OMG. With texts and “tweets,” it seems that this electronic age and instant communication are pushing aside old familiar phrases. Still, we know what it means to say, “Put your money where your mouth is.”

Moreover, one company still lives up to this age-old challenge. Thirty miles south of Cleveland, Sandridge Food Corp. has invested more than $20 million in its refrigerated prepared foods business during the past five years. And speaking of old-fashioned values, this 50-year-old, third-generation company proudly promotes Grandma’s as its lead retail brand.

For the record, Sandridge processes refrigerated deli salads, soups, entrees, side dishes, desserts, sauces and dips for foodservice, retail and in-store channels. Although this privately held company does not release financial data, Refrigerated & Frozen Foods estimates its annual sales at approximately $100 million.

No matter what the figure, it’s clear that CEO Mark Sandridge and other shareholders are not afraid to put their money where the consumer’s mouth is – to address shopper concerns about “freshness.” This Medina, Ohio, business also puts its money where its customer’s mouth is – to address industry food safety concerns.

Case in point. Asserting that “freshness belongs to the consumer,” Sandridge put a radical idea to Pittsburgh’s Giant Eagle (GE) supermarkets. Sandridge would completely rearrange its production to replenish GE deli departments within 24 hours of an order. Developed in 2004 and rolled out the following year, the partners’ “Fresh Initiative” literally put fresher product on store shelves. Sandridge also helped GE reduce store shrink and eliminate as much as $200,000 in warehouse inventory costs. GE later presented Sandridge with the retailer’s 2005 President’s Award, its top employee performance honor.

Case in point. To address a large retailer’s concerns about food safety recalls, Sandridge invested millions in 2009 and 2010 to buy and install a high-pressure processing (HPP) line in the company’s Medina facility. HPP uses cold water – under high pressure – to completely eliminate harmful bacteria. Whereas HPP was previously applied only to sliced lunchmeats and guacamole, Sandridge became the nation’s first processor to commercially use it for refrigerated prepared entrees, soups and side dishes.

“HPP is a game changer,” says Mark Sandridge. “We believe this new equipment not only represents the future for our company – but for the entire fresh food industry. It enables us to make higher quality products without preservatives and it allows us to use a wider array of fresh ingredients. It also helps us approach our goal of ‘bacteria-free’ foods. There’s absolutely no room for food safety issues in our industry’s future.”

Visitors literally can see HPP technology spurring more change. To Sandridge’s point, the company is developing a new generation of culinary products and expanding its facility to house a new culinary R&D center.

Sandridge also has raised its game everywhere from packaging to processing. During the past 12 months, it completely repackaged its branded retail deli product lines with attractive, eye-catching new containers, cartons and labels. Meanwhile, Sandridge earned its certification last December as a Safe Quality Food (SQF) 2000 Level 2 food manufacturer. Auditor SAI Global recognized the company with an “Excellent” rating (a 97.83 percent score) for the highest level of compliance. Last but not least, Sandridge Food’s operations and supply chain groups have pushed sustainability measures to noteworthy levels.

It’s for these reasons that Refrigerated & Frozen Foods proudly recognizes Sandridge Food Corporation as the magazine’s “Refrigerated Foods Processor of the Year,” a new annual distinction.

“Strategic planning drives our company and the desire to innovate led us to that [HPP] technology,” notes Frank Sidari, a 27-year food industry veteran and Sandridge Food’s vice president of business development. “Our food safety challenge has been to develop a bacteria-free product. We learned about HPP’s use with pre-packaged meats and guacamole – but nobody had ever attempted to apply it to prepared foods.

“It took a leap of faith and tremendous amounts of research but now we’ve done it,” he continues. “It’s wonderful to know you have a management team and culture that will go after something like that.”

Although it’s not the nation’s largest refrigerated prepared foods processor, Sandridge no doubt is one of the industry’s healthiest. Asked about financial performance, Mark Sandridge acknowledges the company has averaged double-digit growth during the last 10 years and “just slightly less than that” during the past 25 years.

