What does it take to keep a 141-year old meat processing company thriving in Rochester, New York? We’ve got that answer and more in this episode of the Food For Thought Podcast. Today’s guest is Julie Camardo. She’s the CEO and fifth-generation owner of Zweigle's, a meat processing company based out of Rochester.
In the next half-hour, we cover a lot of ground. We talk about what it was like growing up in the family business, and how she—and the company—give back to the Rochester community in ways you won’t believe. We also talk about what it’s like to be a woman in a male-dominated field and how the women who came before helped pave the way to make Zweigle's the certified women-owned business it is today.
Erin: Julie, welcome to the Food for Thought Podcast.
Julie: Thank you, Erin. I'm very excited to be here. Thank you for having me.
Erin: Let’s start by talking about your role at Zweigle's. For those who may not be familiar with the products, what does Zweigle's produce?
Julie: I'm the CEO and Owner of Zweigle's, a fifth-generation family-owned meat-producing business in Rochester, New York. We make great-tasting, quality proteins for over 140 years now. So those five generations. We're in our 141st year this year. Some of the products, probably a lot of listeners are not familiar, but what we're most well-known for, our red and our white hot dogs. But here in western New York, we call them "hots. We also make sausages, meatballs, fully cooked chicken breast, as well as breakfast sausage patties and links. Our latest venture is vegetarian products.
Some of what we produce is under our brand of Zweigle's. And then some of the products that we produce we co-pack for other companies or we private label for companies such as Wegmans or Aldi. We also do some private label as well.
Erin: You're the CEO of a family-run business. Can you talk about your career progression from office and sales work to now CEO?
Julie: When people ask me, "How long have you been in the business for?” I generally say my whole life because there's a lot of great family memories that I have coming down to the plant at Zweigle's. On weekends, my mom would pick up time cards and we would go into the plant and we walk around and check things out—we would always have work. There'd be something, some small work my sister and I would do. On our school breaks we would be here is where we came.
When I was in high school, I would fill in over the summers for people that were on vacation and I would work at the front desk greeting customers. It was in college when I got my first experience on the plant floor. I worked in the packaging side and my job at the time was putting hot dogs in packages, packages and boxes, and getting them ready for shipping out. And then I spent another summer in college interning, working in the sales area and helping out, going to different stores. I would visit customers. I would talk to customers, get to know them, take their orders, or answer any questions that they had. Those were some of my first experiences at Zweigle's. After college I lived in Syracuse for a year and then then I lived in Baltimore for about five years. I decided I wanted to move home and truly see if Zweigle's was something that I wanted to be a part of.
My mother and my grandfather were still actively working in Rochester. I remember calling my mom telling her I was ready to move home. She told me "Well, I don't have a job for you," to which I replied, "Well, that's okay." I remember telling her I’d find another job if something opened up, then hopefully I’d be able to fill the position. My mom ended up talking with my grandfather about it and they brought me on. It was a great decision because there were some job responsibilities that my mom, who at the time was president of Zweigle's and my grandfather was CEO, needed to take off of her plate so she could really start to work more on the business as opposed to in the business.
I came to work at Zweigle's and it became a good opportunity for me to become more involved in the office setting. During that particular time I started working within Human Resources, which was where my background was. It was good for me to be able to work with my mom and my grandfather at the same time as well to get to know them, and see how they interacted with the people in the business, to see how they interacted with customers, to try to understand some of their values, as well as for myself, to be a part of the business in a little bit of a different way.
There were a few changes that I had made while I was in that department as well as picking up other responsibilities in the office while other people were transitioning in and out. My love of sales of our product just sort of came to the forefront and there was an opening in the sales department. It was a really great opportunity for me and I took the opportunity to be a sales rep for Zweigle's and started visiting some of our current customers and then opening up a new territory for us as well, just a little bit to the west of our office or closer to the Buffalo area.
In the Northeast, there are signature hot dog companies that you become a diehard fan for. You’ll defend that hot dog company—and the brands you grew up—pretty much until the day you die. And that's what we are for Rochester. We hold 70% or more of the market for our brand of hot dogs and people love us here. They're fans of us here. But if you go to the east side of us or the west side of us, we have competition. It was definitely a big learning experience for me to be able to try to gain some brand awareness in some of those areas. And at the same time know that in order to grow the business, we need to diversify. And that was definitely something that was a little bit more challenging with my grandfather.
After my grandfather passed away, my mother took on more of the executive role. I had started a family of my own and continued to work in the sales part of sales and our company grew. It was 2004-2005 and we were finishing our first major expansion at Zweigle's under my mom when she developed cancer. I took a little bit of a step back and recognized we needed to find some leadership. I took on additional roles within the company and hired an additional person who was more experienced in our operations. We need someone to help us to continue to grow and stay profitable. That was a huge decision for me.
