Small companies, big impressions

How Jones Soda, Wawa Dairy and Hirzel Canning outmaneuver the giants in their categories

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The company was founded in the basement of Karl's grandparents' house in 1923. When Prohibition forced the closing of the Buffalo, N.Y., brewery where Carl Hirzel worked, the Swiss-born brewmaster moved back to Toledo to put his canning and fermenting skills to work making barrels of sauerkraut. A year later he was canning, and two years later he packed his first tomatoes.

Three generations later, the $40 million company has three plants in and around Toledo plus an 1,800-acre farm and greenhouse, where tomato transplants get started, schedules are figured and crop research is conducted.

Karl and his brothers William and Joseph gradually are turning the company over to their sons and daughters, but not before that fourth generation gets cross-functional experience running every operation within the company, from plant management to information systems management and sales to purchasing.

While Hirzel Canning still makes some sauerkraut under the Silver Fleece brand, tomatoes are the company's mainstay. Virtually all varieties of canned tomatoes, spaghetti, barbecue and chili sauces, tomato juice and salsa are marketed under the Star Cross and Dei Fratelli brands. Packaging ranges from 8-ounce retail cans to 26-ounce glass jars to 3-gallon bag-in-box foodservice sizes to 300-gallon bag-in-tote products; and all sizes in between.

Along with traditional canning, aseptic production has become a specialty. In fact, a portion of each year's tomato harvest is aseptically stored in 20,000-gallon former beer tanks for use throughout the year. Last year the company processed 80,000 tons of tomatoes.

The Toledo plant has seven lines dedicated to cans, one line running glass jars and one filling plastic. Nearby Ottawa has four lines running bulk aseptic products and four lines for cans. And Pemberville has seven lines all for canning. There also is a three-gallon bag-in-box line at both Ottawa and Toledo.

After mechanical and chemical peels, the tomatoes go to an Urschel dicer. Cans are processed in an FMC rotary cooker-cooler. Glass or plastic containers are hot-filled.

About 30 percent are store-labeled products and 70 percent are Hirzel Canning brands. About half of production is retail and the other half is foodservice and industrial. (Hirzel supplies tomato sauces in bulk for the nearby Nestle frozen foods division and for the Chi-Chi's Mexican restaurant chain).

Remember regional tastes?

While he is obviously proud of his brands, Hirzel sounds like he still has a special affinity for developing store brands based on regional tastes and the instincts of store managers -- although he laments that's becoming a lost art as independent grocers are replaced by tightly regulated national chains.

A little research and plenty of instinct tell the Hirzels a lot. While people are cooking less often, especially two-income families, Hirzel believes the weekend batches are getting bigger -- they are setting the menu for the week ahead. So while competitors make smaller cans, Hirzel Canning has increased the number of products in 28-ounce cans. "They're more economical and easier than opening three smaller cans," he says.

On the other hand, when the decision was made to use the 12-ounce Dot-top can (see sidebar story), Hirzel Canning was looking for products for smaller appetites, including snacking. One such product was Italian Dipping Sauce -- a category he thinks he may have created at retail, although he was inspired by pizza delivery chains offering dipping sauces with delivered pies. All it took was some tweaking of the spices. "It wasn't rocket science," Hirzel notes, "but it's been doing OK."

Hirzel Canning 30 years ago became one of the first companies to use a white lining in its cans. Hirzel first saw such linings on a family trip to Europe. He brought some canned products back and asked can suppliers for the same thing. "For almost 10 years I got the runaround," he recalls, so one year he just demanded it. One can supplier came through and got the business. "People think it makes the product taste better," Hirzel says. "It definitely leads them to believe it's a higher quality product.

"We do some market research now. And we try to keep an ongoing dialog with consumers via phone calls and online. We ask them why they bought our product and how they use it. There's no great secret. You've just got to find out what sells and why.

"Not a year goes by that we don't introduce some new products. It's our lifeblood," continues Hirzel.

He admits to making plenty of mistakes along the way. "The first three years we tried to store tomatoes aseptically for ourselves, we spoiled the whole batch every year," Hirzel recalls. "We got into salsa for foodservice early, maybe too early, like 25-30 years ago. We packaged it in No. 10 cans and it bombed. At that time they were buying glass. We gave up and did something else. But we came back with foodservice salsa 10 years ago, put it in plastic bottles and it's been a hit. We even export some."

Green beans, asparagus and other canned green vegetables have fallen by the wayside. "We're a pretty traditional company, but we can't stand still. Sometimes it even means discontinuing products that were mainstays 10 years ago. We're always fine tuning or changing recipes, looking for ways to extend our products.

"You should always try to do new things," he concludes, "but don't try to do things you can't do well."

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