Even though Gerber Poultry Inc. processes a half million birds per week, its operations only represent about one-fourth of 1 percent of the US broiler industry. The company, located in the northeast Ohio town of Kidron, is a relatively small player in the poultry market, but in its 68 years of operations Gerber has stayed true to its company motto and has always sought to produce quality chicken “worth crowing about.”

In its quiet way, the family owned company is “crowing” with pride over its Amish-raised, antibiotic-free, humane-certified chicken, sold at retail under the Gerber’s Amish Farm Chicken brand, that’s now distributed in 15 states throughout the Midwest.

A recent line-speed adjustment, from 140 birds per minute (bpm) to 175 bpm – thanks to getting a waiver approval from the US Dept. of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) – has opened the opportunity to develop plans for a possible plant expansion over the next two years. Yet, an immediate result of receiving the waiver has permitted Gerber to relax its production schedule from six to five days a week. With real weekends for family and social time, employees are more engaged on the job, appreciating a true work/life balance. Satisfied employees and plans for expansion mean more people in the Midwest enjoying chicken that actually – as the sign in front of the plant states – “tastes like chicken.”

Against the odds

Dwight Gerber, originator of the company motto, didn’t initially plan to get into the chicken business. In the 1940s, newly married to Melva and starting a family, Dwight wanted to find a vocation that both “honored God and supported his family,” according to Mike Gerber, retired co-owner of the company and Dwight’s son. The rural setting of their Kidron home, in the midst of Ohio’s large Amish and Mennonite populations, gave Dwight access to fresh seasonal produce and eggs. These he began to sell door to door in neighborhoods around Akron, about an hour from their home. Thanks to the high quality of the products he selected for his route, Dwight’s customers started requesting more than just vegetables and eggs – in particular the customers requested clean farm chicken (in those days chickens available in stores often had uneviscerated parts inside and feathers outside). “Clean chickens” became Dwight’s mark of quality. The door-to-door vegetable business soon evolved into a chicken delivery business. Dwight and Melva, people of deep faith, saw that their “dream of honoring God with work that supported their family was becoming a reality,” Gerber explains.

In November of 1987, Gerber Poultry caught fire. Almost the entire operation was wiped out by the fire – including the main processing area, coolers, freezers, offices, the storage area and even a large amount of inventory.

First, the Gerber family bought local chickens to sell to its customers, but by 1952, they were raising their own – soon processing up to 100 birds a week in the basement of their home. The business grew from there and through the 60s was located in the barn behind the Gerber’s house. Gerber Poultry became an official poultry company, Gerber Poultry Inc., in 1972. The facility continued to grow through the years as the barns were replaced by a state-inspected processing plant, still located next door to the Gerber family home. The vision of supporting the Gerber family now expanded to supporting many families, a trend that would continue through the next six decades.

From the start, Gerber Poultry was a family operation. Son Mike Gerber joined the family business in the 1970s, right out of high school and eventually became president. Mike’s sister, Sue, joined the company in 1971 ultimately becoming director of payroll in 2000. Their brother, Tim, joined in 1980 and was then named vice president. Mike Gerber’s wife Donna also works at the company as support staff office manager. All three siblings are now retired but still co-owners of the company.

By the early 1980s, Gerber Poultry developed a live operation with broilers supplied by Amish growers. The company was processing 12,000 birds per week and by 1985, 35,000 birds per week. Then tragedy struck.

In November of 1987, Gerber Poultry caught fire. Almost the entire operation was wiped out by the fire – including the main processing area, coolers, freezers, offices, the storage area and even a large amount of inventory. Faulty electrical wiring was to blame.

The decision whether to close or rebuild was a quick one, and it was not solely a business decision. Now with 30 grower families supplying chickens and 60 employees, the Gerbers had a sense of their responsibilities to those families. Thanks to a supportive customer base and community, the family opted to rebuild and managed to be processing again less than three months later. Ninety-nine percent of their customers stayed with the company after the fire allowing the company to continue its growth.

