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Generations of feeding families

By Martha Mintz

Workers at Palmer Food Services package beef based on orders that come in daily from restaurants, casinos, nursing homes, hospitals, schools and colleges. (Journal photo by Martha Mintz.)
Workers at Palmer Food Services package beef based on orders that come in daily from restaurants, casinos, nursing homes, hospitals, schools and colleges. (Journal photo by Martha Mintz.)

The progression of a steak’s story from beginning to nearly the end surprisingly repeats itself with the same turns of phrase, advice and family dynamics. These all come together to weave together the fabric of life for a family business.

A child’s nose wrinkles at the whiff of her father’s aroma after a day at the work. Noticing her reaction, her father says with a laugh, “Smells like money.” Parents encouraging children they’ll work less and make more money in other businesses-and, of course, the children soundly ignoring said advice. Family businesses growing and changing in ways the previous five generations in the business could never have imagined. This is all as true for the Palmer family in Rochester, New York, as it is for the Lewis family in Lawrence County, Missouri.

Just like every other family featured in this series, the Palmer family is in the business of food, one they’ve been in a very long time. Five generations back they set out as fish brokers around the time Eastman Kodak Company of New York started churning out cameras and fi lm in the city. “We started in 1850 using fish from the Great Lakes servicing Kodak families with horse and buggy,” says 28-year-old Kailey Palmer from the floor of Palmer’s Direct To You Market as employees bustle around expertly trimming meat for customer orders, cleaning glass in front of row after row of Certified Angus Beef cuts and prepping the market and restaurant for the day’s customers.

Unlike Kodak, now a shadow of its former glory, Palmer Fish Company has reinvented itself time and time again, bending to the will of the food industry well before the industry even started pushing. The result is the oldest, and arguably most beloved, family owned and operated business in the city.

“My father is a very intelligent man,” Kailey states with obvious pride. “It’s a very competitive landscape, and we’ve been able to stay competitive because of his insight and foresight.

“Her father, Kip Palmer, Palmer Food Services CEO, convinced his father just selling fish wasn’t going to cut it long term. If they were going to stay in business, he had decided, they needed to become a broad-line food distributor. This is where steak, and every other cut of beef imaginable, became part of the Palmer’s story. They didn’t stop there, pushing on to excel at three levels of the food industry.

Palmer’s Direct To You Market is their retail arm, a business they’ve been in for the last 165 years. Palmer Food Services distributes food and restaurant supplies to 1,000 restaurants, casinos, nursing homes, hospitals, schools and colleges while GNC Food Distributors serves as their redistribution arm. “Basically, if you buy food, we’re interested in talking to you,” Kip says. And talk they do.

Homing steaks

Talk closes deals as miniscule as buying a cut of beef for dinner at the meat case to securing supply contracts for hundreds of massive, 2-inch-thick T-bones headed to the kitchens of Atlantic City casinos. It’s no idle chatter or pushy sales pitch; Palmer’s sales people at all levels engage their customers to determine their needs and make sure the right beef makes it into their hands.

“We take a very personal approach to the way we sell. In many cases our competition is focusing on technology to reduce sales expenses and become more efficient. We’re doing the opposite. We’re hiring more human resources to preach the message as to why they should buy quality and why they should buy from us,” Kip says. To say the least, ranchers and feeders can rest assured the beef they so carefully stewarded to this point is now in excellent hands. So are the businesses Palmers serve.

“We’re seeing a resurgence of independently owned restaurants in this area,” he says. An encouraging sign, he thinks, but they’re up against some tough odds.

“The biggest expense a restaurant owner faces isn’t supplies, wages or insurance-it’s an empty seat,” Kip says, his favorite borrowed bit of advice. Vacant chairs are a symptom of the quality of the meal. “If a customer has a great experience, they’ll tell 10 people. If they have a bad experience, they’ll tell a hundred.”

The best way to avoid a bad experience is to start with great beef-something the Palmers have no issue getting into their coolers. “The overall quality and consistency of beef today is much better now than 14 years ago when I started,” Kailey says. Add on the guarantee of a quality-focused program like Certified Angus Beef, and things get even better.

“Quality is even more important now because there’s not a lot of difference in price between a quality product like Certified Angus Beef and a choice or select, the spreads are so close,” Kip says. So he advises his restaurant owners to upgrade, nearly guaranteeing their clients will have a very good dining experience. “I think quality really matters. I think it matters more now as competitive as the restaurant business is.”

Quality doesn’t always have to mean big price tags at Palmer’s, though. Being in both meat distribution and retail allows them to give their retail customers some creative, great eating options.

“Restaurants only want a center-cut product, as opposed to a retail customer who doesn’t really care what the product looks like as long as it eats well,” Kailey says. So the meat cutters in their on-site USDA inspected meat room, which is tucked into the cavernous Palmer Food Services warehouse, cut 4 inches out of the center of a loin for restaurants and use the extra 3 to 4 inches on each end to cut into steaks headed to the retail case and directly home with customers. “It sells beautifully; people love it!”

Another trick is marketing a first-cut strip steak. “It’s got a nerve running through it, making it visually unappealing to restaurant owners, but it still eats like a strip steak. We sell it in 8-ounce portions in a 5-pound box, and we sell out every time we have them because you can’t beat that value,” Kailey says.

Plate to pasture

The Palmer family knows their business inside and out. Kailey, just like Kip before her, has worked in nearly all aspects of the business from answering phones to cutting meat to her current position as manager of the retail business. They’ve also made it a priority to learn about what goes into getting beef to them. Kailey, Kip and their sales staff have participated in the Certified Angus Beef Masters of Brand Awareness program where they were immersed in every aspect of the industry from conception to consumption.

“Meeting the ranchers and seeing the whole process was amazing,” Kailey says. “It completely changed my perception of the beef industry as a whole and enhanced my ability to sell product in the store.” She passes along to her customers what ranchers have gone through to produce the top quality steaks to make them worth the extra $1 per pound. Kailey also is better equipped to answer question on how the cattle were cared for and fed, and by whom.

“It’s important to our customers that we’re keeping beef domestic and that the product that is being brought home to their families is produced by families. So we like to tell that story,” she says. It’s also truly a family that is selling the steak. Kailey has three sisters, her father, her stepmom, uncle, cousin, husband and brother-in-law all working with her in the business.

Kip adds that the Palmers have a significant chapter in the story of a steak as well. “Harvest is only the beginning. Beef still has to come in, be aged, cut to specification, packaged and delivered. It’s quite an enterprise, and we’re all in it together,” he says.

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