One-on-One With Kettle Cusine's Jerry Shafir

Food Processing's Diane Toops sits down with Jerry Shafir, CEO of Kettle Cuisine, who is celebrating 25 years of souper success.

By Diane Toops, News and Trends Editor

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Twenty-five years ago, before there was a Food Network, before the emergence of the gastro blogger, even before the pursuit of all things culinary became a national obsession, Jerry Shafir, a newly minted business school graduate with a keen palate and plenty of foodservice savvy, had a vision.

Shafir believed that even the most discerning chefs would serve fully prepared soups if they knew that those soups were made with the same ingredients and time-tested artisanal cooking techniques they would use if they were doing the cooking themselves. That was the guiding philosophy behind Chelsea, Mass.-based Kettle Cuisine -- the culinary inspired, all natural soup company he founded.

Today, Kettle Cuisine has 200 employees, and the company’s portfolio has grown from seven soups to more than 50 varieties of soups, chilis, chowders and stews and they serve over 5,000 restaurants, cafés, delicatessens and supermarkets in the U.S. Meanwhile, its commitment to premium quality, all natural ingredients and traditional cooking methods has not wavered.  Kettle Cuisine has also been an industry pioneer in the development of nutritionally well balanced recipes, allergy friendly varieties and numerous ethnically and regionally inspired soups, chilis and chowders.

FP: Why did you start a soup company, and what was the point of difference that would appeal to foodservice providers?

JS: I was working for Legal Seafoods, a restaurant group in Boston, and they had a commissary that used a technology called cook chill. I was amazed that they could take culinary cooking methods and using traditional food ingredients could create incredible tasting soups, sauces, and salad dressings. Three or four weeks later, they would serve them in the restaurant, and you would never know they weren’t made that day.

Everything we’ve done has been about high quality food ingredients and minimal processing. All we do is cook and cool with that technology -- hot filling and very, very rapid cooling in a water bath. By cooling rapidly, you don’t give bacteria or microorganisms a chance to grow. When refrigerated, you get a four-to-five week shelf life without having to use preservatives, additives, or fermentation products. And, you get food that tastes just like you would get in a high-end restaurant. In the mid-80s when we started, the quality of soups was not anything like they are today; canned soups were very processed. We thought there was an opportunity to bring soups to market that were much closer to what people were making at home. There was also a big labor shortage, and one of the things we’re still seeing today is that foodservice operators are still trying to streamline and buy more prepared products, especially in the soup category. It began with desserts, then bread, then soups so operators could focus on the center of the plate.

FP: Success didn’t come easily. What challenges did you face early on?

JS: I’d have to say that’s an understatement. The first challenge was capital; we were a bootstrap operation and couldn’t get outside capital investment. We ran out of cash, ran up our family credit cards, and I took out a third mortgage on our house. The food industry is very capital intensive, so undercapitalization was our biggest challenge.

Another challenge was that the foodservice industry did not like short shelf life products. We found ourselves having to get operators really interested in, liking and demanding the product. So we got some push back, in fact we still get some push back, although we are doing a lot more frozen. We are basically doing cook, chill, and freeze now. We cook everything – chicken bones, beef bones, fish bodies – and make real culinary stocks.  There is less resistance on the retail and deli side, but the supply chain in foodservice doesn’t like perishables. It’s difficult for the buyer who has to manage 35-40 day shelf life every day. How much did they sell last night, how much do they have on order, how much do they have on hand, how much did they sell a year ago? There’s so much work that goes into managing perishable inventory, but the foodservice industry has gotten so much better at managing.

FP: How do you meet consumers’ changing needs and demands?

JS: When we look at innovation, we start with no filter. We have three chefs, and we all look at trends, buy research from Mintel and Technomic, watch what competitors are doing, read food magazines and incorporate requests from our customers. Our data pool is very broad and inclusive. We focus on consumers and consumer tastes. When we get an idea for a new product, we bring in consumers and conduct tasting panels. We try to cast a wide net in terms of idea creation; we believe no idea is stupid. Then our chefs and R&D people run with these ideas. I’ll give you an example, we were working on a Tomato and Parmesan cheese soup to add to our line. With all new soup varieties we have this ritual between 10:00 and 11:00 o’clock, two or three times a week, when our employees do tastings which compare other manufacturer products and our R&D creations. Everyone writes down what they think. One day, as we were tasting the Tomato and Parmesan and a woman, Aleks, in our customer service department told us she recently visited a restaurant in Paris and tasted a tomato and feta soup that was amazing. After we talked about it, we had one of our R&D chefs create a version. We put it out for tasting, and everyone loved it and it is now a soup available to our customers. Feta is an extremely popular cheese among Millennials and Gen Xers. We like to unfilter and let ideas flow, create something, taste, tweak and then run with them. It’s a fun process, with lots of interaction and involvement.

FP: Tell us about your typical day and your management style?

JS: One of the things about being CEO is that you have to interact with a lot of people and touch a lot of tasks and you only have so much bandwidth. I try to plan my days and weeks taking into account our big company goals, teaching objectives and then those tasks that are more tactical. Many of our people are specifically involved with those objectives, so I try to spend a lot of time interacting and getting status updates with people who are doing a lot of the work for those projects. I’m on the production floor several times a week, and I’m out of the office a lot, which can be disruptive. In fact, I do my e-mail at home early in the morning or at night. I go to every trade show to connect with my customers. When I’m in the building, I walk the floor and participate in a lot of meetings. I’d say my style is interacting with a lot of people. We value the people who make our soups, so I try to walk the floor during the second shift and nurture our staff.  My biggest attributes are that I like people, I’m very positive, and get the best out of them. I believe in an interactive style on a sustained basis. It helps me get smarter and smarter on hiring people who fit in and thrive in our culture. It’s a small company, so it’s important to empower people to make decisions on their own.

FP: What is your vision to grow the company?

JS: It is an interesting time with an emphasis on clean labels, minimal processing, and consumer demand for better quality food. We continue to grow in foodservice in the frozen format. We have gotten really good at making frozen food; we are like a big artisan restaurant. We look to grow in supermarket deli as well, and the fast casual success of Panera restaurants makes everybody take another look at their products.

FP: What lessons have you learned after being in business for 25 years?

JS: My biggest lesson is that in order to thrive and grow as a company, hire really good people and pay them well. I’ve never regretted paying up for good people. And saving people who aren’t right for the job is not a good idea. Good people create energy and movement toward your goals. We have 200 people who all come up with great ideas. Every company needs change to grow, and I’m not driving, so much as navigating into the future.

FP: What do you like most about the industry?

JS: When you make really good products, transparency and integrity are rewarded. And I meet and work with amazing, talented and inspired people every day.

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