BY HANNAH WALLACE | OB BLOGGER
When Chuck Eggert founded Pacific Foods in 1987, the health food movement was still an off shoot of the ‘70s hippie culture. Today — with organic food one of the fastest growing segments of the grocery industry — Eggert’s Tualatin-based natural foods company is on an upward trajectory. Pacific is one of the largest food companies in the state, and Eggert says the privately-held company has seen double digit growth every year. The company distributes 300 million pounds of organic broths, soups, and chowders annually. And that’s only part of the company’s expanding product line. Pacific also makes “soup starters,” non-dairy beverages like almond and hazelnut milk and even refried beans and mac & cheese.
We spoke to Eggert about why his company has flown under the radar in Oregon, how saving a family-run chicken hatchery has helped his bottom line and why he thinks organic food is anything but elitist.
OB: How has the natural foods industry changed since you founded Pacific Foods?
Eggert: There’s a Natural Products Expo every spring. Back when we started there were maybe 2,000 people there; this year, they have 65,000. It’s gone from where you knew virtually everyone there, to filling the entire Anaheim Convention Center. Peoples’ eating habits are changing so quickly—which is great!
OB: Is there great demand for your products all over the country? And is Oregon a big market?
Eggert: We’ll ship anywhere from 250-300 million pounds of soup and broth per year, nationally. About 12 million cases of products leave the state. Oregon is a very small market for us, actually—only 3-4% of our sales are in state. California is a huge market—and so is the Northeast. We’ll ship about 5 million cases to the East Coast.
We’ve flown under the radar here in Oregon. I don’t think people realize how much product we’re doing on an ongoing basis.
OB: What are your most popular items?
Eggert: Chicken broth and roasted red pepper soup.
OB: I know that sourcing ingredients locally is important to you. But with such robust demand for your products—especially the three categories of chicken broth and chicken noodle soup—how do you manage to find enough Oregon-raised chickens?
Eggert: We grow a significant amount of the chickens ourselves. We also deal with a poultry supplier in Dayton. At any given time we have about 100,000 chickens around, year-round, on our own farms and other farms combined.
We process about 10,000 birds a week at our meat processing plant in Dayton: Dayton Natural Meats. We’re the only USDA poultry plant in the state. We do pork, beef, turkey, chicken, and duck. We bring in meat, and process it into broth at our Tualatin facility and do the packaging.
OB: I heard you speak on a panel at Feast Portland two years ago about how your need for local chicks motivated you to save a family-run hatchery in Talent, Oregon. Can you tell that story again here?
Eggert: At one point there were 10-15 hatcheries all over Oregon but as agriculture has gotten bigger and bigger the smaller guys have gone away.
The Jenks Hatchery in Talent is one of the oldest chicken hatcheries west of the Mississippi. It started in 1910. A number of years ago they closed. It was at a time when big chicken producers like Foster Farms and Draper Valley were consolidating hatching to their own central locations, so the the market for chicks was disappearing.
When Jenks closed their facility, our poultry person, Reg Keddie, went down to talk to them. They got it set up and going again. Now they are doing these chicks for us. It’s allowed them to continue with the hatchery.
OB: Are the chicks organic?
Eggert: The way it works with eggs is that the chick doesn’t have to be organic in the egg. The minute they’re born you give them organic feed, which we do at the farm. They hatch on Monday and we get them on Monday. It’s like Easter—chickens coming out of the eggs. We get them less then a day old. We brood them for the first three weeks until they get their pin feathers and then we actually push them outside.
OB: What breeds do you buy?
Eggert: We started with white birds—classic Rhode Island Reds—and we’re gradually switching everything to heirlooms because they’re much more active outside. And we’re getting a better, more flavorful bird if they get outside and exercise. Now we’re also using Naked Neck. They don’t have any feathers on their neck—they’re a strange looking chicken. But they really have adapted well to getting outside and acting like a chicken. Our turkeys are all heirlooms, too.
OB: Pacific also runs its own farming operations, right? So you pretty much grow your own vegetables and raise cows for the milk that’s used in some of your soups.
Eggert: Virtually all of our milk comes from our four dairies—my family owns them. We have organic herds in the Willamette Valley and in Burns. We milk 1,300 cows! The milk is used in the roasted red pepper soup the tomato soups. That’s why those products do so well—they taste so good! It’s all pretty much designed around feeding cows. We’re trying to limit the distance that the feed has to travel. One dairy is in Albany, where we raise corn silage and sorghum. Burns is just alfalfa. So we’re trying to source all of our feeds for both our poultry and our cows in Oregon. It helps the local agriculture economy.
OB: Speaking of Oregon’s economy, how many people does Pacific employ?
Eggert: We have a little over 500 in Tualatin and in Wilsonville, where we have our distribution plant. On our farming operations we have 60. And we have 40 people working at Dayton Natural Meats.
OB: I heard that you have a company grocery store that gives employees access to discounted produce, meats, and of course Pacific products. Tell me about your motivation for that.
Eggert: Some of our own employees couldn’t afford to buy our own products in the store. We give all of our test runs to our employees or to the Oregon Food Bank and we were doing a meat product and an employee sent me an e-mail saying, “Thanks a lot! I’m a single mom and I can’t afford to buy this at home.” It was one of those moments where you were like “Gosh this is an employee, not a stranger.” These are very good jobs and people still struggle.
Not everyone can eat organically, but they should be able to. So we opened this 6,000 square-foot community store where we sell all of our products. Then we bring in milk, cheese, eggs, and a whole line of meat products. We also have our own community garden where we grow a year-round supply of organic produce for the store.
We sell organic beef and organic chickens and turkeys. We sell everything at our cost plus 10% —so basically it’s 50 percent off retail. We sell organic ground beef for $1.99 a pound. Pork chops are $3 a pound.
We pride ourselves on being healthy and we want to be sure our employees are healthy. Just because you might be financially challenged doesn’t mean you don’t want to eat well.
Hannah Wallace blogs on food and farms for Oregon Business.