Specialty Food Magazine

WINTER 2015

Specialty Food Magazine is the leading publication for retailers, manufacturers and foodservice professionals in the specialty food trade. It provides news, trends and business-building insights that help readers keep their businesses competitive.

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From the Ground Up "My dad was the quintessential sales guy," says David. His mother was instrumental in the early years of the business, going to stores and asking how much money they had to spend and helping her husband determine which items to send them. "My dad loved getting out there and doing what was right by the customer, not ashamed to tell them, 'You shouldn't buy that,' even though we might get stuck with it. What my dad and I did was treat our customers and vendors like partners, and it's very satisfy- ing to see both my sons have the same values, without any coaching or rule-setting. Without drilling it down, we share common values throughout the generations. Everyone is working for the product. This is not an ego game." Jay Isenberg retired from the company when he was 84. Even then he had his driver take him around to visit customers, because he enjoyed the interaction so much. To "deliver excellence" was his goal, and the lessons he imparted still hold true today. In half a century, Chex Finer Foods has grown from three employees to 70, from pallets to truckloads and containers, grow- ing 85 percent in the past three years alone. The business stocks premium olive oil, pasta, raw foods, dried fruits, honey, spices, tea, coffee, cocoa, chocolate, candy, snacks, seafood, and ethnic food from around the world. Chex sells roughly 3,500 SKUs to 500 independent and big-name retailers throughout New England, New York, and New Jersey, including 65 Whole Foods stores. Among those varied offerings is Laurel Hill, the company's own f lagship brand comprising tortilla and potato chips, pretzels, salsa, beans, and condiments, available coast to coast. "If my dad were alive today he'd be happy beyond his wildest imagination," says David. "When I worked with him he always said, 'Here's an example of the pupil exceeding the teacher.' My sons are doing the same thing." In a time when many family-owned regional com- panies had become consoli- dated or gone out of busi- ness, Chex not only survived but f lourished. "Passion and persistence," says Jeremy Isenberg, Chex's president and David 's younger son, of the secret to the company's success. "Either you have it or you don't. The fortitude started with my grandparents and my dad, who gave his whole life to this business. We go after what we believe in and we look at what makes sense in the long term. It's a privilege for a family business to do what's best in our hearts and souls instead of reporting to a shareholder. I feel very fortunate to have those dynamics." Chex has always focused on specialty and natural foods, so it had a firm foundation as the demand for handcrafted products grew in the marketplace. The distributor started importing products from Europe in the late 1960s—long before there were television networks devoted to food, before Americans traveled widely and returned home with tastes for exotic ingredients, before people looked closely at labels and wanted to know the story behind a jar of preserves or a bottle of barbecue sauce. Their apt foresight has paid off. Michael Isenberg, Chex's vice president and Jeremy's older brother, joined the company 11 years ago after working in environ- mental management consulting on green business strategies. After attending business school at the University of Michigan, he decided he would rather return home to Massachusetts to be part of a small family business instead of working for "big corporate America." At Chex, his areas of expertise are marketing, identifying national trends and opportunities, and helping customers become more suc- cessful. "I'm a get-it-done kind of guy and have a to-do list, with five or ten things going on all the time," he says. These days Michael sees room for growth in upscale, healthy salad dressing, soups, and cookies. He also notes that sales for chocolate, raw foods, healthy snacks, gluten-free products, and the organic category remain strong. Chex has added more of these types of products to its already considerable portfolio. In half a century, Chex Finer Foods has grown from three employees to 70, from pallets to truckloads and containers, growing 85 percent in the past three years alone. "My dad was the quintessential sales guy," says David. "He loved getting out there and doing what was right by the customer, not ashamed to tell them, 'You shouldn't buy that,' even though we might get stuck with it." WINTER 2015 95

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