By 1990, Gerber’s was processing 100,000 birds per week. Soon after the company added a hatchery to its operation – Orrville Chick Hatchery. The hatchery delivers day-old chicks to the Gerber Poultry growers all within 50 miles of the Kidron facility.

An overhead poultry processing line at Gerber Poultry Inc.

Ten years after the first fire at the plant, tragedy struck again with another fire at the facility. “The first fire taught us that you have to plan for disaster,” Mike Gerber says. “We got business interruption insurance after that which helped us recover after the second fire.” Dwight and Melva Gerber’s faith and vision, which continues through Mike, Sue and Tim, came into play after the second fire as well. With nearly 80 grower families, close to 300 employees and a loyal customer base, the sense of responsibility for these extended families played a heavy role once again in the decision to rebuild.

Six months later, operations were up once again, this time under the auspices of the USDA. Over the next two years, production grew to 250,000 birds per week. “With the rebuild we added new equipment and modern technology to help us become more competitive in the marketplace,” Gerber says. Included in the upgrades were the latest tools in food safety microbiological processes; a focus that continues today.

Unfortunately, with the timing of the fire, the company missed the opportunity to take advantage of the most profitable time in the poultry industry – in the late 1990s. By 2000, Gerber’s redefined its sales program and focused on marketing its brand. The emphasis was on the antibiotic-free aspect of the chicken, some 10 years before “antibiotic free” became a popular marketing tool. Promoting the fact that most of Gerber’s chicken is raised on Amish family farms was also a prominent theme. Demand increased for Gerber’s Amish Farm Chicken and the company continued to experience annual growth in production.

“It took a lot of hard work, a lot of faith and a lot of trust,” Gerber explains, “and we had a good team of people to help get us through. Everyone is family here – even if their last name isn’t Gerber.”

Today, the third generation of Gerbers, and one fourth generation member, are starting to take the reins. Three of Mike Gerber’s daughters, one son-in-law and a granddaughter work at the company.

From egg to drumstick

Gerber Poultry Inc. currently uses humane certified electrical stunning in its slaughter process.

The addition of the hatchery almost 30 years ago allowed Gerber’s to become a partially integrated poultry operation. The company oversees the process from hatchery to farm to slaughter to processing – all of which is humane certified.

Seventeen employees at the Orrville Chick Hatchery manage the hatching of more than 130,000 chicks, four days a week. The day-old chicks are delivered to a network of 150-plus grower farms in Ohio’s Amish farm country, all within a 50-mile radius. The chicks are fed a vegetable-based, custom feed formulated by the company nutritionist. After the birds reach their targeted grow-out time and 5.1 lbs. weight they are transferred to the plant for processing. The birds are slaughtered within 6 hours of the catch.

Gerber currently uses humane certified electrical stunning in its slaughter process. It is following the data related to the research and development of controlled atmosphere stunning systems.

“Gas stunning potentially would improve our team members’ working environment with better lighting, an extreme reduction in feathers and airborne dust particles, as well as a more relaxed task compared to hanging a live bird,” says Glenn Mott, vice president of compliance. “Industry data suggests improved quality of product with fewer blood spots in breast meat and improved wing quality with gas stunning versus electrical stunning.”

Gerber Poultry Inc. runs two shifts, five days a week to process 500,000 birds per week.While stunning, slaughter and evisceration are all run on automated lines, it still requires over two dozen workers to check, manage and adjust the automated equipment, Mott says. From the first step in receiving live birds Gerber’s procedures are designed to maintain food safe process control.

The slaughtered birds are then eviscerated to remove internal organs with a goal of preventing cross contamination. The carcasses are inspected during and after this process to assure that Gerber will produce food safe and exceptional quality chicken products.

Before the carcasses leave evisceration, they are inspected by the in-plant USDA inspector and conveyed to a 22,000-gallon water chiller. The water is treated with an organic antimicrobial to eliminate Salmonella and Campylobacter. After the 100-minute chilling process, carcasses move on to cutting, deboning and grinding.

