Organic Food Manufacturer Discusses Food, Family, and Business
A Q&A with Chelten House Products Owner and President Steve Dabrow
Q: Chelten House is a fourth-generation, family-owned business. Tell us about the history of the company.
A: My grandfather started the business as an importer and distributor of specialty foods. When my father came into the business, they started to manufacture sauces and dressings under the Chelten House label. Since the core of the business was distribution into supermarkets, they were able to get these items into stores in the Philadelphia market. In the late ‘70s, our largest distribution account went out of business and this forced us to make a decision to get out of distribution and focus solely on the small manufacturing side of the business. In the mid-to-late ‘80s, I came into the business—the third generation in the business—and we entered the organic foods business. We were ahead of our competition in this niché market. Our growth came when we started doing private-label organic and all-natural foods for the retail industry across the country. We are the leading provider for this segment in dressing, pasta sauces, salsa and condiments. With the fourth generation now on board, we have expanded into two facilities: one in Bridgeport, N.J. and a new facility in Las Vegas, Nev.
Q: Does keeping the business “in the family” help maintain the company’s objective of offering “only the finest” food products to consumers?
A: “Family business” at Chelten House means the inclusion of everyone that works at the company. It’s a culture that has been built over years and gives us a huge advantage by having such a dedicated workforce. We run through walls for our customers and make sure the products they receive are “only the finest.”
Q: In the highly competitive business of food production and distribution, what has been the key to Chelten House’s success over the past several years as many companies fought for survival in an unstable U.S. and global economy?
A: First, we have the right strategy—creating healthy products for our customers under their label. Our chef and his staff have been creating innovative products for our customers and tapping into the at-home cooking trend. Second, we are doing business with the winners in the marketplace who are growing their businesses aggressively.
Q: You just completed a new plant in Las Vegas. Did signs of new life in the U.S. economy factor into your decision to build this new plant? Please explain why or why not.
A: The Vegas plant is a combination of running out of capacity in our current facility and the fact that we do a large amount of volume on the West Coast. I do think the economy is starting to pick up, but this was not a major factor in why we built the facility.
Q: The organic foods market continues to grow as consumers become more and more conscious of ingredients in their food and beverage products. Your company entered this market during its infancy. What prompted this move, was it a good move, and what do you see for the future of the organic food and beverage market?
A: Organic and healthy foods have been trending upward for 25 years now. This will continue as more people look to healthy eating as a major part of their lifestyle. At the time we got into organic, we were a very small business literally just trying to survive. We were desperate to find a niché that could separate us from our competition. We got lucky and it has been a great run in the organic market.
Q: What are the three biggest challenges for food and beverage manufacturers today and how is Chelten House tackling these challenges?
A: Our biggest challenge is constant regulation at our manufacturing facility and the intensity of auditing from our customers. This is a part of the business that we have embraced knowing that it is not going away and will only make us a better supplier. Our business is one of short lead times on orders and we must be proactive and extremely flexible in getting our customers the product on time, every time. Another challenge is a constant change in nutritional values that are being pushed. Right now, it’s all about sodium levels in our products. Having to reformulate our some 600 recipes and still ensure they taste rights is a very difficult task.
Q: Now that the Food Safety Modernization Act is taking form, what will this mean to food and beverage processors and distributors? Do you believe the industry is prepared for the new regulations that will be enforced?
A: Safety has become such a big issue at not only our factory, but I am sure at all factories around the country. Everybody has been working hard at putting themselves in a better position as this act moves forward.