Preferential processing

by Joel Crews
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 Martin
The second and third generations of the Tapick family,  Jeff and Michael, lead Martin Preferred Foods into the future.  
 

In 1944, after Martin Tapick left his parents’ home in Houston for Brooklyn, New York, to become a rabbi, his brothers, 18-year-old Melvin and 20-year-old Israel, founded a poultry company, but they didn’t forget their youngest sibling. Martin Poultry and Egg, named after their little brother for good luck, quickly succeeded after beginning as an off-shoot of their parents’ neighborhood corner store. Seventy-two years later, the second and third generations of Tapicks have preserved the identity of that company, but have taken the business well beyond chicken and eggs.

Today, in the shadows of the Houston skyline, the company now known as Martin Preferred Foods, is a provider of customized, high-end proteins and specialty foods for some of the finest white tablecloth restaurants in the country while evolving into a further processor of custom, value-added meat and poultry to a wider spectrum of foodservice chains, from fast-casual to quick-service concepts. It employs 380 workers and operates a new federally inspected, 50,000-sq.-ft. poultry-processing plant on its five-acre campus, in addition to a separate, 25,000-sq.-ft. red meat processing facility, which is in the process of being renovated to double its production and storage space.

Early awakening

Based on the founding brothers’ attention to quality and relationship building, they succeeded quickly. Within three years of starting the business, the tandem opened a new poultry-processing plant in the Houston Heights neighborhood and earned an enviable reputation among what was becoming an elite customer base. As the company continued growing in the 1950s, most of the area’s best-known restaurants, country clubs, supermarkets and hotels bought their poultry products from the Tapick brothers, setting the stage for the company’s future growth.

One of the company’s earliest “ah-ha!” moments also had a link to the founders’ little brother, dating back to when Melvin and his wife traveled to New York to attend Martin’s wedding in 1959. While visiting the Big Apple, Melvin visited a supermarket where he was shocked to see the store selling fresh chicken parts, a novelty item he’d never considered, mostly because he never thought it would be something his customers would buy.

“He saw in the grocery store that you could buy a chicken breast, a chicken thigh, chicken wings; that was unheard of in Texas back then,” says Michael Tapick, Melvin’s son who joined the company in 1972 and is now chairman and CEO. When Melvin got back to his company in Houston, he implemented his plan to sell fresh poultry parts from the company’s new plant that it moved to in 1959 after the original facility was closed to make way for the construction of Interstate 45 through Houston. That location, on White Street, is still home base for MPF, although the current poultry plant has been updated and renovated numerous times.

“We were the first company to offer fresh chicken parts of your choice in the state of Texas,” Michael says. Once available, the chicken parts sparked exponential growth for the company with sales to every major supermarket retailer in the region. This newfound demand for fresh chicken parts was also the impetus behind the company being one of the first southeast Texas suppliers to take advantage of the fast-food movement of the 1960s, which saw companies like Kentucky Fried Chicken grow meteorically and led to the development of many more quick-service, chicken-based chains.

 Martin
Martin Preferred Foods recently expanded its poultry porcessing operations at a new plant in Huston, consolidating production from its former plant in Stafford Texas. 
 
Plant perspective
 
Walking through the new poultry processing plant, Jay Behrens, vice president of poultry processing, points out where boneless, skinless poultry meat is first weighed and sorted while nearby a handful of whole birds are cut up by skilled workers. The plant spans about 50,000 sq. ft. with about 92 employees working there during operating hours. Behrens pauses near the middle of the processing floor, where a series of large vacuum tumblers are lined up. Specializing in custom-marinated products, the poultry plant operates numerous tumblers with various capacities.

“This is the heart of the plant,” Behrens says, referring to the tumblers.

Behrens, whose role is not only to oversee the poultry plant, but also includes having input in R&D and new product development, says the company’s current product mix and plant configuration is, in part, a response to market conditions.

“What has happened in the beef industry has influenced the arrangement of the poultry plant,” Behrens says. He notes the company has always focused on small- and medium-size birds for its core white tablecloth customers, even as overall bird weights have increased consistently. In response to the increase in bird weights, Behrens says the company has continued to research and invest in finding ways to add value to these commodity products.

“We add value by making jumbo breast meat more manageable,” says Behrens, which includes such further processing techniques as slicing, dicing, stripping, or splitting before marination. In all, the poultry plant’s monthly production totals “several million pounds of finished product per month,” all of which is custom processed to-order with an emphasis on freshness.

“A lot of the product we receive today is processed and shipped tomorrow,” Behrens says. The plant has to maintain an aggressive pace to preserve the fresh product’s shelf life.

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