Keystone Brand Meats relies on non-traditional packaging to add shelf life and contain quality.
Pete Dorley, acting president of Keystone Brand Meats in Lima, Ohio, hopes to grow the company’s brand of canned meat and soup base products beyond a regional phenomenon – and there’s no shortage of potential consumers. A 2015 survey conducted by Experian found that 217.16 million respondents out of 321.42 million total respondents said they had not eaten canned meats.

And it’s probably not a coincidence that Keystone Brand Meats’ canned meats and soup base division has seen the fastest growth and broadest distribution among its many products. “We still do the fresh meat processing,” Dorley says, “but the canning is by far the biggest part of our business today.”

Keystone has been in business for 53 years, and is on the fourth generation of family ownership. Dorley’s grandfather started the business as Pride of Lima. Dorley’s great-grandfather was a partner in a meat company called Lima Packing Co. “Our family has been in business a long time, and there’s been continuity in all of those businesses up to Keystone as it is today,” Dorley says.

The company mainly had been processing beef cattle until Pete Dorley’s father, CEO Dave Dorley, started making canned meats about 25 years ago to sell in Keystone’s retail store and a few other grocery and retail stores in the Lima area. Pete Dorley said the products sold well, which encouraged the Dorleys to approach regional retailers such as Fresh Counter. Eventually, national chains such as Kroger and Wal-Mart began selling Keystone’s canned meats.

“Really, the canned meats offer a wholesome, flavorful convenience for cooking at home,” Dorley explains. “Canned meats, as we make them, are like a Crock-Pot meal that’s done for you. I want to point to the quality and value of our canned meats. They really should be compared to fresh meats at a butcher shop because that’s really what it is. Plus, it’s already slow-cooked for you.”

Keystone’s many hats

Keystone encompasses three integrated divisions. One is the company’s retail butcher shop, which serves as the trusted local butcher of Lima. Next is the meat processing side of the business. “We have wholesale fresh meats…we do that for custom processing; we do that for people who want to bring their own cattle in for custom processing and that can include canning the [meat] for them,” Dorley says. “The wholesale fresh meats also supply the retail butcher shop.”

Finally, the Keystone Brand Meats cannery and soup division operates from a separate facility located on the same property with the retail and wholesale operations. The company is planning for growth by adding on to the cannery by about 75 percent. Keystone also enlisted the services of a public relations agency to develop advertising and promotions.

“We do view the canning of the meats as a real value-added item,” Dorley says. “It’s an item we can sell to bigger retail chains, so it does provide an advantage for us there. The canned meats – as we do it – are somewhat of a regional phenomenon. But what we’ve done is taken a very old, small batch slow-cooking method using very lean meats and nothing artificial. All we put in is just meat and sea salt. So the process is very simple. It’s nothing new or revolutionary that we invented. But we took that old, very robust process and we introduced it to a broader region and it worked. It’s gained footing and it’s grown.”

Considering canning

Producing canned meats to Keystone standards is a labor-intensive process. Meat destined for the cannery is hand-selected, Dorley explains, and only lean, whole-muscle cuts are used. One of the benefits of running a fresh meat business is having skilled butchers on hand to prepare the meat for canning, Dorley says.

For example, “…We trim that beef very carefully and just take the good, lean whole-muscle cuts, cut it up into smaller chunks and we hand pack it into the can,” Dorley says. “We add a little bit of sea salt; we seal that can and then slow cook it.”

Keystone’s soup-base products are a type of bouillon with the first ingredient being canned meat. The base has the consistency of a paste, and it is sold in 8-oz. jars.

Dorley notes that when it comes to cans, size matters. “We look to put what the retailers value on their shelves, and what they value is what the consumers vote for with their dollars.”

Keystone’s top-selling products are the 28-oz. canned beef and chicken. “The interesting thing is the retailers really view these items as innovation in a really low-innovation category.” The products also bring incremental growth to the canned meat category because consumers aren’t trading “‘Brand A’ for ‘Brand B,’” Dorley adds.

Keystone has worked with a number of can suppliers over 50-plus years in business. “The ones that seem to be the best fit for us, first off, offer us the technical and testing capabilities that we want to make sure that the shelf life is where we want it to be and the can is reliable,” Dorley explains. “Second, is the technical in-house expertise that they can bring to us and to help us maximize the efficiency of our process. So, a good can company in our mind is one that brings some added value to our plant to help us make our process run better.”

Dorley says Keystone’s production process is what makes the company’s products unique, but like many other food companies, Keystone currently is in the process of transitioning to cans that are free from Bisphenol A (BPA). BPA is a chemical used to make hard clear plastic used in many consumer products. It also is used as an ingredient in epoxy resins which provide a protective lining on the inside of metal-based food and beverage cans.

The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) expressed concern that BPA posed a health risk to consumers.

“I think the industry as a whole is moving that way, and we are aggressively pursuing that right now,” Dorley says. “I would expect that by the end of this year they will be,” free of BPA.

Safety centered

Cuts of beef, pork, chicken and turkey are hand-selected for canning by Dorley and other family who are owners of the business. He describes the selection process as one of the critical parts of Keystone’s process and a characteristic that makes it special. “We shop and purchase just the right cuts of beef, chicken, pork and turkey – we bring in exactly what we want to go into each can.”

But an equally critical part of Keystone’s process is food safety. Keystones runs a US Dept. of Agriculture-inspected plant and has a USDA office on the premises. Additionally, the company rewards employees who embrace the food safety culture of Keystone and those workers are supported with in-house training in order to achieve the ultimate goal of producing wholesome and safe food for consumers.

“The company has very low turnover, and currently employs 30 to 35 workers,” Dorley says. “We’re a family all with the same goal, from the bottom to the top.”