PHILADELPHIA – After seven decades of processing a dizzying variety of meat products and building a premium brand in the shadow of a Goliath-like competitor, it’s easy to motivate the management team at Dietz & Watson Inc. Perhaps nothing makes jaws clinch harder and brows furrow quicker than referring to the company as ‘just a little hot dog company out of Philly.’ Indeed, as the company lights the 70 candles commemorating an enviable milestone for the second and third generations of the Eni family working at the headquarters, a new attitude and more forthright marketing approach is part of the business strategy moving forward. Actually, the basis for the current strategy has been developing since the mid 1990s. The Eni’s realized then that it was no longer enough to market and sell a variety of high-end deli meats to retailers and they refined their approach.

"We stopped selling ‘products’ 10 years ago," says Thom Nardi, a 30-year employee of the Eni family’s business who now works as vice president of sales. Now the goal is selling the Dietz & Watson brand, which connotes top-of-the-line deli products. And the company isn’t shy about the "you-get-what-you-pay-for" pricing of their undeniably premium products. This premium approach is at the heart of the company’s rich history.

Louis Eni says operational excellence is the secret to his company’s longevity and continued growth. His pride in showing visitors under the hood of the company’s processing plant is perhaps only exceeded by his competitive zeal. Going up against other high-end, deli-meat processors is an opportunity he welcomes. When asked if the decision to go after his biggest competitor was difficult, Eni smirks wryly and shakes his head. He says simply: "You don’t have to shy away from the competition if you are the best.

Part of being the best in the meat business is expanding distribution, and Eni says his company has room to grow beyond its current, mostly Northeastern, market (although the company has dabbled in exporting some product to Korea in the past). As a supplier to Costco, part of that growth means offering the warehouse club-sliced meats in larger (20 oz.) packages than the 7 oz. formats most of its other retailers request. Adopting technologies like modified atmosphere packaging to lure more retailers like Costco is another initiative the company is pushing. Eni says this technology allows D&W to deliver sliced, packaged products that are almost identical to the freshly sliced and wrapped cuts sold behind the glass at the retail deli case.

Based on a longstanding partnership, D&W honors only one private- label agreement, with Applegate Farms. Eni says the goal for both companies is to deliver the highest-quality, retail-packaged products. Marketing its products as "natural", the agreement with Applegate is made more feasible because D&W products are mostly all-natural and contain no MSG, artificial flavors or colors. Products processed for Applegate are antibiotic free and hormone free.

See the September issue of MEAT&POULTRY to read the rest of the story on Dietz & Watson Inc.