That type of growth certainly doesn’t come by accident. Moreover, consider that Sandridge competes in as many as five product platforms (entrees, sides and salads, soups, sauces and dips, desserts) with as many as 750 SKUs batch produced for foodservice, retail and in-store customers.

Truth be told, a refrigerated foods company could be one, big chaotic kitchen – were it not for direction.

Bill Frantz is Sandridge Food’s president and chief operating officer. A lawyer, he joined Sandridge in 1985 as the company’s chief financial officer. He has worked alongside Mark Sandridge ever since.

“We made a significant commitment to strategic planning and we know that this process has fueled success since we began formalizing it six years ago,” he says. “It provides direction and ‘aligns’ our entire company. Every year, we close the plant for an afternoon and have a fun meeting with all personnel to discuss where we’ve been, where we are headed and to celebrate successes.”

Frantz continues: “Strategic planning led us to increase investments to grow our people – to identify future leaders and train them. And although we’re biased, we believe we have the best team in the industry.

“Our process also led to focus on product quality and a brand promise, which is to make ‘Unrivaled Fresh Food,’ he concludes. “By that, we mean reliable, great-tasting, hand-made quality that enhances our customers’ reputations. We are proud of our record for low customer complaints and if a product doesn’t meet our standards, we won’t ship it.”

Where culinary, industry come together

When it comes to those finished refrigerated products, Sandridge and its peers use certain acidic ingredients (such as lemon juice) to naturally kill and keep microorganism levels to USDA-approved levels. Likewise, industry leaders have reduced preservatives and lightened up on accompanying sauces and dressings to improve nutritional attributes and bring out more food flavors.

To be clear, these traditional products still represent more than 80 percent of the volume of  Sandridge Food’s entrée, salads and side dishes output (not considering soups, desserts, dips, etc.). Meanwhile, new items processed – and subsequently run through the plant’s HPP line – are understandably priced at a higher premium.

What’s the next generation of refrigerated prepared foods look like? Sandridge Food gave restaurant and retail industry executives a peek during the 2010 National Restaurant Hotel-Motel Show. Sandridge elevated its line with new preservative-free offerings – such as a Vietnamese Pho Noodle Salad, made with noodles, bean sprouts, lemon grass and green onions; and a Chicken Salad with Fruit, featuring chunks of chicken, cinnamon spiced apples, oranges, Indian chutney and a yogurt mayonnaise.

Frank Sidari greeted NRA show visitors.

“HPP delivers ‘bacteria-free’ foods, which further eliminates the chance of recalls or foodborne illness outbreaks,” he says. “Meanwhile, because these foods stay fresher longer, we can significantly reduce product spoilage and waste. Although those benefits are exceptionally important, the beauty of HPP is that taste, texture and appearance are never compromised and the products retain all the nutrients and complex flavors that accompany truly fresh foods.”

Not surprisingly, Sandridge Food chefs and food scientists already are experimenting with a host of new ingredients – and looking forward to the company opening a new culinary new product development center with more R&D space, product presentation kitchen and offices.

Chef Dan Zakri graduated from the Culinary Institute of America and worked in the field before joining Sandridge in 2006 as new product development manager.

“Organization is the key to success,” he says. “Every day, we are learning so much in regard to [how the HPP process handles] proteins, fresh vegetables – and the resulting finished products. We need to closely monitor the process to see what this new technology is capable of doing. Meanwhile, we have streamlined our product development process to make it more efficient and accurate.”

The timing is certainly right. Among those coming to Sandridge for solutions are foodservice operators, who desperately need unique new items as well as labor- and cost-savings (shrink) benefits in the kitchen. So too are supermarket deli operators.

“Several studies show consumers moving away from restaurants and back into the home,” says Senior Marketing Manager Mary Vaccaro. “These customers are searching for restaurant-quality products that are convenient and easily pared with a home meal. We’ve responded by offering delis a wide variety of chef-inspired, premium products.”