My mom overcame her first round of cancer and I was very blessed to be able to continue to work with her. She was in the fourth generation of the business. What I loved about my mom is that she gave me the opportunity to learn. Coming back in from sales, I was given the opportunity to learn a lot of other departments at Zweigle's. I spent time in the kitchen in an area that I wasn't as much involved in before. In our process kitchen, I was able to understand the types of testing that we do on a daily basis and why we test for moisture, fat, protein and texture, tastes, etc. I really immersed myself in the business as much as possible. I was blessed to have a mother and a leader who would give me the opportunity to learn the different departments and to understand the business a little bit more, because she did want to see me grow and succeed.
Unfortunately, my mom then had leukemia and she passed away a few months after her diagnosis. It was pretty quick, something I wasn't quite expecting at the time. But we thrived and we grew. I had a wonderful team of managers who supported me in my decision to take over at that time as president of the company while I had given the opportunities to other people to continue their jobs, and to grow more within the company, to give them more responsibility as well.
It was definitely a challenging time for me having lost my mother and also being a young mother myself. But also looking back on it now, I was grateful for the experience and for the people that supported me in the career. And I continue to support myself in my career just as we continue to have leadership opportunities for our employees here at Zweigle's. I think it's really important that people, no matter what age, you always continue to learn and involve yourself in opportunities for growth.
Erin: I want to dig in a bit more and talk about your passion for the Rochester community, in particular, when it comes to the talent pipeline at Zweigle's and what you've been doing to help find new talent from the poorest areas of Rochester. Can you explain that a little more in depth?
Julie: Zweigle's has been in Rochester, the City of Rochester for 140-plus years. Rochester is ranked third in the overall poverty among the nation's 75 largest metropolitan areas. That is not something that Rochester is proud of. When I see that, I know that our decision to stay here in Rochester and solidify our growth and our presence is even more important because we have a job. Our job is to not only make really great quality products, but also to help the City of Rochester thrive. And more than 50% of our employees are City of Rochester residents.
If we moved outside the City of Rochester, it would have affected a large percentage of our employees. What we really thought was important—because of how the Rochester community has supported us for all of these years—was to make a commitment to Rochester. As we look to grow, we continue to add jobs and grow the business. More than 50% of the new jobs that we're looking to hire for the city residents are the lower skilled jobs where people can look to grow into middle-skilled jobs with an average between wages and benefits of $30 an hour, which is pretty impressive, considering the poverty that we have here in Rochester. And we're also working with people of definitely different languages.
It's really quite important for us to make sure that we help do whatever we can do to make sure that the City of Rochester thrives because it's a beautiful city and it has a lot to offer. It makes sense to want to stay here and to say thank you, and to make sure that we are an example for other businesses to continue to want to stay here in Rochester.
Because Zweigle's has these lower skilled positions, we also have opportunities for them to grow as our company grows—from lower skilled, to middle skilled to different trade opportunities. In fact, right now we have a leadership class that we have about 10-11 of our employees participating in. It's a variety of employees, people that work in our shop floor and some people that work in our office settings. It's understanding their growth potential and what they want to take part of. This is sort of our next level leadership group. To make sure we're successful, we try to pull from within as we grow. We want to see if we can better help our employees continue to feel that they are important at Zweigle's, and that there is a place for them in the future, and they can do more than when they came in the door as an employee day one.
Erin: It definitely sounds like this has been embedded in the company's DNA. I'm curious, how has the company responded to what you've been doing as well as the community?
Julie: We've had a lot of positive feedback about our leadership program, about the fact that we have made a commitment to the City of Rochester. People here feel confident they have a job here; they have a place where they know they can grow and they don't have to worry that we're going to move somewhere.
The State of New York is not the easiest state to do business with. Our taxes are higher here. And there are definitely some challenges along the way. But our roots are here. And this is where we started. And this is the community that has supported us through the years. The community of Rochester has also supported us. When it came time for us to look to expand, we had really great collaboration between the City of Rochester, the County of Monroe in which we are situated, and also the State of New York. They came to help us to provide us with some guidance and some grants to make sure that we stayed here in Rochester. And we appreciated that because it really did help to make the decision to grow here and to stay here.
Erin: Let's shift to being a woman-owned business. Zweigle's is a certified women's business enterprise. Can you speak to why that designation is important, not only to you or to the company, but also for your community and consumers?
Julie: I look back at Zweigle's, in our 140 plus years, and it started with my great-great grandparents: Wilhelm and Josephine Zweigle. Three years after the business was established—it was 1880—Wilhelm ended up passing away of typhoid fever. His wife, Josephine took over. Back in the 1800s, women didn't really own business and take over businesses, but she figured out a way to keep that business running with four young children underfoot. I can't imagine in the 1800s what it must have been like. I think I recognized all the way back from that very first generation of the Zweigle family, that women ownership was prevalent.
