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February 16. 2013 2:48AM

Mike Cote's Business Editor's Notebook: Blake's natural progression


 

Charlie Blake holds a picture of his farm from the late 1990s while gathered with his wife, Sally, daughter, Amy, and grandchildren, Lucy, right, and Blake in the farmhouse at Blake's Turkey Farm in Concord on Thursday. (DAVID LANE/UNION LEADER)

Sally Blake and her granddaughter, Lucy, walk up the driveway at Blake's Turkey Farm in Concord. (DAVID LANE/UNION LEADER)

No longer raising turkeys, Blake's Turkey Farm in Concord, now makes organic prepared meals under the brand Blake's Natural Foods. (DAVID LANE/UNION LEADER)
CONCORD -- The entrance to Blake's Natural Foods at 178 Silk Farm Road seems trapped in time, a muddy dirt road running between picturesque farm buildings.

The sign out front still says Blake's Turkey Farm even though it's been a dozen years since the Blake family raised turkeys here. The silence is broken only by the sound of an employee operating a forklift to move some boxes.

That hints at the activity inside the production plant, where a couple of dozen workers dressed in white overcoats and hairnets are making one of the company's signature dishes: chicken pot pie. Workers gathered at the front of the line use small measuring cups to scoop carrots, peas and potatoes to add to the fresh chicken meat another worker has placed in the foil pie pans. They move quickly as dozens of pies travel along a conveyor belt to where another worker uses what looks like a giant fire hose to inject gravy into the pies.

This definition of handmade - which marries modern assembly-line techniques with a team of human workers - is a bit different from the one that comes to mind when you conjure the image of Charlie Blake making his first turkey pot pie in 1970 from a recipe by his grandmother, Clara. Back then, Blake sold them from his 1967 Chevy van in downtown Concord.

Compared to most modern food production though, the fourth-generation family business is homespun, even as it produces up to 16,000 meals a day.

"I've been in 50,000-square-foot facilities with two guys walking around with a clipboard, and the machines are doing everything," says Chris Licata, who joined Blake's as president in 2006.

"That's not the way that we do it. We say on some of our packaging 'Our meals are made by wonderful, happy people,'" he says. "People are doing the work, not machines. Even though it's made with love from scratch, we've gotten pretty efficient at it."

These days, Blake's produces about 30 varieties of chicken and turkey pot pies, shepherd's pies, macaroni and cheese dinners with lobster or chicken and other offerings, including a gluten-free chicken pot pie made with a cornbread crust. Its product lines, made from either all-natural or organic ingredients, are distributed nationwide to retailers like Whole Foods Market, Market Basket, Hannaford, Wegman's, Shaw's and natural food co-ops.

Blake's is targeting the growing interest in natural and organic products, sales of which jumped 10 percent to nearly $91 billion in 2011, according to the Natural Foods Merchandiser's 2012 Market Overview.

Licata joined Blake's after a long career as a ski and action sports industry executive, lured by the opportunity to help the family business grow from a regional player that distributed a handful of products in five states to a national player with a varied product line. His wife, Amy, the "corporate conscience" of the company, is the daughter of owners Charlie and Sally Blake.

"You only have a few chances to reinvent yourself. I watched this small mom-and-pop company that I admired greatly grow but at a very modest pace," says Licata, 46.

Since his arrival, the company has doubled its work force to about 40 and grown its sales by a factor of four.

"I wasn't a food guy, but I was a business guy," says Licata, who began applying some basic business concepts to Blake's and worked on getting the production plant certified organic, which meant updating equipment and changing some processes. "I listened to a lot of people and just tried to make sure that whatever we did we were always respecting the values of the company."

Licata and his wife have tried to instill those values in their twin 8-year-old daughters, Blake and Lucy, whose arrival inspired the couple to work with the business.

"There are very few people who have the ability to make food for more than their family. I look at this facility in so many ways as a gift," he says. "It's gift to make responsible food for families and for people."

The company has been growing steadily for the last several years and is readying the launch of a new product line designed to build on the success of the organic products it's been distributing.

Licata has tried to temper that growth with ensuring the company does not stray from its roots. Many of the meals it makes were developed from heirloom family recipes by Clara Blake, who founded the turkey farm in 1929.

"We always say whether we're developing new meals or perfecting existing meals, 'If Clara were to come back today would she approve of the way that we're making her recipes?'" Licata says. "Whenever we get this idea that we could maybe not mash our own potatoes, we go, 'You know what, Clara would never allow that.' And it brings us right back to the core values that this company was really built on."

Lucy and Blake Licata have already had a taste of entrepreneurship through Blake & Lucy's Lunchbox, a side business that sells lunches featuring Blake's chicken salad to traveling youth sports groups and to visitors at Lake Sunapee.

For the Licatas, it's a way to help instill the values they promote at Blake's and promote good nutrition.

"Food plays a role in how kids grow up and how healthy they are, the habits that they learn and the habits that they maintain throughout their life," Licata says. "It was important to us that we could be a solution for families."

Licata and his wife also want their daughters to appreciate that it's possible for families to work together in a business and thrive.

"Family-run businesses - let alone growing family-run businesses, let alone functional families running family-run businesses - are a dying breed," he says. "And we've been fortunate in that we've seen growth every year, sometimes significant growth. Yet in the face of that, we've been able to continue to work together as a family."

Mike Cote is business editor at the Union Leader. Contact him at 668-4321, ext. 324 or mcote@unionleader.com.