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"SUCCESS AT THE PLATE"




About 10 years ago, Albert Girgenti noticed a problem: the pork products he was selling to supermarkets were not making it to store's meat case because there was a bottleneck between the back room and the shelves. Girgenti knew if it was not out front for customers to see, then they were not going to buy it.

A few years later in 2002, the President/CEO of Always Value Added Pork Products created a solution to his problem. Girgenti developed a case ready line of pork: it was cut and packaged when it left the meat distribution company's warehouse so all the grocer had to do was put the package on the shelf.

"When a store is backed up and cannot get meat out, they can use these pre-packaged products as a helper. It is especially useful during nights and weekends, when the butcher is not working," said Girgenti.

By mimicking the packaging of each of its customers, the case ready meat from AVA looks like it was cut in the back room of each store, which Girgenti said is key. "Customers want to believe it was cut in the store, not some facility," he said.

The company uses a retailer mentality instead of a packer mentality to ensure that each of its customers is receiving individualized attention. Girgenti gets excited when a customer asks him to do something different because he knows he can, unlike larger companies that offer one stock product across the board. To personally make sure customers' needs are met, Girgenti either spends his day at his distribution center in Hicksville, NY or visiting the customer in person.

ALL-STAR TEAM

AVA Pork Products started in 1985 when Girgenti saw a need to help pig farmers market their product. "Pigs-that was what they knew, not distribution. So I decided to form a baseball team, where they would pitch the first few innings and I would handle the last few. Together as a team, we got a higher value for the farmers' pig meat," he explained.

AVA developed private labels for bacon and sold them to area supermarkets. In time, the company started selling other cuts of pork as well as ground beef. With the success of distributing meat-both pre-packaged and not-AVA outgrew its original distribution center and, in 2006, opened a 50,000-square foot facility in Hicksville. At the time, Girgenti was opening a facility that was a lot larger than what he needed.

"Opening the new facility was the toughest thing I ever did. The overhead was higher and the facility was underutilized. I was a little too early to the party with my idea, so I had to wait for the industry to catch up," he said.

Luckily, Girgenti is persistent. He got on the phone and called supermarket after supermarket, trying to convince them why it was a good idea to buy pre-packaged meat. Because many customers were not comfortable committing to full-programs, he offered them incremental sales, targeting the weekends when the butcher was not working. He developed the Case Space Optimization program, which helped stores keep their meat case full by having a variety pack of meat from AVA to fill in the gaps.

In 2009, AVA started to get back on solid footing and soon after turned a profit. While most companies were reducing their workforce, AVA hired 90 employees in 2010 and another 50 in 2011. The company has also had success with employee retention. According to Girgenti, the average turnover rate at a packinghouse is 60%; at AVA, it is 2%. When the company opened its new facility 20 miles away from the old one, 95% of its employees followed.

"They feel at home here," said Girgenti. "We find what employees are good at and let them do that. We focus on their strengths; their weaknesses are irrelevant."

Pinch Hitter

Girgenti thinks the future of his company is strong, as more grocers are using AVA's pre-packaged products to fully stock their meat department. He attributes a few reasons for this shift.

The first is due to a limited availability of butchers. Girgenti said the average butcher is in his 50s and it is not a trade that younger generations are embracing. Another reason is consistency. If a grocer has multiple chains and multiple butchers, it can guarantee consistency among stores by buying the prepackaged products. This also helps with shrinkage and yield differences because the store can better track how much product comes in and how much is sold.

However, food safety is probably the most popular motivator for switching to pre-packaged products. With constant reports about recalls on contaminated products, food safety is on everyone's mind, including the US Department of Agriculture (USDA). As the agency tightens up regulations, it becomes more costly and time consuming for grocers to meet these standards.

"Supermarkets do not want the exposure, it is easier to let someone else worry about it," said Girgenti "I believe eventually stores will completely outsource their meat department because of food safety and a shortage of butchers."

AVA is set up for all testing that is required by the USDA. In the last five years, the company has received gold ratings in its third-party facility audits. The company has invested a lot of money into the plant and its equipment for both safety measures and technological advancements.

Even though Girgenti stays abreast of new technology, he does not always jump on board with the latest and greatest. "We want to make sure our product looks like it was cut in the store. We will always go with that older, traditional look like the product is coming straight from the back room," he said.

-Karen Kondilis