At Gerber’s Poultry, Inc.—to answer the age-old question—the egg comes first. That’s because the arrival of 400,000 eggs every week kicks off the production life of the company’s chickens.
“We hatch a lot of chickens here. It works out to about 90,000 chickens hatched per day, four times a week,” booms John Metzger, Gerber’s controller, as he speaks over the noise of thousands of chicks chirping after receiving their spray vaccination. The fluffy yellow chicks are bundled up in hundreds of boxes in the hatchery, waiting to be loaded up onto trucks that will take them to nearby farms where Amish farmers will feed and take care of them before they reach market weight.
Metzger scoops up a handful of the chicks to show how healthy the tiny birds are after spending 21 days in incubation. Later in the day at a farm, he carefully looks around the barn, checking the environment and the behavior of the birds to ensure they are thriving. Having a clean, highly regulated operation is critical for raising healthy chickens, which results in a tastier product, said Mike Gerber, president of Gerber’s.
“As my dad used to say, ‘We raise a chicken that’s worth crowing about’,” he said of his father, Dwight Gerber.
GERBER’S DEMAND GROWS
Gerber’s Poultry got its start in 1952 when Dwight and Melva Gerber began sending eggs and fresh vegetables from their Kidron home to the Akron area. They started butchering about 30 chickens a week to add to their distribution route after receiving requests for fresh chicken from Amish country. The chickens were purchased mainly from local Amish farmers. Two years later, the couple converted one of their barns into a four-story chicken house with the capacity to raise more than 2,000 chickens on each floor. At the time it took 10 to 12 weeks for the chickens to reach market size. Today’s birds are 67 percent larger, eat less feed and arrive to market faster than the birds from the 1950s. This is a result of improved nutrition, animal husbandry and selective breeding.
LISTENING TO CUSTOMERS
Transparency is a big part of Gerber’s philosophy. The company has always been open about how it raises its chickens. Recent criticism about raising poultry using traditional means led Gerber’s to add a section to its website titled “Food, Think” to counter claims by the documentary “Food, Inc.” and answer some of consumers’ most frequent questions.
“This book is what it’s all about,” Metzger said as he pulled out a thick binder filled with customer comments. He read a few out loud. Many of them complimented the taste of the chicken. “To me, this is why we do what we do. These are from consumers who appreciate our product so much that they take the time to write or email us. I’m just flabbergasted they do it as much as they do.”
Metzger said many also praise Gerber’s chicken feed program, which the company openly details for its customers.
“Corn is (the cost of) gold to us right now,” Metzger said of high corn prices. “Part of the Gerber culture is that you do what you say you do. There are no corners cut here. Our feed doesn’t change season to season just because prices may be high. Our name has to have value. If you have the right customer base, they will ask for your product and be willing to pay for it even if it costs more (than competitors).”
Gerber products can be found in retail stores in Ohio and 15 other states. Heinen’s grocery store in the Cleveland area was not only Gerber’s first major retailer but the reason why the poultry company started marketing how it raised its chickens.
“We knew we raised a great chicken, and Heinen’s told us that consumers needed to know the story of how we feed and grow our chickens. We had never marketed that before,” Mike Gerber said.
Gerber’s Poultry tries to accommodate consumers’ requests whenever possible. Because customers expect the birds to be raised by the Amish, if they aren’t, they don’t have the label “Gerber’s Amish Farm Chicken.” Only 5 percent of the chickens are not raised by the Amish. Gerber’s has a contract with Chipotle Mexican Grill, which has led the company to pursue a humane care certification as requested not only by Chipotle but consumers, Metzger said.
“A lot of consumers want to know that we are taking care of our chickens. Certification is expensive but important to our customers,” he said.
Not all consumer requests, however, can be accommodated. Some consumers would like the chickens to be about a pound smaller than the 3.25 to 3.75 pound weight in the store. Most customers, though, would not be willing to pay what it costs to produce a smaller bird, Metzger said. Some consumers are even interested in buying chickens that have only been fed non-GMO grain. But because this grain is harder to source, using it would not be feasible for Gerber customers as it would triple the cost of feed and double the retail price of the chicken.
But the bottom line is that Gerber’s knows its customers love its chicken.
“We get emails from people saying they will travel to get our product,” Metzger said. “We get UPS orders from Florida of customers who want our whole fryers and are willing to pay whatever it costs to get them.”
Amy Beth Graves is a freelance writer from Upper Arlington.
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In 1978, Gerber’s started contracting with Amish farmers to receive and feed the chicks to market weight, a system that started with 10 farmers and is now at 120. In 1987, a fire destroyed the processing plant and Gerber’s quickly rebuilt and was back in operation two months later. In 1990, a chick hatchery was built in downtown Orrville, just down the road from the headquarters of Smucker’s and Smith’s Dairy. Gerber’s continued to expand and improve its processing plant only to have a fire in 1997 destroy an entire area. The company rebuilt its operation with high-speed processing equipment that today can process 65,000 chickens in an eight-hour shift. Gerber’s credits its strong customer base and community support for its decision to continue operating despite two devastating fires.