Stockyard Revival

by Bernard Shire
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The old Stockyards limestone gate is  now a National US Historic Landmark.

At one time, the Union Stockyards in Chicago, also known as the Chicago Stockyards, was the center of the meat-processing world in the US.

Located in what was called the New City Community Area on Chicago’s South Side, bounded by Pershing Road, Ashland, Halsted and 47th Street, the district helped Chicago to become known as “the hog butcher of the world.” The meatpacking district came into being around 1865, at the end of the Civil War, with the creation of iced rail cars. It lasted for more than a century, closing in 1971, because the meat industry was decentralizing, with better product transportation and distribution.

Swift and Armour both closed their plants in the Stockyards in the 1950s. But from the Civil War until the 1920s and hitting its peak in 1924, more meat was processed in Chicago than in any other place in the world.

‘Back of the Yards’

Today, the historic Stockyards is gone. But if you visit that area, you will see the old Stockyards limestone gate topped by a steer – now a National US Historic Landmark.

Jordan Dorfman started Chicago Meat Authority on Jan. 22, 1990. Next January will be the company’s 25th anniversary.

But you’ll also see a top meat processing company alive and well there –Chicago Meat Authority, next to what the meat industry used to call “the Back of the Yards.” Years ago, immigrants lived at the Back of the Yards, and today new groups of immigrants have moved into the area.

Founder, company CEO and President Jordan Dorfman started the company 24 years ago, in 1990, and during that time, it has grown from a $6 million business to a $140 million company. Dorfman says growth has come the hard way, from the most demanding operating segments of the meat industry – foodservice, retail sales and further processing. Chicago Meat Authority specializes in delivering customized, value-added, beef, pork and veal products to its customers around the world.

Dorfman has very strong beliefs about what’s important in running an independent meat business. He believes in partnering with, and responding to, customers’ needs. In reaching this goal, he says his company strives to build a better-trained and more- dedicated work force, “so that all involved are working with this end in mind – the needs of the customers.”

The company employs almost 400 people on three shifts. Dorfman describes his employees as dedicated and experienced – 70 percent of them have been working for the company for five years or longer. And the company just completed an expansion, which includes a new 20,000-sq.-ft., USDA-inspected plant located directly across 47th Place from the current plant.

Through the years

Dorfman started in the meat business at the age of 17. After his father, Philip, passed away, his mother started dating a man who had a meat company. Dorfman began working at M&M Packing three years later while going to the Univ. of Illinois, Urbana-Champagne. Graduating in 1983, he began working for the company fulltime. But shortly after graduating, Dorfman realized the business was failing.

Dorfman was studying psychology and biology, but he found himself drawn to business and sales. And he soon became a partner with the owner, Edwin Michaels, who would become his stepfather. But there were disagreements about how the company should run. “I quit the company many times,” Dorfman says with a laugh. “By June 1989, I gave him six more months, and then I was just going to leave the company with him.

“Finally, in January, he said to me, ‘If you think you’re so smart, try running it yourself.’ So, I took over the building, the customers and liquidated it. On Jan. 22, 1990, I started Chicago Meat Authority out of the ashes. I had 18 employees from the prior company. Next January will be the company’s 25th anniversary.”

Over the years, the company has broadened its focus. “A big area of growth for us has been meat as an ingredient for further processors,” Dorfman says. “Grinding meat to grinders; cooking meat to cookers; this is a big part of our volume,” he says.

Since M&M Packing became Chicago Meat Authority, Dorfman, who controls 100 percent of the company, has done nine add-ons and remodels. “We started with the footage from M&M, then a north plant, a south plant, and then bought a competitor plant across the street.”

Only the best

Dorfman also has strong feelings about not selling the cheapest products available, just the best. “It’s impossible to be the cheapest and succeed. Instead, we have to be the preferred supplier...I try very hard to keep 100 percent of my promises 100 percent of the time. We make the product at a realistic-based price. If price is the only interest the customer has, then we’re probably not the choice for them.”

Dorfman also believes in keeping the pipeline full. He wants to keep old friends and make new ones, and pay all his bills on time. “We ask our partners to treat us well, and in return, we treat them well,” he notes.

The company also does some exporting into Canada, Mexico and the United Arab Emirates, mostly boning and fabrication.

While it may seem Dorfman does all this on his own, he’s first to acknowledge he doesn’t. “I have a wonderful vice president of operations who’s in charge of plant production, quality control, all of operations. I have a great CFO to take care of the money end. All of us in the management at the company have teams we work with and depend on.”

Dorfman looks at life and the meat business philosophically. For example, concerning the continued attacks on the meat industry by people who voice great concerns about animal welfare, Dorfman says: “Beef will always be under attack. And meat, in general, gets its fair share of interest because of the issue of food safety. I don’t ever expect that to end. As an industry, we just have to make sure we do our best to insure our products are safe for our customers, that’s all we can really do. But the fact is, no one has more interest in safety for consumers than the meat industry, for so many reasons.”

Volatile pricing

Another big problem he sees for the industry is pricing, especially volatility in that pricing. “We run the great risk of killing the goose, and that goose is what we have right now,” he says. “That’s because when it comes to food and food products, people in this country are used to having it all, all the time or whenever they want it,” he adds. But he notes people are used to paying a certain price for products, whether it’s meat or anything else. “If we price ourselves so far over what people are used to paying for our products, we’re creating big problems for ourselves.

“If people are saying, ‘I can’t afford steak,’ and customers start losing their taste for it, it would be a big problem because we’d have to try and get those customers back.” Dorfman believes it’s much better, and easier, to keep customers, rather than trying to convince them to come back.

Dorfman has also been active on behalf of the meat processing industry in trade associations. He is a past president of National Association of Meat Purveyors (NAMP), now a part of the North American Meat Association, which will soon merge with the American Meat Institute (AMI).

He says there used to be a lot of what were called meat purveyors. “They were suppliers for many hotels, restaurants and other institutions buying our products,” he says. But with the changing of the structure of the meat industry and with the increasing number of chains owning hotels and restaurants, the structure of suppliers has also changed a great deal over the years, like everything else in many businesses and industries, not just the meat industry.

“Slowly but surely, because of the change in what purveyors were doing, our membership began broadening because of the changing industry as well,” he says. “We didn’t have to have 24 trucks going up and down the street behind the scenes anymore. We became much more visible, an association made up of smaller and medium-sized members,” he says. He notes the trade associations in the meat and poultry industry work together with each other on a lot of issues, presenting a united front a great deal of the time. “And that’s good for all of us and the industry as a whole,” he says.

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