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 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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Culinary appeal

For the first several decades of its existence, the company was focused exclusively on providing poultry and eggs. All that would change in the early 1970s, after Michael graduated from the Univ. of Texas and joined the company. Soon after Michael joined his father and uncle, the company expanded its poultry plant, added a new line of frozen foods and grew its specialty foods offerings to prominent chefs in the Houston area and now beyond. Reflecting the more diversified business, the company’s name was changed to Martin Poultry, Egg and Frozen Food Company.

Sadly and unexpectedly, Melvin Tapick died in 1978 at the age of 52 and Michael, his mother Helen, and his uncle Israel assumed ownership of the operation and committed to continue leading the company’s growth. The 1980s were an active time for the company. In the early 80s, another name change was implemented to reflect the company’s expanded product focus: Martin Food Service. In the mid-1980s, the company recruited a team of meat experts from a rival purveyor, thereby launching Martin into the red meat business.

“That allowed us to enjoy the same reputation in the meat world that we had enjoyed in the chicken world,” Michael says. It was during this time that Michael became president, and the company opened distribution centers in the three other Texas markets of Dallas/Ft. Worth, Austin and San Antonio.

For the next several decades, the company continued to grow by acquisition. In 1986, Martin Food Service purchased the wholesale deli distribution of Longhorn Foods, stretching its distribution base even more. In 1987, Michael and Israel founded Martin Poultry Trading Company International.

Acquisitions would continue with the 1998 purchase of Goldendale Poultry, after which time the company began processing poultry from the Goldendale plant in Stafford, Texas. Also in 1998, the name of the business was once again changed from Martin Food Service to Martin Preferred Foods, L.P., just after acquiring, Preferred Meats Inc., based in Dallas, widening the company’s offerings to include specialty meats and wild game.

In 2000, MPF acquired the Texas operation of Paris Gourmet – an importer and distributor of specialty products, including cheese, specialty chocolate and pastry ingredients, making its product lines appealing to a broader base of customers, including high-end retail supermarkets across Texas. Today, MPF offers high-end retailers everything from custom further-processed proteins to imported meats and cheeses to sauces, desserts and side items, like gourmet pickles. Ten salespeople are dedicated to this sector, which offers customers next-day delivery.

Through the years, other family members worked in various roles in the business, but Michael, his mother and his uncle maintained shared ownership. In 2006, Israel died and soon thereafter Michael and his wife bought out his uncle’s share. Throughout this period, the company’s strategy then included targeting only the upper crust of the fine-dining eateries, hotels, supermarkets and country clubs in its four markets in Texas.

MPF's meat processing facility is located just across the street from the poultry plant and is  currently being renovated to double its current size which is 25,000 sq. ft. 

Shifting gears
Michael points out that the company’s success had been realized in large part due to it being an early partner supplying some of the most successful, Texas-based restaurant chains. As its customers expanded beyond the state’s borders, they continued requesting MPF products. But the company literally couldn’t deliver. That all changed in 2009, when Michael realized that while his company was an established, top-tier supplier of center of the plate proteins and specialty foods, there was more meat on the bone in the form of market share that could provide even more growth. He saw an opportunity to take the company’s culinary-based approach and apply it to restaurants in the casual, fast-casual and even quick-service segments and not limit it to only Texas-based chains.

“It got me thinking,” says Michael, who had seen his share of booms and busts in the fine-dining segment in Houston, where the economy historically has ebbed and flowed with the oil industry. “It appealed to me to make this business have a broader base with a lower price point,” he says. “So we set out to leverage our decades of experience with white tablecloth restaurants, and began to offer the same levels of culinary expertise, service, and quality to casual and fast casual chains around the country."

That evolution also focused on developing products for the growing number of the company’s expanding customers that were going to other major cities. “It just felt good,” he says. And it proved to have a very positive impact on the firm’s bottom line.

“In 2009,” says Michael, “that’s when we really put the pedal to the metal,” which coincided with when Michael and his wife, Betty, bought out the other partners in the business and launched the new strategy to appeal to a broader customer base. “From 2009 until today, we’ve doubled our revenues,” he says, adding that this was accomplished without adding any delivery trucks to its fleet.

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Like father...

Jeff Tapick represents the third generation of the family leading the company. He grew up in the business, spending most summers in the business, “as most kids in a family business do.” He jokes that later in life, “I lost my way; I became a lawyer.” After nearly a decade practicing law in New York and as a trial attorney with the US Dept. of Justice, Jeff and his wife moved home to Texas so he could embark on a new career path with the family business. “I’m now in recovery,” he laughs, recollecting when he rejoined the family business five years ago as its general counsel and then assuming the role of president in 2014. He is proud to be a part of the company’s latest growth plan.

“We are blazing forward on the trail my dad, grandfather and great uncle set out for our company,” he says.

Jeff is quick to tout the advantages of working with a family business that has grown to include a leadership team consisting of equal parts foodies, further processing gurus, and meat and animal scientists, all of whom are culinary experts.

