The Rowe Deal
Premium meat processor recoups market share lost to COVID-19 indoor dining restrictions with swift transition to the grocery e-commerce channels
Life in the meat business is never a walk in the park at best of times, and it’s been downright rotten for countless processors and suppliers of premium meat products to fine restaurants, hotels, golf clubs, banquet halls and other ‘white table’ dining establishments struggling to outlast the nasty COVID-19 pandemic that has shuttered their businesses with strict widespread bans on indoor dining.
For Rod Rowe, co-founder and owner of L Rowe Beef Co. Ltd. in Mississauga, Ont., the curve ball thrown his way by the coronavirus outbreak in March of 2019 was fundamentally more devastating than anything he had faced in his baseball-playing days with the New York Mets organization back in the 1980s, with potentially far graver consequences.
“I suddenly had $4 million worth of meat inventory on my hands for which I had no customers,” says Rowe, a 48-year-old native of Toronto who played college ball on a scholarship at the Texas A&M University Texarkana prior to being drafted by the Mets and assigned to the team’s minor league affiliate in Rochester, N.Y.
As fate would have it, an unfortunate injury ultimately put an end to Rowe’s dream of making it to the major leagues, but that setback only strengthened his resolve to succeed in his next career phase as one of the top-performing salespeople for a leading Toronto-area meat distributor Derma Meat Co.
After Derma was eventually acquired by global food distribution giant Sysco Corporation, Rowe and a like-minded industry acquaintance William Leavoy teamed up to launch their own fine meats distribution business under the Leavoy Rowe Beef Co. Ltd. banner in 2006, with Rowe eventually buying out his partner about two years ago to become the sole owner.
Quickly building up a loyal client base in the food-service industry by leveraging superior product quality, outstanding customer service and a diverse product portfolio comprising high-quality fresh beef, veal, lamb, poultry and various game meats, the new business venture enjoyed brisk growth over the years—moving from its original 5,000-square-foot meat shop five years ago to a bigger, 21,000-square-foot meat processing and packing facility boasting all the relevant Health Canada and CFIA (Canadian Food Inspection Agency) accreditations required for a federally-approved meat processing operation.
Painstakingly refurbished and rebuilt on the inside virtually from scratch over 16 weeks, the HACCP-certified, temperature-controlled facility currently processes and ships about 10,000 kilograms of premium-quality fresh meat products per week, sourcing its meat from the most reputable and prestigious farm operators located in Ontario and a select few cattle ranches in the U.S.
According to Rowe, beef products account for about 60 per cent of the Halal-certified plant’s output—with products ranging from mouth-watering T-bone steaks and prime rib to hamburger patties and deli sausage meats—with poultry accounting for about 30 per cent and the remainder split among lamb, veal and game meat specialties like venison, wild boar and bison.
Operating its own multi-vehicle fleet of refrigerated trucks to ensure flawless customer service and on-time delivery, the thriving meat shop employs 65 full-time staff over a two -shift, five-day-week schedule to serve a sizeable geographic region stretching from Sarnia, Ont., in the southwest of the province to Ottawa in the eastern part.
For all that growth and success, however, the sudden outbreak of COVID-19 two years ago and the ensuing restrictions on indoor dining, particularly at fine dining establishments, threatened to undo all the hard work and heavy lifting Rowe did over the years to make the company succeed in a highly competitive segment of the Canadian meat industry.
But rather than pack it in, Rowe proceeded to turn a looming crisis into an unprecedented opportunity by successfully pivoting the operation to tailor to the unique new requirements of the burgeoning e-commerce grocery marketplace spearhead by a new breed of grocery e-tailers like Butcher Box, truLOCAL and Goodfood, among others.
While this sudden turnaround in corporate strategy was driven largely by necessity and desperation, Rowe says that in retrospect he is glad to have discovered a lucrative new business segment with outstanding opportunities for future growth that he may have had overlooked or underestimated otherwise.
“Our business is up by 50 per cent since two years ago,” Rowe told Canadian Packaging magazine on a recent visit to the busy and lively Mississauga plant typically operating at about 2°C throughout the year.
“We never did anything with the home delivery business prior to that,” Rowe relates, “and obviously we had to make some changes to our operation, especially on the packaging side of things.
“The packaging requirements for e-commerce are very different from shipping to restaurants,” Rowe explains.
“When a restaurant gets our order, they open the box right away.
“When a consumer gets theirs at home, they will often take a package out of the delivery box and put it in the fridge, so there is no room for defects like a leaky package, or any signs of animal blood on the packaging … you can’t afford to have any issues with packaging in this business segment.”
To get the packaging right for all of the company’s diverse product lines and SKU (stock-keeping units) selection, Rowe turned to a long-time business acquaintance Terry Rees, regional sales manager for south-central Ontario at Reiser (Canada) Co.
Based in Burlington, Ont., the company is a Canadian subsidiary of the renowned food processing and packaging systems group Robert Reiser Inc., Canton, Mass.-headquartered supplier of automatic food processing and packaging machinery for the sausage, meat, poultry, seafood, prepared food, bakery, cheese and pet food industries.
Established in 1959, Reiser had risen to keen industry prominence over the years by supplying the global markets with renowned machinery brands such as Ross tray-sealers for case-ready and MAP (modified atmosphere packaging) applications; Repak and Variovac brands of HFFS (horizontal form/fill/seal) packaging machinery; Supervac automatic vacuum chamber packaging machines; and Vemag meat processing systems, among others.