“Consumers also desire healthier deli options,” she continues. “We are formulating products (including soups) using less sodium and soon will be introducing an all-natural line of Grandma’s products. With HPP, we are able to make Grandma’s items without preservatives.”

Sandridge also has demonstrated its customer responsiveness in other ways. Last May saw it re-launch its traditional 1st & Main Deli Salads line (encompassing 12 SKUs) with entirely new clear square packages with brightly colored, in-mold labels and vibrant product photography.

“The new packaging and square containers help delis maximize shelf space,” says Vaccaro. “Meanwhile, the new packaging is more eye-catching for consumers and helps delis merchandise the salads better.”

How effective was the move? Vaccaro says 1st & Main Deli sales have increased by 50 percent since their repackaging debut. Importantly, while the actual products were unchanged, Sandridge offered them at a matching margin for retailers – without increased cost to the consumer.

“We can clearly see that our sales increase was related to our upscale packaging and rebranding,” she says.
Perhaps most importantly, that packaging story exemplifies Mark Sandridge’s business goals.  

“We will not stop being students of the industry. We will keep honing our listening skills to fill gaps and find solutions for customers,” he says.

“Consumers are demanding great-tasting food     designed with more convenience and fewer chemicals. I believe the refrigerated foods category is paving the road now for an even stronger future for processors. Our brand promise drives us – every day – to provide unrivaled freshness for our customers. We’re committed to this because people expect and deserve the best tasting, safest and highest quality products possible.”

Company: Sandridge Food Corp.

Location: Medina, Ohio

Top execs: Mark Sandridge, CEO; Bill Frantz, president, COO

Annual sales: $100 million*

Products: Approximately 750 SKU’s including refrigerated deli salads, soups, entrees, desserts, sauces and dips

Brands: Grandma’s, proprietary private label and foodservice brands

Distribution channels: National foodservice and retail distribution. Sandridge services customers with a private fleet with refrigerated trailers.

Background: Vincent Sandridge started his business, S&S Distributing, in 1960 in Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio. He first represented Buddig meats and Gourmet Salads deli salads. In 1965, he purchased Gourmet Salads and entered the deli salad market. One year later, Sandridge built a 10,000-sq.-ft. plant in Medina. Today, his sons Mark and Michael respectively serve as CEO and senior director of foodservice sales. Mark Sandridge’s sons, Jordan and Dane, also work at the company.

*R&FF estimate.

And the award goes to …

They say virtue is its own reward. Then again, people do notice when you do things well and do things right. Sandridge Food Corp. earned many accolades from customers, communities and communications media during 2010. Here’s a quick review:

Customers: Broadline distributor Gordon Food Service (GFS) presented Sandridge with its most prestigious honor, the 2010 Cornerstone Partner Award, for on-time deliveries, purchase order accuracies, product quality and consistency, customer service, brand growth and sales growth. The Cleveland Food Dealers Association also recognized Sandridge as their 2010 “Vendor of the Year” for outstanding customer service.

Communities: Medina County (Ohio) presented a 2010 Medina County Business Award to Sandridge achievements in sustainability and environmental improvements. Officials said Sandridge is a company that “implements strategies for long-term sustainability and adopts behaviors and practices to secure our environmental future.”

Communications media:
Smart Business magazine presented a 2010 “Innovation in Business” award to Sandridge for advancement in food safety and dedication to high quality – reflected by Sandridge Food’s investment in High-Pressure Processing (HPP) technologies.

Food Logistics presented its 2010 Fleet of the Year award to Mark D. Sandridge (MDS) Inc., Sandridge Food’s private fleet of refrigerated trucks. Editors recognized MDS for “quick-response delivery, unparalleled customer service and commitment to reducing its carbon footprint.”

Last summer found Progressive Grocer honoring three product lines with “Editor’s Pick” awards based on “innovation, superior quality and value to retailers and consumers.” New entries in the Café Fresh Soups line, 1st & Main Deli Salads and Holiday Product lines also featured new packaging.