Thrushwood Farms goes all in on snacking

by Joel Crews
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Thrushwood Farms, Galesburg, Illinois
Thrushwood Farms is transitioning its focus, and equipment mix, to meat snack processing.

KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Since its founding in 1978, Thrushwood Farms Quality Meats has evolved with the times and is thriving as a family owned business in Galesburg, Illinois. Led now by the second generation of the Hankes family, Doug and his brother Jeff are transitioning the company in a new direction, focusing on jerky products and meat snacks. Founded by their father Jim and their two uncles, the company began as an integrated, farm-to-table concept.

“Their whole goal was raise the pigs in Fairbury,’ which is about 100 miles east of the plant, “drive them over to Galesburg, process the pork and sell the pork.’” However, Doug adds, “They were just kind of ahead of their time because the concept just never really worked,” and the pig production side of the business was later liquidated. Jim and his wife Kae, ultimately bought out the two uncles and the business grew as a custom slaughtering and processing plant. The company went on to expand its operation, selling premium beef and pork cuts in its retail store and online in addition to offering specialty items including smoked ham, turkey and bacon, all while doing a brisk business in jerky products and meat snacks. Thrushwood has become a valued co-packer for many customers, including many convenience store chains whose operators want to sell jerky and meat snacks under their own banner. 

“We take a shotgun approach,” Doug says of the growing business, which now employs 32 people. But that approach is becoming more rifle-like.

“We’re really diverse, but snack food is our focus. We do everything from small runs to large runs including some unique experimentation with trail mixes, ground-and-formed jerky with flavor infusions and inclusions in the products.”

Realizing the undeniable growth in demand for meat snack and jerky production, Thrushwood is just days away from shifting all of its operations to process just these products. As of May 1, the company will no longer offer custom processing and will focus solely on the meat snack segment.

Jim and Kae are still very much involved in the business, and report to work at the facility every day. The company’s new strategy was undertaken by the family with careful consideration and input from everyone, including Doug’s parents. Doug jokes that the two matriarchs can never retire from Thrushwood Farms because the company’s identity is so closely tied to their years of hard work and commitment to its success.

“I think that at times I scare them,” he laughs, ”with some of the ideas we come up with, but they’re here every morning and they’re here every night. They are a key piece of who we are.”

To make room for more processing volume at the plant, Thrushwood is converting space formerly used for slaughtering, dry-aging and processing meat as part of its custom business. The conversion made sense after analyzing the company’s future and what the best business strategy would be.

Maintaining a harvesting floor to process what was about 800 head of cattle per year and the rigors of breaking them into quarters and then custom cut each carcass based on a wide array of customer requests, “we just didn’t feel like that was the best use of our time,” Hankes says.

As the company becomes more singularly focused on meat snacks, the equipment mix is also shifting, including the recent addition of a fourth rollstock machine, dedicated solely to meat bars and a renewed commitment to loyal suppliers in the jerky segment, including companies such as Multisorb Technologies, its provider of oxygen-scavenging sachets. Thrushwood’s focus is uber-focused on packaging, and matching the right size bag with the oxygen scavenger that is ideal for that size has been vital. Partnering with Multisorb has been an important part of achieving this process, he says. “We have the technology to test packages here to check the film, to check the bags and to check the scavengers to make sure they are working,” he says. And while the product mix of the plant is shifting, the basics of good manufacturing practices will not be sacrificed. 

“We’re a changing business,” but food safety remains a priority, Doug says, adding that the company employs two food-safety experts focused on this vital facet of the operation. This is important given the growth the company is seeing now and what it forecasts for the future. 

“We’ve seen a huge jump in SKUs this year,” he says, which have included more requests for specialty items including venison, wild boar and bison-based products.

Ramping up production means making operations more efficient, says Hankes, including investing in larger grinding equipment and dumpers, and shopping for horizontal flow smokehouses to maximize the cooking square footage.

Already an established co-packer for many customers in the meat snack segment, Hankes says his customers in that space are especially active in R&D as of late. Acquisition deals that saw jerky companies like Krave Pure Foods get purchased by Hershey Co. in early 2015 and Epic Provisions, another premium meat snack brand, accept an offer its founders couldn’t refuse from General Mills earlier this year, have gotten plenty of attention from other players in this space. In many ways, the attention those deals have received has been good for other companies competing in the meat snack segment.

“I’ve never had this many products being launched right now by so many people in terms of what we are co-packing,” Hankes says. “We’re seeing a whole generation of people that are into snacking.”  

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