Three firms, devoted to poultry, freight, and logistics respectively, operate under the wing of the E.J. Family of Companies. All three are based in Puyallup, Washington and owe their existence in large part to the popularity of southern chicken.
E.J. Poultry can trace its roots to the mid-1970s, when Ed Root and Jim Samuelson began buying and distributing southern chicken out West. This food item proved highly popular among consumers, and in 1978, Root and Samuelson officially incorporated a company called E.J. Poultry with the ‘E.J.’ part referring to the initials of their first names. Then, as now, southern-based suppliers have provided most of this fresh product.
For over four decades, E.J. Poultry’s business model has centered on “shipping fresh product across the supply chain,” states Vice President of Sales Scott Robbert.
Two new firms followed in E.J. Poultry’s wake. E.J. Logistics was founded in 2005, to coordinate the activities of the carrier network and is currently co-owned by Scott Robbert and Mike Phair.
A few years later, company officials sensed a new opportunity in the freight transportation field and purchased their first truck in October 2014, and E.J. Freight, LLC was born to support E.J. Poultry’s transportation requirements. This trucking fleet has grown over the years and “currently has sixteen active trucks,” says Robbert. Ten of these vehicles are driven by owner-operators, while the remaining two are company trucks.
Trucks head out from the Pacific northwest to the Midwest or southeastern parts of the United States, with the majority of the loads in Arkansas, Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia. Chicken is picked up at processing plants, and then shipped directly to customers, many of them in the West. The company serves clients “from Texas all the way to the Pacific Ocean,” says Robbert.
At present, E.J. Poultry is the biggest enterprise in the E.J. Family of Companies’ corporate fold. “We call it ‘the engine that runs everything,’” he says.
E.J. Poultry covers all the Western U.S. states including Colorado, Wyoming, and Montana for customers from small food service firms to huge retailers.
Coordinating orders proved tricky, at least for a while, as the three-company structure of E.J. Family of Companies initially caused some administrative headaches, Robbert recalls. “Carriers would pick up a load in Mississippi and deliver into Portland, Oregon and invoice E.J. Poultry.” Should the drivers then pick up a load in Washington and take it to Dallas, however, carriers would send subsequent billings to E.J. Logistics. “It was a little bit fragmented. We now have a company policy that all orders flow through the E.J. Logistics group,” he says.
Running all orders through the logistics company is “a more linear sales approach,” that has greatly simplified and streamlined operations, he adds. Office duties for all E.J. Family of Companies operations are handled by a small but highly efficient group of nine employees.
Trucking can a risky business with the ongoing threat of road accidents, and when food products are being shipped, there is a risk of contamination or spoilage. E.J. Family of Companies is well aware of these hazards. Fred Dehnert is the safety and compliance director and closely adheres to transportation rules and regulations to keep drivers and cargo safe.
“We start directly at the processors. We’re always doing a washout before and after deliveries. The food supply chain is very strict these days,” Robbert states.
Several packing options are available for retail and food service customers. If bulk product is involved, E.J. Poultry recommends using controlled vacuum packaging (CVP) to preserve freshness and extend shelf life.
“We maintain daily safety compliance and adhere to all the rules and regulations of the DOT (Department of Transportation). We have safety meetings,” he explains of the trucking portion of the business. “All the deliveries we go to are ‘no-touch.’”
‘No touch’ means that drivers are not responsible for loading and unloading their wares. This reduces the risk of physical injuries and exhaustion on the part of drivers. It also makes the job of being a driver considerably less stressful.
“We don’t push [our drivers] outside their limits,” adds Robbert. “We keep everything aboveboard because we’re in business for the long run.” This is a refreshing change in an industry where people take shortcuts for short term benefit.
As another sign of E.J. Family of Companies’ commitment to sensible guidelines is becoming a United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) SmartWay partner in the carrier category. “I learned about [SmartWay] earlier in my career. When I joined E.J. Freight I realized it would be a good program to get into once we had a more official network,” he says.
Given that the core of the business involves food, E.J. Poultry has very strict criteria for poultry suppliers. “If we need a new supplier, we’re obviously looking for quality control. We want to make sure we’re selling a quality product. [Suppliers need to] have a stable supply that’s good quality we can represent,” notes Robbert.
In addition to providing quality products, it is important for suppliers to be flexible and communicate well. Orders can fluctuate drastically in the retail and food service sectors. “One week, it could be two hundred cases of boneless thigh meat, then next week, eight hundred cases,” he says.
Scott Robbert says, “Our biggest hurdle facing E.J. Family of Companies is simply in letting people know what we have to offer.” To get the word out, E.J. Family of Companies has a website, a social media presence, and belongs to several trade associations like the National Poultry and Food Distributors Association, Food Northwest, and the Food Shippers of America. Membership in such associations is helpful for networking and promotion and to keep abreast of industry developments.
Maintaining close ties to industry groups and industry leaders makes good business sense. “The short shelf life of fresh poultry keeps you on the ball. My operations team is constantly connected. As a member of the Food Shippers of America, we get a chance to meet all the players. We know the processors and their products so well we now provide truck and logistics to them direct. The same thing applies to a lot of the receivers because they are our customers. We try to develop long-term relationships within our supply chain. We’re not a transactional carrier,” states Robbert.
As for the future, E.J. Family of Companies wants to establish a new headquarters and capitalize on consumer food trends. “We have two acres purchased here in Puyallup,” he says. “We’re working on our forever office and a large yard to park equipment. Hopefully, it will be our forever home.”
This site would serve as the central hub for E.J. Family of Companies’ operations. For now, there are no any plans to open new branches outside of Puyallup though certainly the company is not opposed to the idea, particularly if “there’s an acquisition down the line,” or another opportunity presents itself, says Robbert.
E.J. Poultry has the good fortune to specialize in a food product that remains hugely popular. In fact, most economic reports indicate that “people are eating more chicken,” than ever for health reasons, he notes. “As people continue to eat healthy, our business will be more and more in demand.”
To take advantage of such trends, E.J. Poultry “is constantly looking at different products and bringing new items to market,” continues Robbert. “We’re constantly getting samples from either current suppliers or new suppliers that might have items we want to get into.” These products include organically raised chicken, which is rising in popularity.
With all this in mind, he envisions a bright future for the E.J. Family of Companies over the next five years. “I think, at the end of that time, we’ll be at our new location [and experiencing] healthy growth. Five years from now, I hope we have sixty to seventy trucks, full office staff and a healthy logistics division with a stable, growing poultry company [and that we] all work together seamlessly.”
The poultry trade is “steady,” says Robbert. “As long as you grow smart and don’t overcommit and grow too fast, it’s a good business.”