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"Meat monger's secret ingredient: Forward Thinking"


The federal government recognizes 29 cuts of beef and six of pork - and no matter how you slice them. AVA Cos. Inc. wants a taste.

Launched 25 years ago as AVA Pork Products Inc., the Hicksville company (now serving a variety of pork and beef products) has carved its way into one of America's busiest markets - a $160 billion meat and poultry industry that, according to Washington, D.C's American Meat Institute, has an $832.4 billion "economic ripple effect' analogous to 6 percent of the nation's entire gross domestic product. Reaping the benefits are both national distributors and regionalized manufacturers like AVA, which services grocery chain and specialty store customers along the East Coast from New York to the Carolinas.

By combining advanced packaging with a trademarked "Case Space Optimization" program targeting retailers' bottom lines, AVA has grown steadily through the recession. Founder and President Albert Girgenti noted sales rose 20 percent between 2008 and 2009; Executive Vice President Leonard Lombardi added AVA's current sales pace is "ahead of 2009."

"All of our growth is from new accounts." Lombardi said. "In the past year, we've added four or five accounts, including substantial accounts with several hundred stores in the chain and some with a more regional presence."

AVA has also struck its first-ever deal with Wal-Mart - a prepackaged ground "meatloaf mix" that should grace the national retailer's display cases within days, Lombardi noted. AVA also operates a food service division that feeds restaurants and other manufacturers.

The company employs 220 workers (an all-time high) to move 2.5 million pounds of product weekly out of its 50,000 square-foot headquarters. Since August, the company has created 50 new jobs, Lombardi said," and in the next six months. I would anticipate creating another 50."

This surge happened even as the recession chewed up and spit out numerous AVA-level wholesalers. Lombardi cited several competitors who've shut down, casualties of mismanagement and an inability to adapt to changing economic conditions.

Wild economics are not the only hurdle facing meat mongers. Cursory online searches reveal at least 50 wholesale meat distributors between East Moriches and Long Island City - and when one folds, it doesn't necessarily translate to more business for AVA. "You still have to offer a value proposition:" Lombardi noted.

And for every nook filled by a national distributor, there's a cranny for an AVA. Lombardi cited several critical factors working to AVA's advantage.

"Senior management consists of three people. We cater to a customer's changing needs in hours, versus weeks."

And while AVA's prices are industry-standard, it's the company's shrewd focus on "case-ready" products that sets it apart, according to its executive VP. Driven by more stringent health-and-safety protocols and positive labor-to-sales-rate returns, case-ready products - pre-packaged and shipped ready to sell, eliminating butchering and packaging at individual stores - are becoming the norm. "It's only a matter of time until the entire industry winds up in some kind of case-ready operation," Lombardi said. "And we have a 10-year head start."

AVA is further fortified by its Case Space Optimization program, also designed to help retailers increase sales and decrease over- head. "We gauge out-of-stock conditions based on different days and times, then prepare an analysis and ... recommend certain items be brought in on certain days," he said, noting the goal is to "keep products in cases ... without increasing labor costs."

Citing often contentious labor management relations, executives from the Great Atlantic & Pacific: Tea Co. (parent of the A&P and Pathmark brands) and the Stop & Shop Supermarkets Co. refused to comment for this story. However, CSO is apparently gaining steam: In addition to markets in the A&P and Stop & Shop chains, AVA recently announced that multistate retailer Acme Markets (a subsidiary of Albertsons lnc.) has signed on.

Despite a proactive approach to securing new business, moving meat - in AVA's case, mostly Midwest livestock and some Canadian pork - remains a difficult proposition.

"Everybody is struggling in these economic times," Lombardi noted. "Labor dollars are at a premium. Food safety is at a premium. There's a more educated. health-conscious customer out there. And the industry has evolved ... it's more difficult to do what we do, very expensive and very labor-intensive.

"Can we increase [a retailer's] sales? he added. "Can we lower labor-to-sales-rate percentages? Can we deliver a safer product? If we can answer these questions positively, then we have a qualified prospect."