It has been 11 years since JTM Food Group, a family-owned meat processing company based outside of Cincinnati, Ohio, got out of the raw ground beef business. Since then, the company, owned by four brothers – Tony, Joe, Jack and Jerry Maas – has grown tremendously by selling only cooked and no raw products. Much of its business is based on selling its products to school lunch and breakfast programs across the United States.
“When we decided to get out of the ground beef business, we did about $30 million in sales that year,” Joe Maas says. “This year we’re projecting to do about $140 million in sales.” Joe also notes there was another major change in his life when the company got out of the raw ground beef business. “I was able to sleep at night a lot better,” he says with a laugh. “We couldn’t tolerate the risk anymore. Everything we do now is fully cooked.”
JTM now focuses on proprietary preparation and customized culinary solutions. In addition to schools, the company sells its products to restaurants, military/government organizations, distributors and retailers throughout North America.
The company was founded in 1960 by Jack Maas Sr., doing business as Maas Brothers Meats. Jack Sr.’s wife, JoAnn, was involved, as were their seven children – Jack Jr., Mike, Mary Lou, Joe, Tony, Kathy and Jerry, in addition to the involvement of 15 grandchildren. Today, Tony is president – he’s the company’s administrator and runs the office. Jack is chairman of the board and is in charge of the company’s sales. Jerry is vice president for customer service, which is probably the most critical aspect of the company’s operations, and Joe works behind the scenes as vice president of production.
Making the grade
“Our Dad started the business as a small convenience store in Cincinnati, and in 1970 he converted it to a meat store,” Joe says. “In the 1970s, we began selling to local restaurants, and in 1980 he formed JTM Provisions, which became JTM Food Group. He remodeled a building so we could more easily produce and sell products for the HRI (hotel, restaurant, institutional) trade. In 1983, we moved to Harrison, about 10 miles away.”
Joe says the company does a small amount of retail business – about 7 percent for grocery frozen foods. “We have extensive penetration through Kroger and many other grocery stores, but our retail operation is mostly regional, pretty much through the Cincinnati market,” he adds. Twenty percent of the company’s products are sold to foodservice and restaurants. About 10 percent is purchased by the US military for troops stationed in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The bulk of JTM’s business – about 65 percent – is with the US Dept. of Agriculture’s National School Lunch and Breakfast programs. “That’s our core business and focus, and that’s what’s growing the most,” he says. “And it involves a lot of change – changing products, because what the kids are eating for lunch in schools is changing all the time.
“Kids always want something different, they get tired of eating the same things all the time. But it’s not just the kids – their Moms get in on it, contacting Congress, which then contacts USDA, and we have to adjust to these changes,” Joe says. “Michelle Obama took a stance. Pressure gets put on USDA. They make you put more fruits and vegetables in the meals, and unfortunately, many of the kids just throw it away.”
Joe’s brothers went directly into the meat business when they finished school, but he initially went in a different direction. “I’m actually a registered pharmacist. I went to the Univ. of Cincinnati, and my knowledge of biology and physics has helped me enormously in this business,” he says. “I haven’t practiced any pharmacy since 2000, but I keep up with the continuing education. But all four of us are meat cutters; that’s what we do.”
Joe’s business philosophy, as well as that of Tony, Jack and Jerry, is to focus on the wants and needs of the customer. “We ask our customers what they want, unlike some companies that say to their customers, ‘Here’s what I make.’ We search the marketplace so we can sell our products and make what the market calls for. We learned the very basics of this business in our small meat store – to satisfy our customers. We would cut pork chops the way people like them and want them. Today, that service aspect of our business has translated to delivery times and delivery days, packaging, the way we bill – everything.”
Jack leads the sales team, and Joe says he is the greatest salesman he has ever known. “He says to me, ‘We don’t sell food products, we sell solutions to problems.’ Sometimes we explain to a customer who’s doing business elsewhere: ‘You’re paying too much for that product, we can do better.’ Or, ‘It would be easier for me to get my package to your table.’ Or even, ‘If you’re not getting frequent enough deliveries, we can do better than that for you.’ Jack is very good at educating customers.”
JTM has four buildings on its campus, totaling 80,000 sq. ft., and employs 450 people there. It has two kettle cooking lines, two ground lines and a bakery. “Twenty percent of our products are actually not meat. We make hoagie buns for a regional business we run,” Joe says.
The No. 1 item the company sells is taco filling for the US school lunch program. No. 2 is macaroni and cheese, also for the school lunch program. The bulk of the company’s products come from its kettle cooking operations.
While Tony, Jack and Jerry Maas spend virtually all their time making JTM Food Group the successful meat processing enterprise it has become, Joe, because of his involvement in production, has to spend much of his time outside the business as well, working on issues that affect the company directly.
“Raw material costs are very high, and I have to deal with those,” Joe says. Beyond that, there is food safety, relations with the federal government meat inspection agency – USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service, and the FSIS inspectors who are in the plant all the time.
“Of course, food safety concerns are what led us to getting out of raw products in the first place,” Joe continues. “Tied to that is consumer education, which there needs to be more of from USDA. Unfortunately, many consumers still prefer to eat their ground beef, their hamburgers, not fully cooked. And now, they’re back to looking for ways to eat or serve ground beef without fully cooking it. Restaurants – not fast food – but cook-to-order restaurants are still asking customers how they’d like their burgers cooked. Unbelievable!”
Joe compares his education and background as a pharmacist to the meat industry. “If a medicine or drug has a side effect that affects, say, 1 percent of the population, it’s not really 1 percent. Because if you get sick, that’s 100 percent, not 1 percent. If you reduce the number of people who die from 100 to 10, did you really accomplish anything? No. That’s the way it’s got to be in the meat industry too.”
Joe and his company, JTM, are very focused on food safety, both in the plant and in the industry. JTM is an active member of the North American Meat Institute (NAMI), where Joe is on the association’s board of directors. JTM is also a longtime member of the American Association of Meat Processors (AAMP), and Joe is a longtime and active member of the association’s Meat Inspection/Governmental Affairs Committee.
“Those parts of my responsibilities – serving on industry association boards and committees – are very important, not only for JTM Food Group, but for the future of our industry, period,” Joe says. “Our committees that deal with food safety and meat inspection make recommendations to our boards of directors, who can then make good decisions about how to make our products as safe as possible. Our associations then work with USDA to make this happen.
“There is no doubt in my mind that food safety is the top priority, the No. 1 issue facing our industry today,” Joe says.