In 1908, 11-year-old Frank Zummo left his native Sicily and immigrated to the United States. Little did he know the job he took as a butcher’s apprentice at a mom-and-pop shop in New Orleans would lead to much more than a means for putting food on his own table.

More than a century later, his grandson, Frank Zummo, reflects on how his predecessor’s work ethic led to the establishment of one of the Southeast’s most-recognized meat businesses. As president and CEO of Zummo Meat Company of Beaumont, Texas, this Frank hasn’t forgotten his roots.

“He [his grandfather] worked about 12 to 14 hours a day learning the trade,” Frank says, “and later established his own butcher shop in Beaumont, about 40 miles west of the Louisiana border in the heart of Texas oil country. He ran it for nearly eight years and began slaughtering. Within a few years he brought a few cousins from Sicily to help run the business. Imagine, he knew no one here when he arrived but had the fortitude to build the operation.”

In 1919, his Zummo Meat Packers was a one-horse-wagon operation, located in part of a cold-storage building. Eleven years later, a fire destroyed the business, but he rebuilt and grew it to a two-horse wagon meat company. In 1925, the Zummo Packing Company was built in Beaumont and within seven years the family moved activities to the city abattoir. They purchased that facility from the city in 1948 and remodeled it four years later to include a smokehouse, sausage and sales rooms. But the big year was 1961 when a new $500,000 plant was constructed, tripling capacity to 5,000 cattle and 2,000 hogs per month.

“There is a very strong Cajun influence in our Golden Triangle area [Beaumont, Port Arthur and Orange] and we used Grandfather’s original smoked sausage recipes that he acquired in New Orleans,” Frank explains. “We may have tweaked it a bit, but it’s still the genuine Cajun taste.”

In 1985, the Zummo family gave up hog slaughter and 10 years later quit their cattle kill to focus exclusively on processed meats. Boudain was added in 1995 and has grown to a volume of 80,000 lbs. a week, not far behind the smoked sausage level of 150,000 lbs. weekly. Smoked sausage in a variety of flavors has helped spread the firm’s fame throughout the region.

Growing plans

Today, the Zummo enterprise has nearly 70 employees and experienced a 10 percent growth rate for each of the past five years. Frank says Zummo would like to expand further east, heavier into Mississippi as well as Alabama and Florida, but says it will be a cautious and steady growth.

“We just don’t know what’s coming down the pike from government and the regulatory agencies,” he confides. “We’ve got a great workforce. About 90 percent of our workers have been with us for over 10 years and 30 of them have been here for 20 years or more. We have invested in equipment to automate our operations. In the mid-‘80s, we went from tray wrapping to 100 percent vacuum packing. We have grown to three Multivac machines and are looking at a fourth.

“It’s our thinking that more investment into automated grinding, mixing and batch processing is the way to go, but we have to be very cautious in spending when we do not have consistency in the regulatory areas,” he adds. “People who do not know our business are making decisions that affect us tremendously.

“That is our greatest uncertainty,” he continues. “We had pork trimmings nearly double in price from a year ago and were able to overcome that challenge through more automation, eliminating waste and streamlining, but the regulatory thing is our big unknown.”

Frank contends the downturn in the economy has not hurt the firm and finds most of their customer base is staying home more and wants high- quality, consistent product, which he feels is the Zummo fort?. Within its 29,000 sq. ft. of processing space, Zummos cranks out 20 different products under its popular Party Time brand and handles 20 additional items for six other companies under their own private-label. He estimates the annual sales volume at about $16 million.

While sticking to some ever-popular original recipes, the company has been very successful in moving into new products. It is now offering breaded shrimp, boudain and crawfish balls that have taken off in the past year.

“We’ve been able to test market our ideas through great companies like Market Basket,” Frank explains. “We are small and don’t have the big bucks to have research and development teams. It’s been a family thing for us. We can sit around and come up with a product idea and try to get it right through trial and error. It might take us up to a year to get it right, but we know the product will have high quality and be consistent.”

Some ventures for the Zummo family have not worked out as originally planned. About 10 years ago, they experimented with fresh pork sausage and invested heavily into equipment to develop that line. After a year, they dropped that effort. Frank says. “It was just not our area of expertise.”

However, the Zummo company has come up with many more winners than losers as their web site verifies.

Frank, who says he was born and raised in the business, earned a degree in biology from Texas A&M Univ. and another in respiratory therapy from Lamar Univ. But in 1980, Frank’s father, Roy and an uncle, Pete bought out the company from their two brothers, Mike and John, and his father announced he was retiring. They gave Frank a week to decide if he was interested in making the family business his career.

Frank along with his two cousins, Greg Zummo, vice president in charge of production, and Mark Zummo, secretary-treasurer in charge of packaging and shipping, have run the business for the past 30 years. Today, Frank’s son, Steve, serves as the general manager and another son, Ryan works as sales manager, the fourth generation to carry on the Zummo tradition of providing fine quality meats to the grocers’ meat case. Greg and Mark are also graduates of Texas A&M, both with degrees in business.

Frank’s fortunate choice of sticking with the company has burnished the firm’s reputation and management style. Their product line is featured in Wal-Mart, HEB and other chains throughout Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi. There is a nice sideline in group fund-raising programs and even a custom venison processing branch in a separate building that handles about 2,000 deer a year, with deer sausage reigning as the signature item.

“We have kept the Zummo dream alive as a family owned and operated business,” Frank concludes. “Our kids are coming in and we expect to be around for a long time.”

Steve Krut, an industry veteran, is a contributing editor writing exclusively for Meat&Poultry, specializing in small business issues. He resides in Marietta, Pa.