KANSAS CITY, Mo. – I recently had the pleasure of visiting and interviewing husband-and-wife team Herb and Kathy Eckhouse, co-owners of La Quercia, one bitterly cold day at their corporate office/production plant complex in Norwalk, Iowa. This growing company began years ago as an importer of Italian prosciutto but has since ceased importing and evolved into a processor of premium-quality, American, artisan, cured and dried, whole and sliced-meat products, including variations of its No. 1-seller prosciutto.
What struck me most about this business is although the Eckhouses actually lived in Parma, Italy — the birthplace of Italian prosciutto — for several years back in the second half of the 1980s, they aren’t interested in imitating leading, imported dry, cured meat products crafted in that country.
“Our goal was — and remains — not to create an Italian great-grandfather’s recipe or the same product that comes from some little village in Italy…it’s to make something we think is really good to eat,” Herb says. “We want to honor the meat, we don’t want it to be overbearing in flavor. In Italy, traditional Italian cuisine is very ingredient-focused. We use very high-quality ingredients. One of our goals is to make each product be a distinct eating experience.”
Today, Herb heads up operations, supplier relationships, sales and marketing. His wife, Kathy, also works in sales and marketing plus she is the guardian of La Quercia’s standards as chief culinary officer. “We’re both involved in product development; we decide what tastes good,” Herb says.
Attached to the company‘s recently remodeled and expanded corporate office is a versatile, 10-year-old, 30,000-sq.-ft. production plant. Thirty-nine multi-disciplined people staff the plant. At present, the company buys approximately 3 million lbs. of pork annually to produce its growing range and number of specialty products.
Herb and Kathy aren’t afraid to get their hands dirty. Both work on the production floor about nine hours per week handling different jobs. “Working in production shows our employees how seriously we take production and how important it is working with them on shifts,” Kathy says.
Aside from the dizzying array of top-notch products made at this plant, there was one more thing that was extraordinary about this unusual business: it’s “Security Team” who roam the corporate office. Coco Chanel, 13, (the attention-seeker) and Molly, who’s around seven years old and a little shy, are the Eckhouses’ pet dogs and they are the objects of everyone’s affection. “We made up a breed for them: YEBD — Yellow-eyed Brown Dogs,” Herb says with a grin. “We've had each of them since we picked them up at the age of a few months from the Animal Rescue League shelter.”
Both dogs live at home with the Eckhouses and travel to and from the complex on most days with Kathy. The security team has gradually trained all La Quercia visitors to give them dog treats, which are available at the sign-in desk when they come through the front door into the corporate office.
“Our employees generally enjoy the dogs and the dogs enjoy the employees, especially at lunch time,” Herb says with a grin.
During our corporate interview in the closed-door glass conference room, one of the dogs, I assume Coco, persistently scratched at the door until Herb got up to open the door. Both dogs then slowly walked in and went to each of us for a good petting. After 10 minutes of affection and resuming the interview with Herb and Kathy, one of the dogs stood by the closed conference-room door and barked (I’ll assume Coco again). Herb patiently got up with a smile once more and opened the door — and the security team strolled out to the front desk looking for new visitors and more treats.
Before leaving the office at the end of our interview, Herb told me a tale of how his dogs actually saved the day once at the office. “One day, the plant’s US Department of Agriculture inspector came to the plant, the door was locked and we were all in the back working,” he says. “Our dogs at the time, Taffy and Coco, loved her because she gave them treats. When she stood at the door and couldn't get in, Taffy jumped up on the door, pushed the push bar — and let her in.”
This was the first time in my 35-year career that I interviewed company executives with a pair of dogs on hand, but being a dog person — I loved every minute of it. Both members of the security team even walked me to the door on my way out, but I was unable to give them a parting treat since both of my hands were holding a brief case and bags on that icy-cold day. When they caught on I couldn’t dispense treats, they bolted off to greener pastures in a flash. As I started my long drive home, the thought of Coco and Molly brought a smile to my face and a long-shot hope that I’ll run into a dog or two somewhere again down the road during future corporate interviews. Maybe I should start packing several Milk Bones in my brief case… just in case!
For more information on the La Quercia corporate/production complex, read about it in the March issue of MEAT+POULTRY magazine.