Co-packing partnerships in the meat processing business develop for many different reasons and each partnership takes on a life of its own, growing, changing and evolving to suit the parties involved. Sometimes a business grows faster than expected and can’t scale to the demand in a timely manner, so they enlist a co-packer to help with, or takeover, production in order to accommodate customer orders. Sometimes co-packing is just part of the original business plan and makes the most sense. But no matter the reason, co-packing needs to provide those involved true partnership and benefit in the endeavor.
Washington Court House, Ohio-based Sugar Creek Packing Co. operates six facilities in three states and employs over 2,000 people. Sugar Creek manufactures bacon in partnership with some of North America’s largest and most well-known food brands. While partnerships differ from partner to partner and offer unique opportunities to those involved, Sugar Creek does prefer long-term relationships that provide a consistent order process, and the company continually nurtures those partnerships.
“We are always looking for opportunities to find new solutions to our customers problems or find new cooking technologies that can be used to fulfill their customer’s needs,” said Jennifer Richardson Hutcheson, chief relationship officer at Sugar Creek.
Sugar Creek has done bacon business with Golden, Colo.-based Coleman Natural Foods, a Perdue Farms company, for more than a decade. Coleman offers two types of bacon, both of which possess label attributes important to the brand. With claims including raised in the United States, no antibiotics, no added hormones, crate free and one of few pork companies that are American Humane Certified, a solid co-packer relationship and an understanding of Coleman’s needs is a must.
“Our co-packers need to be best-in-class from protocols, to quality, timeliness and reliability,” said Anne Kuechenmeister, vice president of further processing for Coleman Natural Foods. “Sugar Creek has been a wonderful partner for more than a decade.
“We have an extremely collaborative relationship with Sugar Creek. We work together when we want to bring new products to market bringing our combined expertise to the table. Our research and development team has a close working relationship with their team. Even through COVID they have been true partners helping us flex to meet changing demand.”
The feeling is mutual and, like all relationships, co-packing requires both parties involved to listen, understand and remain consistent and open minded.
“Coleman has been a great partner because they have an excellent and consistent product,” Hutcheson said. “We have been working together for a long time and they have been an excellent customer throughout. We have had great communication throughout our work together and have enjoyed working with them.”
Retail grocers across the country offer Coleman Natural’s products and Sugar Creek has committed to providing Coleman with whatever it takes to ensure the shelves are stocked with bacon. Whether processing for retail stores or foodservice customers, Sugar Creek’s ability to flex and pivot regardless of the situation and environment make it a viable and reliable co-packing partner.
“Pre-pandemic our [foodservice/retail] split was about 50/50,” Hutcheson said. “Due to increased demand from retailers and a lack of demand from foodservice, that number changed in 2020, but in 2021 we were back to a 50/50 split which is closer to normal for us.”
Every co-packing customer needs processes and procedures done a certain way. The popularity of bacon continues to evolve, and that evolution applies to all aspects of the product. Consumer diets have become so varied and specific, companies must do everything in their power to attract people to their products, whether it’s Whole30, Keto, organic, etc.
Bacon companies may require hogs raised in a certain fashion, special formulations, certain label attributes, bellies of a certain size, flavors, etc., just to remain relevant with the best cross section of consumers. Co-packing manufacturers must be able to accommodate their customers in these ways to build, maintain and further develop relationships and partnerships.
“Every customer is different, they have different cures, packaging, etc.,” Hutcheson said. “It takes a lot of coordination for switching lines, products, etc., but that’s part of the territory as a co-packer. We pride ourselves in being as nimble as possible. We try to streamline our equipment so that multiple different products can run on our various lines.”
One-year old co-manufacturing start-up, United Custom Foods, Charleston, SC, approaches its bacon co-packing partnerships in some of the same ways as the biggest players, but the company’s size and mission allow it to look for a specific kind of partner, one that fits with what they do best.
“Quite frankly, we want partners that want a high-quality product,” said Haig Berberian, chief executive officer at United Custom Foods. “We don’t want price to be the primary factor, although price is always a factor.”
While the biggest companies in the industry serve a customer-base with a consistent product, and the ability to manufacture that product in the largest quantities, United is a “a smaller, small batch, boutique packer,” Berberian said.
“The types of customers and partnerships that we look for are the ones that want to differentiate and separate themselves with a higher quality, more traditional hands-on product that they can then market that way to differentiate themselves,” added JD Mooney, United Foods’ general manager.
United Custom Foods launched in January 2021 strictly as a co-packer. One of the main reasons the processor only co-packs came from Berberian’s industry experience of being a non-competitor with potential accounts. Its co-pack customers might be less apt to do business if there is a perception that they’ll have to compete with their manufacturer in the bacon market. This concept makes co-packing attractive to both parties.
“A lot of companies will co-pack, but a customer that buys from them and has something co-packed, is going to be competing with the manufacturer in many cases,” Berberian said. “So United is not competing with its customers to start with.”
Another attractive quality of using a co-packer is consistency. Once a company scales to multiple locations, it can lose consistency from location to location. Personnel, environment, supply chain and vendors, etc., at different facilities create potential gaps in consistency, and the more locations the wider those gaps can become.
“We can help out the majority of the time because of the skill level we bring to partnerships,” Mooney said. “We can save them on labor, and we can absolutely get them the consistency that they’re looking for. So now all they have to do is get the product to however many locations they might have.”
United Custom Foods’ business model provides existing and potential partners multiple co-packing options and opportunities. Customers can send their own meat, or United has an affiliate company that will help with that. United has the ability and willingness to provide labor, research and development, HACCP plans if necessary, packaging and everything that goes with it.
“Pretty much everything short of distribution,” Mooney said.
Many of United’s customers ship meat from their own sources and packers. If a partner does want to go through United to source raw materials the system changes. If a partner wants United to source everything the affiliate is brought into fold and United Custom Foods’ does the processing after the affiliate handles the supply of ingredients.
While United will gladly use meat from various suppliers at customer request, if the company’s affiliate buys the meat, the affiliate will choose the supplier.
“If it’s got to be antibiotic-free poultry, or it’s got to be never-ever pork, those kinds of attributes can be required, but not the actual packer,” Berberian said. “We are a small-batch, artisan processor. Yes, we’re going to scale, but we’re still going to be hands-on involved and give the customer what they want, how they want it.”
United has one of everything it needs in its 16,000- to 18,000-square-foot federally inspected facility. The company will provide a 30 to 40 belly test batch on a first-time basis and typically doesn’t commit to any production in under 30 days. If a HACCP plan is required, the 30 days starts upon approval of the plan.
Currently everything United sells is foodservice focused, but a rollstock machine is on the way and the company will then have the ability to retail pack once it arrives. United Custom Foods has the capacity and plans to scale up, but in a controlled and systematic way with the right partners.