“We’ve got a great mix of experience in both the red meat and poultry side of the business,” Jeff says, “as well as a strong youth movement of very highly educated folks who come with cutting edge education and skill sets,” which ensures MPF’s position on the forefront of innovation. This includes a production management team of four recent Texas A&M Univ. graduates, all with bachelors and master’s degrees in animal science or food science. Its QA department also includes a five-some of A&M grads. “This is our Aggie dream team,” Jeff says proudly, while noting with humor that his Longhorn father is surrounded by Aggies.

The company’s structure moving forward is centered on the entire team feeding into its three business segments: Fine-dining foodservice and specialty foods; high-end retail; and regional and national foodservice chains.

“We’re known in our markets as culinary experts,” Jeff says. “That’s [why we use] the toque hat in our logo; we’re known for being white tablecloth, top quality; but we are also meat and animal scientists with robust R&D capabilities that enable us to provide protein solutions at an excellent value.” The company also now markets itself as operations-focused manufacturers who provide innovative, value-added proteins for customers requiring low-cost products.

Product categories and varieties include high-end chicken cuts, diced and sliced; high-end beef cuts, veal, pork, lamb and wild game. MPF now counts more than 2,400 independent foodservice locations among its customer base. To meet demand, MPF services its customers six days per week, offering just-in-time processing and affording chefs the opportunity to place orders as late as 5 pm for delivery the next morning in any of its four markets in the Lone Star State.

“We’re basically a 24-6 operation,” Jeff says. “We’re cutting products late into the night and we are loading trucks continuously so we are a logistically sophisticated organization. That’s our historical identity,” and it is how MPF has earned the respect and loyalty of hundreds of demanding chefs in the area.

“We’re unique in the industry,” Jeff says. “A lot of companies might do one or two of the things we do, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen a company that is doing everything we’re doing. For example, I don’t know of any other company that is on the one hand portioning chops for a James Beard chef, while on the other hand stocking European butter and cheese on a grocery aisle, while at the same time processing truckloads of custom marinated proteins for a 200-unit national account. It’s a mix of products and services that our company is uniquely well suited for."

The company’s bread and butter historically had been focused on filling its fleet of delivery trucks with premium products, from steaks to pork chops, and shipping them to what are regarded as the premiere white-tablecloth restaurants, hotels, and country clubs within the borders of the Lone Star State. But that approach is changing.

“We have undertaken this transformation of our company to grow and evolve from a regional player to a national player with an entire new set of customers,” Jeff says. Figuring out the logistics piece initially was the biggest challenge to becoming a national supplier, he adds, but they have solved that issue by partnering with broadline and regional distributors and re-distributors. “Every week, we’re dispatching trucks to third-party distributors or re-distributors in every corner of the country. With this robust national network in place, there’s no market that we couldn’t service today.

“Custom marination is what we’ve decided is going to be our focus.” Customers demanding such value-added products include those chains in the Tex-Mex, Asian, Greek and Mediterranean segments.

“People are still learning about us,” Jeff says, “and familiarizing ourselves with this new customer base has been our mission the last couple of years.

“We’re finding that our focus on marination is narrow enough that we aren’t biting off more than we can chew,” Jeff says, while also a broad enough market that there are more business opportunities available than the company could ever serve. “There is still a lot of runway, a lot of greenspace in this area."

When it comes to sourcing raw materials, success is often based on responding to market challenges and conditions, which for MPF has meant expanding its global sourcing network. Jeff recalls 2012 as an example, when the beef market in the US was challenging processors due to drought and a shrinking cattle herd nationally.

“We were scouring the world to find alternatives to the highly priced domestic products that were of equal or greater quality at a better price point.” For MPF, this meant tapping into export markets in South America, New Zealand, Australia and beyond.

Meat minded

The meat processing plant is currently being expanded to accommodate new demand that will require doubling its production. Besides doubling the square footage of the processing areas, new refrigerated space for processing and storage and a new test kitchen will be added as part of a project that is scheduled for completion by the end of the summer.

Jarret Hudek, vice president of meat production, is part of the team leading operations at the meat plant, located just across the street from the poultry plant. Besides processing pork, lamb, veal and beef, which utilizes a high-tech customized marination system that works in tandem with dedicated vacuum tumblers, there is also a steak-cutting, portion control area within the meat plant. The company’s own brand of fajita meat is Reserva Tex-Mex and its product is designed for broadline distribution.

“We’re trying to achieve the higher purpose of really helping our customers by adding value to our products and services,” Jeff says. “Let’s face it, the restaurant industry is a very difficult industry to be successful in and the least we can do is address issues in the back of the house so they can focus on the front of the house."

Today, MPF is servicing many new customers that have no connections to Texas. One newer customer, for example, is based in the southeast and has 200 units; another is a 100-unit casual dining customer based on the West Coast, as well as a 600-unit chain that has locations throughout the US.

“That’s the future for us in terms of customers we’re looking for,” Jeff says. “But we will do this while keeping sight of our historic core of white tablecloth customers here in Texas."

The future includes sticking to what has worked so well for the company. Jeff says: “It’s our quality, culinary expertise, and service to those customers that’s gotten us this far, and that will continue to guide us as we expand our reach to new customers across the country.”