Columbia Meats Inc.
Columbia Meats Inc. (Columbia) has been a distributor of choice for hundreds of restaurants and grocery stores in the southeast since 2000. The company has since amassed some big-name clients, including Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC), Golden Coral, Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen and Bojangles’ Famous Chicken ‘n Biscuits (Bojangles’).
“Over the years, we’ve established ourselves as a trusted distributor that processors and restaurants want to work with,” shares Dan Sloan, co-owner of Columbia. “We sell beef, poultry, pork, turkey, seafood and cheese to mom-and-pop restaurants, but also to larger chains.”
Columbia reigns from the former Columbia Farms, which was established in 1954. “In 1980 my brother, Jerry Sloan, and I bought Greenville Meats and joined with Columbia Farms,” recalls Dan. “We sold the firm in 1989, but bought it back in 2000. The owner of Columbia Farms passed away and we had an agreement that if anything happened, we would regain ownership of the company.”
Columbia and Greenville Meats remain sister companies and continue to serve many of the same customers now as 59 years ago. “We have two distribution centers as a result of the merging of Columbia and Greenville Meats,” Dan explains. “Appropriately enough, they are located in Greenville and Columbia, S.C. We also have a smaller-scale retail store in Greenville that sells a variety of poultry and beef products.”
Widespread Distribution and Experience
The company maintains an impressive amount of distribution accounts, including 186 Bojangles’ locations, 30 Popeyes restaurants, 11 Golden Corals and approximately 18 KFC chains. “We’re easily one of the largest poultry distributors in the state,” adds Dan. “Our level of service sets us apart from our competitors, as well as our stable, reliable workforce, from our internal sales people to our truck drivers.”
Dan says that each and every employee is valued and an important part of Columbia’s well-oiled machine. “The truck drivers see the customers more than we do in-house, so we want them to be just as happy as our sales team,” he says. “When people join our team, they stick around. Most employees have been with us for 15 to 20 years. Between me, Jerry and Joe Monroe [general manager of Columbia], we have 175 years of combined industry experience.”
In-house Advantage & Trusted Relationships
After years in the poultry business, Columbia has also formed longstanding relationships with numerous suppliers, including Pilgrim’s Pride, Claxton Poultry, Marshall Durbin, Fieldale Farms and Amick’s Poultry. “Our suppliers know we do a good job with our customers and that’s why we’ve been working with many of them for decades,” Dan explains.
According to Dan, almost all of the poultry Columbia receives comes prepackaged. “Our USDA-inspected cutting facility allows us to size and cut up the whole bird into precise parts for restaurant use,” he explains. “We’re subject to annual KFC audits to check product temperatures and safety. “In 2008, Columbia had the highest audit score of any KFC distributor in the country.”
In partnership with Brantley Meats, Columbia began processing fresh ground beef in 2006. “For years, we’ve made our own hamburger patties in-house out of fresh 100-percent-pure beef and we also cut our own steaks,” shares Dan. “Our hand-cut steaks are processed daily from select beef and either shipped for immediate use or shrink-wrapped for extended freshness. We also offer marinated chicken tenders that we make fresh every day, so there’s no need to wait for them to thaw.”
To further the company’s reach, Columbia teams up with well-known pork suppliers, such as Smithfield and Swift Premium. Dan emphasizes the importance of managing supplier relationships. “Poultry and beef processors want our business, because they know and trust our service,” he notes. “We have a great reputation and they know we’ve been in business for a number of years.”
But even a superb food safety record and trusted reputation hasn’t made Columbia immune to the affects of the economic downturn. “We run so many trucks that our biggest battle has been the increasing cost of fuel,” reveals Dan. “In 2012, our fuel bill was well over $678,000, and we run our trucks under a costly maintenance contract, because we want them to run well and look clean. It’s a reflection of us if the trucks are dirty and not well-maintained.”
However, that is not the only obstacle Columbia has tackled head-on. Dan adds that the last five or six years have been exceptionally challenging due to the cost of corn. “People don’t realize the cost of all the material that goes into a final product and how it’s affected by commodity crops,” he says. “For example, a few years ago, retailers like KFC and Bojangles’ were paying $0.70 cents per pound of chicken, and now they’re paying $1.08 per pound; that’s because corn has hit $8.00 per bushel and it’s caused a lot of people to go out of business.”
Yet, Columbia is a magnet for opportunity with a well-established reputation. “We were recently approached by a company that was originally doing business with Sysco and wasn’t satisfied,” tells Dan. “They asked us to take on their line of hoagie rolls and Philly cheese steaks, which just gives us more options to bring to our customers.”
With no intent of slowing down, Dan says it’s all about being in-tune with the industry. “Joe was the president of the National Poultry and Food Distributors Association and his son is now a board member,” Dan details. “That gives us contacts all across the country and gives us a good sense of what’s going on in the industry.”
Although Dan admits its slow going in the food distribution business, he’s confident in Columbia’s longevity. “We don’t have a lot of debt; we’ve had to scale back but we can still make a living,” he says with confidence. Since 2000, Columbia Meats Inc. has been the go-to distributor in the southeast, building a long list of satisfied clients.