A company’s anniversary isn’t just a cause for celebration, it is also a time for reflection while focusing on the future. Here, C. Bruce Kern II, president of Curtze Food Service and a member of the MBA Board of Governors, shares his thoughts on the sixth-generation, family owned business’ rich history and 140th year of operation in 2018.
Tell me what you credit for Curtze Food Service’s longevity.
Our industry has some inherent stability. The dynamics of demand can change a bit, but people need to eat and are willing to dine out regardless of the state of the economy. It is, however, a very competitive industry and our enduring values have enabled us to succeed over time. We have an unwavering commitment to search for quality when sourcing and developing our products. We also focus on providing value and solutions to our customers. These factors, and a little luck, have contributed to our long run.
Curtze Food Service is widely recognized as the “Food Distributor of Choice,” tracing its roots to C.A. Curtze, who started the company in 1878 in Erie. Tell us about Curtze’s rich history.
The company was founded by my great-great-grandfather, Charles August Curtze, as a wholesale business providing food and supplies to retail merchants and to a growing number of oil and lumber camps of that era. He tragically died in a horse riding accident in 1901 and the company carried on under the management of his two children Julia Kern (married to Dr. Rudolph Kern) and Edwin Curtze (father of Rear Admiral Charles Curtze and Margharita Curtze Vicary). Julia’s son Carl J. Kern (my grandfather) joined the company full time in 1933, after attending Yale University. He then partnered with another longtime Curtze associate and friend Cassius Cook to get into the retail grocery business. By the early ‘50s, they sold their six Cook’s Markets to Century Markets. In 1957, however, C.A. Curtze Co. came upon hard times, and Carl bought all remaining shares from his brother and two cousins.
The company really turned the corner in 1961 when Carl’s son Bruce Kern Sr. (my father) joined the business full time and the strategic direction focused 100 percent on the growing “food service” segment of the food industry — independent restaurants, diners, clubs, hotels, camps, schools, hospitals, nursing homes and anyone that served food away from home. With the entry into the fresh meat business, strategic product development and branding strategies, the stage was set for the steady growth that has followed. In 1966, Bruce bought another distribution center in Cleveland. After many years of industry experience in the Midwest, his brother Doug Kern joined the company as president of that location in 1977.
I started working part time during high school in 1976 and joined the company full time after college as a sales representative. My brother Scott, who also spent summers working in the warehouse and meat department, graduated from the University of Pittsburgh School of Law and practiced at The Knox Law Firm before joining the company in 1994. In 2001, we bought our third distribution center in Rochester, New York. Generation No. 6, my son Bill, joined the company full time in 2012 and, without a doubt, has become the most cross-trained employee at Curtze. Today, we distribute more than 14,000 items out of our three facilities with a fleet of 125 trucks that make daily deliveries into eight states.
How important is the role of safety to your reputation and success?
Warehousing, trucking and food processing are all highly regulated activities by various government agencies, and we have invested in a number of technologies in order to stay in compliance. When it comes to food safety, Sustainabilitywe have gone above and beyond compliance by implementing a pathogen reduction system that uses photohydroionization technology. Our Specialty Steak Service division was instrumental in developing techniques and implementing the use of various ultraviolet rays in order to greatly reduce microorganisms. This process, called Blue Beam technology, is used by only a handful of food processors in the country and gives our customers and sales force an added measure of confidence in the safety of our products.
What is your outlook for Curtze Food Service in 2018?
This year’s sales growth was much healthier than 2016, and we expect to carry a lot of momentum into the new year. The independent restaurants have outperformed chains recently and that is an excellent indicator for us. We also expect to see growth in country club and assisted living facilities. We will certainly be adding a number of sales representatives in many of the markets we serve, which will generate market penetration and some geographical expansion. We are always looking for acquisitions in adjacent markets.
Is there anything you would like to add?
We have been blessed with an extraordinarily talented group of employees in all of our departments. The managers of our sales team, purchasing, operations, meat and seafood departments, administration and IT have all been indispensable to our success. We have been fortunate to retain our key leaders and sales team who choose to stay with us for the long haul.