue making tasty products. “It’s not unusual for a customer to save the wrapper from a salad dressing they’ve had on an airline flight, write us and ask us how they can get the product,” says Mesches. “If a customer is going to go to that much trouble to contact us, we must be making an impression. And that makes it all worth it.”

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