Elevating kitchen basics to new heights is keeping Summit Hill Foods in a richly deserved spotlight
If writing an ode to pantry staples is wrong, we don’t want to be right.
Before we sing the praises of some of the most convenient, delicious, and can’t-do-without products created by Summit Hill Foods, consider this declaration by company president Peter Hjort:
“In Rome, Ga., we have four facilities, two manufacturing locations, an Innovation Center, and the Center for Superior Logistics, which is our distribution center. You and I can walk into any of our facilities—the facility that primarily makes Better than BouillonⓇ or one that primarily makes dry mixes—and you can pick someone working on the floor, call them over, and I'll leave and you can interview them for as long as you want about our culture.”
Hjort wouldn’t be surprised to see your jaw drop at that invitation, which he is happy to offer from any of the company’s facilities across the country. “You could say, ‘That would be great if that was the way the world works, but the world doesn't work that way.’ In our company it actually does,” he said.
That level of confidence says volumes about an 80-year-old firm that prides itself on trust, communication, and dishing up inventive and classic culinary must-haves to an increasingly appreciative customer base. From 1941 until 2020, the company was known as Southeastern Mills, reflecting its heritage as a flour mill that grew over the decades to become the makers of baking mixes, gravies, and coating systems. Today, their Shore Lunch brand of breading mixes and Southeastern Mills-branded gravies and baking mixes can be found around the country as well as several international locations.
The 2009 acquisition of one of the most popular items on retail grocery shelves—the aforementioned Better than Bouillon—launched Southeastern into a new realm of success. “I believe we're somewhere close to five times the size of where it was when we first bought it,” Hjort estimated. The 2015 acquisition of the iconic Original Louisiana Hot Sauce brand kept that momentum going. In a product-packed category, Louisiana Hot Sauce is the No. 2 product by volume; not to be outdone, BTB moves as quickly as it can be stocked, especially these days when more people are cooking at home.
In late 2019, Summit Hill Foods acquired Salt Lake City’s JMH International, a producer of wet food bases used in foodservice and industrial applications. The facility now includes a BTB retail line and has enabled the company to expand its retail BTB business. “As we look for opportunities for growth, we like acquisitions that might have a brand that can also be sold into the foodservice world or even into industrial applications,” Hjort noted.
“Our products are used by other companies as ingredients. Even with hot sauce, which has applications in retail, foodservice, and industrial applications as a base ingredient, we're poised for some pretty nice growth.” Building a strong base of business on bases? That’s just plain cool.
“We do believe, as other CPG companies have indicated, that the pandemic has put a permanent base addition to our business and we will continue to grow from there. There will be a time where things are a bit more normal, where there is some return to the restaurants even though there may be some fallback on that, but we firmly believe that the consumer has found their way back into the kitchen and will continue to purchase products for at-home consumption at a rate that exceeds where we were pre-pandemic.”
Notably, the increased demand driven by the pandemic did not negatively impact Summit Hill Foods’ supply chain.
“During the pandemic our supply chain has performed at an exceptionally high level. We were able to fulfill all of the orders that we received,” Hjort revealed. “We found that several of our key competitors were not in the same situation. Some customers have come to us during this time and said, ‘Can you do XYZ for us?’ and we said, ‘Absolutely,’ and we did. We have acquired some nice pockets of business due to the fact that other companies were not situated properly and didn't have their supply chains in order to effectively service the customer.
In addition to doing brisk business in the retail sectors, SHF makes biscuit, gravy, and other mixes for quick service restaurants, which, after taking a preliminary hit in the early days of 2020, have bounced back well. “While business did drop off a little bit there, it was nothing like we saw in the fast casual and white tablecloth restaurants, so overall we’re ahead of the game,” he said.
All About That Base
Like all great chefs and home cooks, the minds behind Summit Hill Foods are imaginative and collaborative. From their first entry into making dry breading and batter mixes, their success came out of customization. “It took a lot of innovation, a lot of culinary expertise, and a lot of experimentation working with customers to get the exact flavor profile or whatever the characteristics and cost considerations they were looking for,” he explained. “We've always worked with our customers very actively in that way.”
Summit Hill Foods operates Culinary Innovation Centers at their Rome HQ as well as in Salt Lake City. “The Salt Lake team did a really nice job of what is called consultative selling; it’s all about helping customers understand how to solve their problems with flavor, with texture, with mouthfeel, or whatever the case might be. We have PhDs in the company, we have food scientists, we have chefs who are really creative and do an outstanding job.
“We just landed a nice piece of business with a major national quick service restaurant chain for a base they’ll be using in a newly innovated product, so it’s exciting to see that happen. Between the two innovation centers we feel like we've got a really talented group of individuals and equipment available for our customers to help put things together.”
Sadly, we all can’t take Hjort up on his invitation to interview Summit Hill Foods workers about their company life, but it surely would be an experience to savor. His nearly 23-year stay with the company has made him more enthusiastic, a bold claim that many CPG company leaders would love to be able to make.
“The family, the shareholders and the board of directors are just incredibly supportive and give you all the resources and freedom that you need to run the business,” he said. “It’s phenomenal from that standpoint. Our leadership team is a very cohesive and hard-working group that enjoys each other very much, and the same goes for all our employees.
“We have wonderful customers that we have great long-term relationships with, and we always strive to get our customers to come visit our facility to see our folks and the enthusiasm and care they take in producing those products for them. We’re proud to take customers into our Innovation Centers and help improve their products. We are really bullish on our business. We love it, and we’re thankful to have the situation that we do, every day to go to work,” he stressed. “I still want to be part of it. It’s a lot of fun.”
333 Old Lindale Road SE
Rome, GA 30161
Telephone 706 291 6528