I can trace back to every generation some part of a woman-owned legacy, which is pretty rare for a 140-year-old company, especially in the meats business. My great-great grandmother had a hand in making sure that the business continued. It was renamed the Zweigle's Brothers, but she was definitely a very big part of the business.
When I came on board, one of the many tasks that I assumed was recognizing everything about the fact that we are a women-owned business. This happened when my mother at the helm, and we not only had her in charge, but also myself and my sister, who was also a shareholder. We wanted to be proud of that, proud of the legacy that we had, and to be able to recognize that, being a women-owned business.
Statistically, about 18-20% of the U.S. food industry—at the executive level—is women; that includes presidents and CEOs. By comparison, in the meat business, there are only 5% of women in executive levels in the meat industry. We're so far behind in our leadership of women in executive level positions, let alone executive level positions in the food industry. So, it’s really great to be able to help break some barriers as a female executive to know that our voice is important because we are the ones also in the stores making decisions. There are great opportunities for us to be able to have our voices heard.
I think it's also really important that as a woman who's an executive working in an area that is still very male-driven, that you work and you network really well with a lot of other people who are in sort of the similar positions. You're going to find some really great people out there, people who are both on both sides, they're both men and women in the field. And you come with your stories, you come with questions, and you come educated with what you're trying to converse, you talk with them. It's been important for me to know that there are other women out there that are like myself who are kind of in that growth mode who are competing in some ways against men and that male network that they have. There are some really great men in the network that are welcoming women through this industry and are opening doors and helping us to make sure that our voices are heard as well.
I'm very proud that not only are we a nationally-recognized certified women-owned business, but we are also state-certified and locally-certified as well. I have three children—including two daughters—and it feels really good to have them be able to look up to me and feel proud of who I represent in the community. Not only am I their mother—and that's probably one of the most important jobs that I have—but also, they recognize as an industry leader, and as a strong community member speaking out for others in our community, and being a voice for Zweigle's. They also see me as a voice for other women leaders who are trying to make it, and trying to work hard, and to have their voice be heard because you're definitely not alone. And there's a lot of people out there that will help support you and just surround you.
Erin: We've written and talked on Food Processing, about the impact COVID-19 has had on businesses in general, but we've talked less so about its impact on women. I know as a woman, I study this probably a little more intensely than the rest of my team, but numerous studies have shown how women have been hit harder from an employment standpoint, especially by the pandemic. Have you seen this at Zweigle's and in Rochester?
Julie: We have an open culture that whatever your needs are, your background, etc. it's all important and we support everybody. Since the pandemic started, we have had just as many men, if not more fathers, who have had to take time to be with their kids to help with education or other things that have come up during this COVID-19 pandemic as much as we have had women. I've seen it more for parents who have struggled a bit more due to how schools have had to adjust their 6-foot distance and requirements in order to be able to stay open. City of Rochester schools did not open at all, so there was a lot of struggle. But we understood that and we had programs in place. It didn't matter what your background was. We had just as many men, if not more dads or fathers that need to take time off to be able to support their families as we did mothers in the same respect.
I do know what you're saying and I have noticed, and even personally, there have been some struggles where I've had to take a little extra time off more than some of my executive level male counterparts to stay at home with my son. I think it's recognized here that everybody works really hard to make sure everybody feels equally important.
And I do know the struggles that women have had in this pandemic. And I've read some of the statistics that you're referring to, in particular women leaving the workplace to stay back at home to educate their kids and be at home with school, and where the fathers or the husbands, they're working. And it's been a challenge to see that setback because that's not really where we wanted women to be.
There is also the economic difference that women are still struggling with. Women make about 85 cents to the dollar that a man makes, that may be slightly off, maybe depending on the state that you live in. Even that in itself will affect a family's decision for why a female may stay at home versus the male may stay at home and helping with their children, let alone the economic impact itself that COVID has had on a number of people with the businesses that have had to shut down due to so many different regulations in general.
Erin: I want to wrap up our episode by saying if listeners would like to learn more about the hiring program you've set up or being a woman-owned business, how could they get in contact with you?
Julie: If they would like to get in touch with us, [email protected]. Or feel free to look me up on LinkedIn, it's Julie Camardo. I'd love to connect. I enjoy talking with other people who are in the same industry and similar fields. I'm part of the Women Business Enterprise National Council's certified women-owned business, and also part of the Vistage Network for Women as well. It's a great opportunity to network and talk and not feel maybe so alone out there. And, again, I appreciate being able to be here and share my story or part of the story.