Founded in 2015, Premier Custom Foods, based in Kansas City, Kan., started out producing value-added meat and poultry products and specialty items from a modest 4,000-square-foot building, with about 60 employees working at the plant. Within the first two years the company was bursting at the seams at the original facility, where it specialized in processing portioned, marinated chicken breasts and tenders as well as a growing line of pork and beef products. To accommodate the growth, Patrick Williams, general manager and founder, would ultimately purchase, renovate and move the company’s operations in 2018, to a 42,000-square-foot building and more than double its staff to keep up with the demand from retail grocery chains and a handful of foodservice customers.

Williams has lived in Kansas City all his life and has spent more than 33 years in the meat industry. He worked at an established Kansas City, Mo.-based meat processor/distributor and earned ownership shares in the company during his 28-year stint before going it alone. He had high hopes before ramping up operations at Premier on Jan. 1, 2015, but never fathomed the rapid growth he would experience in the first two years of his new venture. His business plan focused on manufacturing specialty products that high-volume and commodity-based processing companies can’t afford to take on.

“We do all the stuff, the labor-intensive products, that all the big boys don’t want to do,” Williams said. “I found a little niche for products we can do a good job with and allow us to make money. It’s not about volume for us, it’s about quality. And we can make a profit from it.”

Those products include a variety of pre-packaged beef and chicken kabobs, stuffed peppers, pork chops, steaks and cut-up chicken.

An eye for D.I.Y.

When it became obvious that more space was needed, Williams looked to move from the small space he rented to a much larger, nearby facility that he could own. After finding the right location, in an established industrial area of Kansas City, Kan., the next hurdle was transforming the older building to a state-of-the art food production facility. That transformation and the cost to pull it off was significant. Getting the new location ready for food production meant thinking outside the box and executing a strategic approach focused on using existing resources and the flexibility of the employees at the original plant.

“We didn’t have the capital to hire a contractor here to get it all done; it was too expensive,” he said.

So, the only viable option was to use his own workers to help renovate the new building while still producing product each day.

“We would produce every day until 3:00,” Williams said. “And we would come over here at 3:30 and watch YouTube videos to learn how to build this place ourselves.

“We would come over, rent tools, dig up drains, cut floors out, hang panels; and learned how to use jackhammers,” he said, adding that plumbing and electrical work was done by licensed professionals after Williams and his crew did the grunt work.

It wasn’t uncommon for those workers’ days to last until 10 p.m. during what was a six-month process.

“We would go home and go to bed, get up in the morning and cut chicken the next day until 3:00 and do it again.”

Once the $2.5 million project was underway, line workers quickly realized their role changed every afternoon during the process, Williams said.

“You’re a construction person now,” he said. “None of us knew what to do or how to do it. We learned and adapted. So, it was truly built from the ground up, by us.”

The finished product was a plant that those workers and Williams are proud of.

“My workers take great pride in having skin in the game from when we built the building. It’s truly a blessing that they helped me do this,” he said.

And the move to the new plant was swift, as the last shift at the old facility ended on a Friday and production at the new one started up the following Monday. Williams added that many visitors to the plant would attest that judging a book by its cover can be deceptive as the aged rough look of the exterior of the building hides the technology-rich operation inside. Plans are to give the exterior a makeover soon.

“I’ve worked in a lot of facilities in Kansas City, and this is the nicest I’ve ever worked in,” he said. “We are very, very proud of this place.”

Line workers assemble beef and vegetable kabobs at Premier Custom Foods.

Equipment essentials

The only pieces of equipment that were moved from the former plant were two small, automatic traysealers (Multivac T 600s). The new, bigger plant is also equipped with a Risco ground beef line and a Marel portion cutting line. It’s also one of the only US plants utilizing a Multivac TVI automated shish kabob system and two of Multivac’s newest TX traysealers.

Looking back on his years working with equipment suppliers in Kansas City, Williams has learned the importance of longtime relationships and the value of working with reputable companies that operate locally. Two such companies he came to rely on over the years, especially when it came time to upgrade operations and move into his new building, were Marel, with offices in nearby Lenexa, Kan., and Multivac, with offices in Kansas City, Mo.

He said for a medium-size company like his, global companies like Multivac and Marel, with local offices and expert support in addition to the availability of spare parts in Kansas City, is important.

When it came time to upgrade the equipment in a new space, Williams said Multivac made the process more financially palatable. One way was allowing him to trade in previously purchased equipment from the company and applying its value to newer equipment.

“They took it back and upgraded me,” he said. “They’ve been beyond flexible.”

Besides the trade-in deal, Williams said the company’s willingness to extend financing options sped up the transition to the new plant. He estimates there is about $1.5 million worth of Multivac equipment in his plant.

“They are a vital part of my growth,” he said. “It’s an old-school relationship with them.”

Prepared for more

When Williams moved the company, he had more substantial growth in mind than he did in 2015, as the company owns the bulk of the entire block of property that surrounds the plant. With one shift running currently, the newer plant is at about 70% capacity. The company’s product mix is approximately 70% retail and 30% foodservice. Premier works with local and national distributors including Reinhart Foodservice, Sysco and US Foods. Premier also sells products to meal kit providers. Williams forecasts sales in 2021 to be between $40 million and $50 million and expects annual revenues to grow to about $100 million in the next three years.

“And I think we have the equipment and the facility to do it. We just exploded so fast buying new equipment, it takes a while getting everything running smoothly,” he said.