The deboning and cut-up lines are the most hands-on, employee-heavy areas of the plant. There’s an average of 25 employees working in each of the sizing, cut-up, deboning, tray packing and weighing/pricing/labeling areas of production.

“In looking forward to the possibility of a line-speed increase, we added automated equipment designed to manage the speed and also to eliminate product handling and repetitive motion tasks,” Mott says. “Even though we have a lot of automated equipment, some tasks still require human labor and the human touch to pack food in a way that is pleasing to our customers.”

Gerber has an approximate 50/50 ratio of retail to foodservice customers for over 100 SKUs in each category.

Not just speed

The plant runs two shifts – one from 7 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. and the second from 4:30 p.m. to 1 a.m. – with the slaughter shift running from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. The operation now processes 500,000 birds per week. For nearly two years Gerber processed chicken six days a week – requiring overtime hours from many of its almost 450 employees. But thanks to some recent changes, the plant has been able to reduce production to just five days a week.

Despite being a small poultry player, Gerber’s joined a number of companies recently requesting line speed waivers from FSIS to increase production from 140 birds per minute (bpm) to 175 bpm on its evisceration lines. After FSIS announced it would consider waiver requests in 2018, advocacy groups opposed the move, claiming faster line speeds would result in more worker injuries and jeopardize food safety. In department meetings Gerber Poultry kept employees updated on changes a waiver would bring. Potential two-day weekends were looked forward to with anticipation. Company management also understood that most of the opposition to waivers was politically and activist oriented and had previously established a detailed foundation of data to support an application for a waiver, if the opportunity presented itself.

The first step in the process was proving the operation met all the necessary criteria – operating under the New Poultry Inspection System (NPIS) for at least one year; being in Salmonella performance standard category 1 or 2 for young chicken carcasses; having a history of regulated compliance with no recalls or alerts for at least 120 days; and demonstrating the procedures to increase line speeds will maintain or improve food safety.

After a trip to Washington, DC, many emails, phone calls and exchanges of regulatory forms, Gerber Poultry received its waiver. And, on Oct. 12, 2018, the company slowly started increasing its production line speed.

A recent line adjustment at Gerber Poultry Inc. has opened the opportunity to develop plans for a possible plant expansion.

The production lines increased five birds per minute at a time per week. “We tracked our performance along the way,” Mott explains. “If we met our standards for that week, we would increase another five birds the next week.”

By early November 2018, the plant was up to 160 bpm which was fast enough to eliminate Saturday overtime production. By the end of November, Gerber was up to 175 bpm – and it’s remained there ever since.

“We have used a combination of automated equipment and automated conveyor systems to assure the production of safe food products at higher speeds,” Mott says. “We have enhanced our team member safety by adding team members where necessary or eliminating positions when automation could do the task. In all remaining positions, team members are rotated out on a regular basis to break the monotony of tasks and protect against repetitive motion injuries.”

Throughout its history, good pay for good work has been a common sense focus for Gerber Poultry. While eliminating the Saturday production day benefited employees by providing more time off, the company also considered how reducing Saturday overtime hours would affect them. The greatest percentage of overtime hours is earned in the five day work week and remained unchanged. Gerber adjusted wages to soften the slight reduction brought about by having Saturdays off. The responses to those changes have been greeted with great approval by employees.

Plans for expansion in 2020-2021 include adding a new live receiving area and additional slaughter and evisceration lines. After the next round of additions, the company will work toward increasing its production. And Gerber is ready for the next opportunity. Generational involvement in the family owned business is a strong foundation. As is the company’s ability to run and develop a business by focusing first on the people who make it work and the customers it serves.

In the early days of Gerber Poultry a “clean chicken” was defined as one that looked clean. Today a “clean chicken” means well raised, well cared for, processed with food safety in mind and clean on the microbial level. If Dwight Gerber could see today the family and little company that started in his basement nearly 70 years ago, he would be humbly proud. After 70 years Dwight’s motto, “Quality worth crowing about” continues to ring true.