R. Whittingham & Sons Meat Co. has come a long way from the days when Richard Whittingham Sr. scoured the streets of 1940s Chicago with a meat truck searching for his next customer. After moving his business from the meat truck to a brick-and-mortar store, Whittingham started to build a name for his family as a processor of high-quality beef. After a few decades in the beef business, Richard decided, in 1972, to move the operation to its current location in Alsip, Illinois.
Now rounding into more than 70 years serving the Chicago area, Whittingham Meats continues to represent a high-quality family beef brand that has stayed relevant and relatable to their customers and clients throughout the years.
“Before we would have to keep pounding the streets, to get guys to see who we were. Now people are calling us and want to see our product,” says Rick Whittingham III., president and CEO of Whittingham & Sons Meats Inc. “We’ve found our niche here of how to buy product and how to sell it and how to cut it. It’s been a good thing. I’ve spent 35 years doing this myself, just pounding the streets at night trying to get people to look at our product. It’s kind of running itself almost. People are calling us and wanting to see us.”
Wholesale meats retail
Whittingham Meats distributes wholesale beef, pork, poultry, lamb and veal to restaurants, hotels, country clubs and casinos not just in Chicago, but all over the US while also maintaining a retail presence.
All of the company’s products are featured on the company website, www.whittinghammeats.com. The variety of 75 SKUs on the website shows its commitment to a wide range of products aimed at satisfying various customer requests.
Supplying to different wholesalers can be tricky because it’s a balance of quality and consistency on a large scale. Whittingham Meats has seen this to be the case, especially at country clubs around the Chicago area. For years, Whittingham Meats offered filets and prime ribs to local country clubs for special events and weddings. Now, they have noticed a move to chicken for these same occasions. The company is more than happy to make those adjustments to their product lineup, always maintaining their standards for quality.
In addition to servicing their customers’ daily requests, Whittingham Meats ramps up production during the holiday seasons. During St. Patrick’s Day, the retail store produces more than 50,000 lbs. of corned beef. The store has been known to sell out of other classic meat dishes during the Christmas season. It’s all about finding that balance between traditional and new trends. The company has learned that adapting is vital.
“We reinvent ourselves all the time,” Rick Whittingham says.
Part of that reinvention has been implementing the Chicago 250 Black Angus program. Rick Whittingham partnered with nearby ranchers to develop a locally grown natural Black Angus beef program for his customers. The goal of this specialty beef program is to source all the beef from within 250 miles of Chicago.
“Choosing only the highest quality cattle, we get the right genetics from the right Black Angus bull stock known to have the most desirable traits,” the company’s website explains. “Knowing and caring about genetics is the key to breeding the best cattle. This results in a unique, desirable flavor because our cattle are grass-fed, and grain finished.”
The Chicago 250 Black Angus program focuses on finding farmers who look at genetics, raising practices, sustainability and environmental responsibility.
“With the big boom in the farm-to-table we just kind of jumped on board with that,” Rick Whittingham says. “We’re very excited about that, but being raised in this business I’ve seen the changes.”
After working on the business throughout his life, Rick sees viability and growth for the future, especially with the addition of his son Bob as the marketing director of the company. The father-son duo is now handling all aspects of the branding and messaging to let more people inside and outside of Chicago know about the premium product.
“I really wanted to bring that brand building mentality. My father and grandfather come in with business mentalities, so I have to pick up a lot of that from them,” Bob says. “For millennials, a brand is a big thing to get behind. If you can build a strong voice around that brand it makes it easier to push that product.”
Bob graduated from the Univ. of Oregon in 2016 with a degree in public relations and spent a few years working for marketing firms in Seattle. Last year, he decided to come home and help lead the latest reinvention of the family business. In his new role with the company, Bob is developing some new marketing ideas to promote the company. He is active on its social media accounts and is looking to further develop the web page so customers can enjoy more customized timely orders.
However, he also understands the importance of building retail relationships like they do at their store in Alsip.
“Our retail is just as important as our wholesale because when I was in high school, I was waiting on these customers who have already been coming into the store for 30 years,” he says. “It’s an honor to be a part of something like that, where people are coming in and dealing with your family and lineage like that. It’s important for them to have faith in your product and customer service.”
As the company moves forward, Rick says they are looking to expand the wholesale business by 30,000 to 40,000 sq. ft. Whittingham Meats is looking to buy a few buildings behind its existing location and plans to retain the retail store in the same location.
Expansions and new business opportunities are part of the company’s future. Over the years, Rick has seen some of his family’s competitors fall to the wayside, but he’s confident in what his family has built over the past 70 years – he knows it can thrive for years to come, even when the next generation takes over.
“Family businesses are kind of a thing of the past. I see them fading like crazy,” Rick says. “I tell Bob, ‘you’ve got a great opportunity.’ We still have young kids who come in here who shopped with their parents and they still continue to come here.”