Taking the torch
March 4, 2013
by Bryan Salvage
From a frame propped on his desk, Todd Hatoff shares an inspirational message that is elegantly written on a piece of paper that is matted and held under glass. It means a lot to him. “This is something my father carried with him,” says Hatoff, president and CEO of Allen Brothers, just weeks after the death of his father, Bobby, who was chairman of the company. “I don’t know where he got it, but he made sure I found it.”
The verse is titled “At Day’s End” and it reads:
“Is anybody happier because you passed his way?
Does anyone remember that you spoke to him today?
Day is almost over and its toiling time is through, Is there anyone to utter now a kindly word of you?
Can you say tonight in parting with the day that’s slipping fast, that you helped a single brother of the many that you’ve passed?
Is a single heart rejoicing over what you did or said?
Does a man whose hopes are fading now with courage look ahead.
Did you waste a day or lose it, was it well or sorely spent?
Did you leave a trail of kindness or a scar of discontent?
As you close your eyes in slumber, do you think that God will say, you have earned one more tomorrow by the work you did today?”
“Dad lived these words,” Hatoff says.
Todd Hatoff, 42, the 4th generation of Chicago-based Allen Brothers’ founding family, grew up in the meat business. Although an experienced meat man who was taught the ropes by an industry icon, Hatoff’s first business love as a young man was government and politics. Eventually he “soured on politics” and he has no regrets building his career in the meat industry.
“I started working at Allen Brothers to help my dad [the late Bobby Hatoff, who was chairman of Allen Brothers when he passed away in October 2012],” Hatoff says. “I was living in Chile after graduating from school and when I came home I thought I could do this for a couple of years. It turned out to be a great fit for me. I launched the retail [catalog/Internet] end of the Allen Brothers business and I wanted to see it through. Now, 20-plus years later, I’m still here.”
Based in the former Chicago Stockyards area on the south side of Chicago, Allen Brothers offers Prime beef, both dry- and wet-aged, as well as Wagyu beef. Other products include premium pork, veal, lamb, poultry, wild game and seafood, as well as burgers, hot dogs, heat-and-serve entrées, appetizers and even desserts. Servicing major steakhouses, hotels, country clubs and more, the company concentrates primarily on the white table cloth restaurant segment. Beef is the company’s main protein and its biggest category. Within beef, filet is Allen Brothers’ No.-1 seller. (See: “Artisan Excellence” in the December 2012 issue of Meat&Poultry, for details on Allen Brothers and its three plants.)
Leading Allen Brothers, a company that’s so rich in tradition, left Hatoff with a “bitter sweet” feeling after his father passed away. “I’m proud of our company, but the number of real meat men in our world is shrinking,” he says. “They were great men. My father was exceptional; he knew everything about the business.”
“Bobby Hatoff was a visionary,” says Dr. James Marsden, Kansas State Univ. Regent’s Distinguished Professor of Food Safety and Security, associate director of the Biosecurity Research Institute located at KSU and senior science advisor for the North American Meat Association. “His was the first company in the US to implement systems to address the safety of non-intact beef products. He was the first to evaluate High Pressure Processing for pasteurizing ground beef. Bobby was the nicest and most generous person I have ever worked with. He was instrumental in accomplishing the consolidation of NAMP and NMA. In fact, without him, it would never have happened.”
“He often said that anyone out there who is claiming he is selling the best – but is not selling the best – is eventually going to have a serious credibility issue with his customers. My father always wanted to stay the [top-quality] course,” Hatoff says.
In addressing his goals for Allen Brothers, Hatoff says, “I am still thinking about my goals. I have changed the structure of my private life. I work in the office in the morning and I’m now visiting restaurant customers at night.”
The business environment is changing too, he says. “At this point, I am taking a conservative path for business vs. an aggressive, more progressive path because the economy is changing,” he says. “The uncertainty of the economic situation is one of our biggest challenges.”
Reverently, Hatoff provided a glimpse of the adjoining office his father once occupied. In it are snapshots, plaques, awards and handwritten notes, a quiet tribute to a lifetime dedicated to the meat industry. He stops in front of one photo and reflects, “This photo is from my father’s recent induction into the Meat Industry Hall of Fame.” Todd accepted this award on Bobby’s behalf, just a few weeks after his death.
“He was also in special forces in the military,” he adds as he showed me a military photo. “My father was a tremendous sports fan and he was very close to the Chicago fire and police department commanders,” he adds.
A changing industry
Hatoff says much has changed in the industry and that many of Allen Brothers’ competitors have been acquired by larger foodservice companies over the years. “That changes the culture of what those companies have been able to do previously,” he adds. “Allen Brothers is the last Premium independent steak company in the US with major points of difference from its competitors.
“No one in the industry can customize for our restaurant customers as well as we do,” he continues. “We hand-select everything.
“When you bring in loins from multiple suppliers, they have to be sized up to our and our customers’ demanding specs. We train our personnel to look for the marbling, texture and the actual physical size because when you’re cutting a steak that’s how you’re going to get a uniform steak. That’s a very lengthy and expensive process.”
When asked how his father helped shape Allen Brothers, Hatoff ponders a little and then replies, “When society was changing in the late 70s and 80s and portion control was coming onto the foodservice scene – and at that same time, breaking cattle was a diminishing part of the business – portion control was the direction my father wanted to go. He wanted to offer chefs and restaurants uniform products. He also wanted to be involved with only the highest level of grades, Premium and Choice.”
Hatoff says eventually he will fill the chairman’s vacancy while retaining his CEO position. “I’m putting together a new board of directors and making some management changes,” he adds. “I’m focusing on strengthening the foundation of the business and right now there is so much that is unknown [looking to the future].”
Although there is no member of the Hatoff family who could eventually assume Todd’s leadership position, he points out confidently, “There are many long-term employees here who have a lot of leadership potential.”