Today, Premier’s products include various cuts of poultry, seafood kabobs, chicken and vegetable kabobs, beef and vegetable kabobs, gourmet beef patties and pork chops, including co-packing for many supermarket brands.

Kabob production is a mainstay at Premier. Between the automated and manually produced kabobs, the company can make 25,000 kabobs per day.

“We do a ton of kabobs,” Williams said.

The kabobs and Premier’s other retail products don’t look store-made by accident.

“We private label for a lot of companies so it looks like it was made in the back of the house in the store,” Williams said. “They’re happy. The consumer thinks it was made in the back room and it’s a win-win for everybody.

“If we can give someone a gourmet raw item that they can put on the grill or put in the oven and it looks like it’s homemade, everyone is happy.”

About three to five shipments of products leave Premier each day, delivering to local customers as well as those on the East Coast, in Florida, Texas and even Canada.

When Premier first opened, Des Moines, Iowa-based Hy-Vee was easily its biggest retail customer and is still vital to its success, but the growing company also does business with other regional retailers like St. Louis-based Schnucks, as well as prominent national grocery chains.

“The thing we offer is consistency from store to store. It’s going to look the same in every store,” Williams said, as opposed to a meat manager making a kabob using the vegetables and meats he likes while another manager at another store might have something that looks very different.

“It’s a huge advantage to go to a national chain and they say ‘here’s the recipe,’ and it’s the same throughout all the stores. Everything we do for retail is pretty,” he said.

Operations overview

Given the diverse channels Premier’s customers serve, its product line-up includes not only chicken and vegetable kabobs, but also a variety of stuffed chicken breast items, various marinated chicken breast options, chicken cutlets and chicken spiedini. On any given day, the plant might also be processing any of a variety of specialty beef-based burgers, one of several sirloin steak and vegetable kabob choices, skewered seasoned beef sirloin, meatloaf, beef-stuffed peppers or sirloin bacon fillets. Pork offerings include stuffed pork chops and bacon-wrapped fillets. Bacon-heavy specialty items include Premier’s bacon-wrapped, cheese-and-sausage stuffed jalapeños, bacon-wrapped cream cheese jalapeños, bacon-and-cheese twice baked potatoes and bacon-wrapped asparagus.

Retail-ready bacon-and-cheddar burger patties are conveyed to the packaging area of the processing line.

The plant manager, Maynor Zuniga, oversees plant operations and the 80 employees that typically work on the production floor with room for more to be hired. The plant operates a single shift five days a week with sanitation procedures completed each night. Employees are encouraged to use an in-house gym area to work out in before or after their shifts. It was an amenity Williams added at the suggestion of Zuniga and it’s used by many at the plant.

Premier’s plant floor includes three lines for retail products, including one dedicated to value-added burger patty production.

The ground beef line, from Risco, was added to the plant earlier this year and has the capacity to churn out thousands of pounds of hamburgers each day.

“We can do 50,000 lbs of hamburger patties per day,” Williams said, as a steady stream of bacon-cheddar burgers whizzed down the line.

During a late morning visit in early June, the plant was in the process of running the day’s 1,500-plus packages of jalapeños on one line, beef kabobs on another and bacon beef patties on the third line, in addition to multiple stations adjacent to the main processing floor where workers cut up whole chickens for foodservice customers including a Kansas City-based QSR chain, Go Chicken Go.

Each line is changed over two to three times per day to accommodate the company’s production schedule which can include a mixture of up to about 50 different retail SKUs. Each retail package is exact weight, which is confirmed by a dedicated person on the line who weighs every tray of skewered products and adds or removes products from the tray prior to packaging.

Multivac’s TVI technology automates the skewering process to supplement the manual line that also produces kabobs by hand. The addition of the TVI machine more than doubled the kabob production at the plant.

About 80% of products made each day are shipped on that same day to ensure customers are receiving the freshest products possible, which is a sign of efficiency Williams is proud of.

“In my previous life we did everything frozen,” he said. “I think consumers are looking for a fresh item that they can just take home and not have to thaw out. When they take it home, they want to cook it tonight, and if we can supply that item, everyone wins.

“It’s fun to see something that we make be in stores and sold in the next two days. It’s fun to come up with fresh ideas that are trendy and are what the consumer wants.”

Through the years, Williams learned that focusing on volume only and competing to supply the KFCs and Popeyes of the world makes achieving profit margins more challenging, especially for a smaller processor.

“There’s just no money in it; you have to do more than just one item. If we can be the one-stop-shop for beef, pork and chicken entrees, we bring value to the back half of the store,” he said.

Leading the charge

As a hands-on owner, Williams wouldn’t ask his team to do anything he wouldn’t do or hasn’t already done himself. In that regard, he said assigning job titles are not exactly a priority at Premier.

“I’m on the forklift every day, so my title is sometimes forklift driver,” he said, adding that a day doesn’t go by when he’s not on the processing floor, in the warehouse or on a forklift.

Another part of his weekly routine is spending every Sunday at the plant, completing paperwork and getting the production area ready for the week. He said he enjoys his job and looks forward to working alongside the next generation of his family in the years to come.

Williams’ son, Joe, has worked at Premier during summer breaks for many years and this year is no different. Joe is working toward earning his degree in finance and continuing his studies in pursuit of becoming a certified public accountant. At that point, the plan is for him to succeed the current chief financial officer, Teri Leseman, when she retires.

“We all work for the common goal to fill orders, keep a good work environment and make a profit,” Williams said.