Bologna-based growth

by Steve Krut
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In 1902, a country butcher named Harvey Seltzer opened a small meat company in Central Pennsylvania and developed a recipe for a special type of bologna. A year later, Milton Hershey would start building a chocolate factory three miles away. Although the chocolate company would go on to be the bigger entity, both companies and products endured.

Seltzer’s meat recipe was a lean, allbeef smoked product called Lebanon bologna, so named because of its origins among the Pennsylvania Dutch and other ethnic groups who settled in Lebanon County. But like the famed chocolate bar in the dark-brown wrapper, Lebanon bologna, and particularly Harvey Seltzer’s recipe, would go on to national prominence.

Harvey’s new business was called the Palmyra Bologna Company and he operated it until his son, Jack, took over in 1945. Jack Seltzer’s storied career included years in Pennsylvania government, including a stint as the Speaker of the House of Representatives. In 1991, his son, Craig, took the reigns and continues as the company president.

The company’s longevity is based on the development and continued improvement of its manufacturing process and the ability to adapt to changing consumer expectations. The business plan has resulted in the production of nearly 6 million pounds of Lebanon bologna by 2008.

Today, there are only four other manufacturers of this product, but the Seltzer brand is the only one produced in old-fashioned, outdoor wooden pit smokehouses.

Ron Fouché, a 51-year veteran of the company who started in the sales department in 1957, explains it best: "We never really changed the recipe, but found ways to make the product better and come up with much more consistency. It used to take nearly 20 days to age the basic meat, add ingredients, stuff and smoke it. Now we can do the same thing in about five days.

"We experimented with starter cultures from 1968 until 1992 before we found what would give us the same tangy, smoky flavor profile," he says. "When we hit on it, we changed everything over to this process by 1997."

Pioneering change is nothing new for the company, which has one of the first federal grants of inspection and the oldest continuing one issued by the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture in Pennsylvania.

"When federal inspection was signed by Teddy Roosevelt in 1906, our company applied," Fouché explains. "But because of heavy snows that winter, we were not able to get it until February of 1907."

Fouché has pushed for new technology. He says the firm bought its first metal detector in 1972, a time when Oscar Mayer was the only meat business in Pennsylvania using one.

"We have always wanted to improve production by reducing the amount of pulling, lifting and pushing that our employees had to do," he continued. "But some things like our 10 wooden smokehouses have been retained to keep our unique flavor." He adds that they have to be rebuilt about every 15 years, but says the expense is well worth it.

The firm uses native hardwoods because of the higher BTUs generated, and the product smokes to approximately 120° F for about three days.

The company also has a plant in nearby Lebanon where the boneless cow-meat base gets its first grind and the ingredients are added before being shipped to Palmyra. Originally, the meat was shipped and aged in wooden barrels. But due to USDA’s concern over use of all contact with wood, the industry changed to more impervious combo shipping.

Under the name Seltzer’s Smokehouse Meats, Palmyra Bologna Company has greatly expanded its offerings of basic Lebanon bologna from the tangy original flavor to a sweeter variety. They’ve added a popular double-smoked version, smoke and honey and lower salt.

Palmyra private labels about 15 percent of its products for Kessler’s, John Martin, Shur-Fine, A&P (SuperFresh) and Giant of Maryland. Their meats are found in about 20 local Sam’s Club stores, many Wal-Marts and the Weis, Giant Foods, Karns and Aldi’s chains. With a pH of about 4.5 and 90 percent fat-free, the product is durable and features an advertised 120-day shelf life. Some of Seltzer’s varieties are 95 percent fat-free.

About 90 percent of all product is eaten in sandwiches, and Seltzer’s prefers to pre-slice its 52-inch bologna logs and package them before they are distributed to retail stores or distributors for greater sanitation and quality control.

Palmyra Bologna also has a Web site (www.seltzersbologna.com) and does well with a gift catalog, especially during the holiday season. It offers the basic line of Seltzer’s products, but lists an abundance of private-label hams, bacons, scrapple, dried beef, beef sticks and jerky, along with shoo-fly pie, pretzels, cheeses, dipping mustard and even local chocolates.

Although 60 percent of the company’s products are sold within 300 miles of the plant, it has been successful in introducing Lebanon bologna to the nation. And for those already familiar with the product, Seltzer’s keeps pouring on new ideas about how to use their mainstay as party-tray highlights, spreads or for snacks. Recipes abound in the catalog offering different ways to enjoy this once basic Pennsylvania Dutch sandwich fixing.

The firm once had a small retail shop in the Palmyra plant, but has set up selfservice retail areas at local Jubilee stores in town and in nearby Lebanon.

Staying on top of the game has been easier for the firm with Fouché on board. He is one of the industry’s most well-known personalities. Ron has been involved with the Eastern Meat Packers Association since 1963 and has held all offices of that organization.

He calls himself that association’s meeting coordinator, but in reality he has been instrumental in involving key USDA decision-makers, university researchers, legal counsel and other industry experts in participating in EMPA meetings.

"We are involved with EMPA, the National Meat Association and the American Association of Meat Processors," he notes. "I honestly do not know how a company that doesn’t belong to these organizations can survive. These are the forums to ask the right questions and hopefully get the clearer answers. Government has gotten so much more intrusive in all business today. This means that the time you spend at these industry meetings is critical to help you survive."

He is also a frequent attendee at USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service hearings and meetings and usually has a pointed question or two to bring to the table. Fouché is also communityservice oriented, having worked with the local North Londonderry Township since 1968. He has been on the Planning Commission since it was instituted and has spent more than 20 years as a Township Supervisor. He is also an avid tennis player and carries one of the most unique business cards in the meat industry. It lists no title. When quizzed about his title at the company, Fouché downplays his role to: "Quality control, purchasing and a lot of those kinds of things."

Steve Krut, an industry veteran, is a contributing editor writing exclusively for MEAT&POULTRY, specializing in small business issues. He resides in Marietta, Pa.

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