Having already benefitted from Reiser’s equipment expertise during his company’s formative years, Rowe was confident that Rees and his Reiser colleagues would provide the right solutions for his new product packaging needs and heightened customer expectations.
“It just made total sense to deal with one company that has both the processing and the packaging equipment we would use to pivot into the new markets,” Rowe states.
“I’ve been buying from Reiser through Terry for nearly 14 years, and they have always been very good to me.
“Not only do they have the best machines out there,” Rowe states, “but they also keep me on top of all the important changes in the industry I should know about.
“We are a Reiser facility from stem to stern,” says Rowe, who purchased his first machine from Reiser—a Reman Dixie DP 100 skin-packaging machine—back in 2008.
After the business expanded and moved to newer premises, Rowe turned to Reiser to purchase a Repak RE20/4 horizontal FFS machine in 2015 to speed up its vacuum-packing and skin-packaging operations, which worked out so well that Rowe placed an order for yet another Repak RE20/4 machine two years later.
While these machines have remained at the core of Rowe’s Beef’s packaging capabilities to this day, they were not enough on their own to help Rowe make a smooth and swift transition to fulfilling the challenging e-commerce packaging standards and requirements dictated by his new client base in the home delivery business, as well as the important new retail customers such as Costco, Longo’s and Farm Boy.
“We had to diversify and change things around in a major way to be able to execute all this different packaging for all these different customers,” Rowe explains.
“What I had in place was already a pretty significant investment for a company our size,” he remarks, “but it was not adequate for the kind of a major pivot that we needed to implement.
“So I called Reiser again to help us bring all the equipment we needed under our roof,” says Rowe, who invested $1.7 million in the last year to purchase and install 13 different Reiser-supplied packaging and processing machines to raise the plant’s production and packaging capabilities to a whole new level of excellence.
Between April of 2020 and October 2021, the Mississauga facility had evolved into a living showcase of the latest food processing and packaging technologies offered by Reiser, which supplied Rowe Beef with a comprehensive range of state-of-the-art equipment comprising:
- Vemag HP- 20E stuffer, an FM-250 former and a PPI stacker/interleaver;
- SuperVac GK-501B vacuum-packing machine with a SuperVac AT-8E hot-water shrink tank;
- Variovac Optimus 55 Easy Skin thermoformer and skin-packaging machine;
- Vemag Lucky Linker sausage meat stuffer;
- Seydelmann AE-130/3 automatic meat grinder;
- Holac Sectomat 230 TC portion cutting machine;
- AMFEC model 510 meat mixer/blender with a model 2-3K2 column loader;
- RotoClaw II frozen meat breaker.
As a supplier of premium-quality meats aged to tender perfection and meticulously portioned and prepared to customers’ specifications, Rowe Beef simply can’t afford the risk of letting poor packaging execution to mar the company’s hard-earned reputation for quality, Rowe points out.
“Our products are all high-value products,” says Rowe, citing the company’s own Wellington County brand of Canada AAA and Canada Prime grades of beef; the Est.8Angus brand of black angus beef striploin harvested from a select breed of Iowa-raised cattle; and the Snake River Farms brand of American Kobe (Wagu) Angus beef, sourced from a proprietary herd in eastern Idaho.
“It goes without saying that I need to have the best quality equipment to take proper care of this kind of quality product,” says Rowe, “and Reiser equipment is absolutely top-notch.
“I would recommend them to anyone in the meat industry because they have the best equipment,” Rowe reiterates.
“That’s why I never left them,” says Rowe, indicating there is probably more Reiser equipment to install down the line after Rowe Beef completes its pending move to a new 50,000-square-foot meat processing facility in Mississauga later this year, which will offer a lot more elbow room for both the machinery and the plant’s highly loyal and dedicated production staff.
“At the end of the day it is the people who ultimately make the difference,” Rowe acknowledges, “and having good people working on best available equipment is a strong core competency for us.”
As Rowe relates, the company’s uncompromising approach to product quality and customer service excellence have also greatly contributed to its outstanding industry reputation—backed up by the vast insider knowledge base about the meat business he started to acquire early in life from his father, who was a professional butcher operating his own meat company decades ago.
“I believe what sets us apart is the consistency of our product, which is aged far longer than the minimum retail requirements, and that the meat is cut and portioned to perfect specs as required by our customers.
“Our customers always come back because they know they will be getting consistently high-quality product, backed up by service that I believe is second to none in our industry,” Rowe asserts.
“If some customer is in a pinch for a box of bacon that they need right always, I will drive that box over myself if none of our trucks are available at the moment,” he states.
Not surprisingly, Rowe is quick to cite superior customer service as one of Reiser Canada’s value-add attributes that he appreciates as much as the leading-edge machinery that the company distributes.
“I have an amazing relationship with Terry and the whole Reiser crew,” Rowe states.
“Whenever I need something, or if a machine breaks down and I need a special part in a hurry, somebody from their crew will be here in the afternoon or the first thing next morning.
“For me, service is everything,” Rowe asserts, adding that he’s eagerly anticipating the easing of current restrictions on indoor dining to herald the return of his former restaurant and foodservice industry clients.
“We managed to get through the whole COVID crisis without shutting down production or laying anyone one off,” Rowe reflects, “thanks to our ability to pivot quickly when many of our key customers had to shut down.
“Now that the golf courses have reopened and the restaurants are getting closer to allowing more customers to dine indoors,” he concludes, “I have good reasons to feel good about the future—serving our growing customer base from a brand new facility equipped with the best processing and packaging systems you will find anywhere.”