In this article, you'll learn ...

  • How ASK Foods was created, and how they currently operate today

  • Ask Foods' mission and initiatives for 2013

ASK Foods started as a love affair.

“In 1947, my grandfather, Abraham Shelly Kettering, made my father, Robert DiMatteo, an offer he couldn’t refuse—‘bring my daughter home from Boston, and I’ll give you 50% of my business,’” says Wendie DiMatteo Holsinger.

And so, Robert and his wife Lennie (Abraham’s only daughter), moved from Boston back to Palmyra, Pa., to form the A.S.Kettering Co., later to be shortened in the 70s to ASK Foods, Inc. (an acronym of Abraham’s initials).

Back then, this food distribution business provided deli meats, cheeses and steaks, and produced 28 SKUs of soups, entrées and deli salads.

“We were much smaller then,” says DiMatteo Holsinger, chief executive officer. “I think our growth was kind of limited in the early years because we were unique in making only no-preservative, all-natural products, so they had a somewhat limited shelf life.”

Today, the privately-held, third-generation company operates off of a different kind of love affair. These days, it’s all about the food.

“We focus on the quality details such as how to keep the vibrancies of the vegetables, and to assure that all of our pasta products have that perfect texture,” says

DiMatteo Holsinger. “It’s not about being the biggest. It’s about being the best. Our company philosophy has always been about growing, but growing with the quality that makes us proud. Ironically, we have found that when you focus on exceptional quality, growth continues.”

To date, ASK Foods produces more than 800 product SKUs that are sold in 22 states. And, in honor of its 65th anniversary, the 75,000-square-foot Palmyra plant is undergoing an 8,000-square-foot expansion, set to make its debut March 15 (see “Change on a Dime,” page 34). That’s why ASK Foods was named Refrigerated & Frozen Foods’ 2013 Refrigerated Foods Processor of the Year.

“Part of our mission statement is to excel at providing exceptional quality and service that exceeds our customers’ expectations,” DiMatteo Holsinger adds. “The acknowledgement that others recognize our commitment to excellence or think that we’re doing things ‘right’ is always appreciated.”

Pioneer of preservative-free foods

While ASK Foods has always been committed to natural products, in 2007, it dipped its toes into the organic market only to encounter a failing economy and a customer base hesitant to embrace the premium price associated with freshly prepared organic items. Yet, the pioneer of all-natural, preservative-free prepared foods, meals, entrées, side dishes and frozen desserts remained steadfast to a future launch. 

Fast-forward to this spring when ASK Foods will introduce a line of “healthy lifestyle” foods that features organic offerings, comfort food items with reduced fat and lower sodium, as well as ethnic line extensions that include a wide variety of ethnic-prepared food specialties that entail Hispanic, Asian, Greek and Italian selections.

“As you look at that second helping of macaroni and cheese, you realize, ‘I shouldn’t have been eating that.’ We’d like to make food that tastes great but is really just healthier for you,” DiMatteo Holsinger says.

ASK Foods is also looking at how to seasonally differentiate its portfolio of products. For instance, every year, it offers several selections based on the various seasons of the year.

“We did a scan of the East coast and found that we’re probably on most Thanksgiving tables,” DiMatteo Holsinger adds. “If you’re buying a retail holiday dinner, there’s a high probability that you’ll be eating an ASK product.”

To get product to market quickly, DiMatteo Holsinger says the product development stage is more of a trial and error of love.

“The challenge is managing and executing multiple concurrent issues in a timely manner. You have to be particularly diligent that your product prototype does not have quality creep where you lose the initial superior identity of the product,” she adds. “We really take on a more European perspective in that we partner with our customers. Our Top 10 customers have probably been our customers for 20 years, and I think that’s somewhat unusual. We work closely with them. I think they truly see us as part of their team in moving ahead the concepts and the ideas that they have. We try to add to the equation. The concept of great minds working together—the sum is greater than its parts.”

ASK Foods test markets products through its retail showcase store, Today’s Chef. Located just eight blocks from the plant, the store sells a full line of Today’s Chef brand fresh deli salads, frozen soups, barbeque entrées and side dishes, and offers a WIFI seating area where customers can enjoy a meal or snack on site.

Seeing is believing

When it comes to packaging, ASK Foods takes on a “seeing is believing” approach. 

“What we have seen more recently is the consumer wanting to know what they’re buying, particularly in the fresh marketplace,” says DiMatteo Holsinger. “That gorgeous, somewhat deceptive picture on the package, it’s just not working. There’s a growing lack of consumer trust that what they are buying resembles the picture on the front. They prefer to see the actual product to feel confident in its quality.”

As a result, many of their products are placed in clear pre-packs or with a clear window on the top lid to better display what the product looks like. In addition, ASK Foods encourages case displays of many items where the consumer can get a better feel for the overall appearance of the product. This trend toward clear packaging “puts the onus on us as manufacturers to make sure the product displays great and has good eye appeal,” DiMatteo Holsinger adds. “So, the bar is high on how to make thousands of pounds of product, ship long distance and still make it look appealing.”

Other packaging efforts include a bake-in-the-box concept, which is a dual corrugated package that enables operators to create, bake and ship product all in one tray-like box without the interaction of human hands.

“Because so many of the retail cases are different, one format does not always work for another company. The days where you’d bring out a whole line of the same package and say, ‘This is it. This is what we have,’ really doesn’t cut it anymore,” says DiMatteo Holsinger. “We need to make sure that the line has flexibility, so if somebody wants a top label or somebody wants a wrap-around, we can provide it.”

Other initiatives for 2013 include:

Yet, 65 years later, ASK Foods is still passionate and focused on the food, cooking up new trendy recipes while still making some of the original ones it’s been formulating for the past 30 years.

“We’re coming off our best years,” says Richard Rutkowski, chief financial officer. “Even though we don’t make the cheapest product, we strive to make a very good quality product at a competitive, reasonable price,”

As Robert DiMatteo used to optimistically say, “It’s a beautiful day in Palmyra,”—especially when it’s all about the food.