Winter 2017 Catalyst
A.S.K. Foods, Inc. started as a love affair.
“In 1947, my grandfather, Abraham Shelly Kettering, made my father, Robert DiMatteo, an offer he couldn’t refuse — ‘bring my daughter home from Boston, and I’ll give you 50 percent of my business,’” says Wendie DiMatteo Holsinger, CEO of A.S.K. Foods.
And so, Robert and his wife Lennie (Abraham’s only daughter), moved from Boston back to Palmyra, PA, to form the A.S.Kettering Company, later to be shortened to A.S.K. Foods, Inc. in the 1970’s.
In the early years, this food distribution business sold primarily deli meats and cheeses to farmer’s markets and small retail stores. Realizing the extremely competitive nature of the food distribution business, they made what would prove to be a very wise decision to expand into manufacturing deli products as well. Early products included limited varieties of soups, barbeque and deli salads, with Pennsylvania Dutch potato salad, chicken corn noodle soup and pork barbeque being top sellers.
“We were much smaller then,” DiMatteo Holsinger adds. “I think our growth was limited to central Pennsylvania because we were unique in making only preservative-free, all-natural products, which had a shorter shelf life than many of our competitors. At that time there weren’t sophisticated logistics software systems to coordinate trucking and transportation — efficiencies that are commonly used in the food industry today.” Currently, this privately-held, third-generation, 100 percent women-owned company operates with a focus on a different kind of love affair. These days, it’s all about the food.
“We confess that we are foodies; we have one great passion…creating outstanding food! We concentrate on the quality details, such as how to keep the vibrancy of the vegetables, and to assure that all our pasta products have that perfect al dente texture,” says DiMatteo Holsinger. “It’s not about being the biggest. It’s about being the best. Our company philosophy has always been about growing, but growing with superior quality that makes us proud. Over time, we have found that when you focus on exceptional quality, sales growth continues.” Today, A.S.K. Foods has two U.S.D.A. manufacturing plants with more than 225 employees who produce more than 800 products for major retail supermarkets and food service distributors in 22 states. Unlike the company’s early days, many of A.S.K’s products are now proprietary items, labeled with customers’ logos.
Recently recognized as “Processor of the Year” by Refrigerated and Frozen Foods magazine as a pioneer of natural, preservative-free prepared foods, A.S.K. Foods continues to focus on healthy lifestyle products. Items with reduced fat, sugar and lower sodium, as well as ethnic specialties that include Hispanic, Asian, Greek and Italian profiles are part of the current product selections. A team of talented chefs are constantly developing new recipes that keep abreast of food trends and current consumer interests. Right now, the most challenging aspect of product development is taking a small prototype recipe of only a few pounds and successfully converting it to a 10,000 pound production run without sacrificing taste or quality. Not an easy feat!
Today’s food consumer demands variety, looking for new items throughout the year. For that reason, A.S.K. Foods has concentrated on seasonally differentiating its portfolio of products, offering new selections based on the various holidays and seasons of the year. “If you’re buying a retail holiday dinner or side dish, on the East Coast there’s is a high probability that you’ll be eating an A.S.K. product,” says Terry Smith, director of marketing. A.S.K’s philosophy focuses on forming strong partnerships with customers — 10 of which have been loyal partners for more than 20 years (which is somewhat unusual in the industry.) “We work closely with them, acting as an extension of their product development team to bring forward new product concepts to the marketplace quickly,” adds Smith.
Geographically, A.S.K. feels fortunate that its Pennsylvania plant locations provide easy access to major highways for quick shipping of products up and down the East Coast. A fleet of trucks are able to reach almost 40 percent of the United States population within a 24 hour time frame, which is critical when considering the need for timely shipment of highly perishable, preservative-free products. When asked what the key to A.S.K’s growth and success is, DiMatteo Holsinger is quick to credit the decades of hard-working employees and their great work ethic. “I have a strong feeling of gratitude to the loyal and dedicated employees that have helped me build the business over the past 30 years,” she says. “I truly believe that our employees are A.S.K.’s strongest asset. Their tireless efforts, commitment to quality and willingness to continually tackle new projects has enabled us to excel as a company.”
Strong sales growth has led the company to make new investments in 2017, through automation and a warehousing expansion that will help in increasing production volumes and efficiency. Among other future initiatives, A.S.K. will be adding two major systems of equipment — one in the distribution area that automates the finished casing process, and another in the production area that triples the filling and labeling capacity of the company’s prepackaged deli salad line — an area they’ve seen tremendous growth in over the last few years.
Today’s food customer wants fresh, natural products with a superior quality — traits that A.S.K. has excelled in since its early days. “With our continued commitment to exceptional quality, we are optimistic about what the future holds for A.S.K.” says DiMatteo Holsinger. As Robert DiMatteo used to say, “It’s a beautiful day in Palmyra” — especially when it’s all about the food.
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