“Antibiotic free” is the buzzword for a lot of poultry producers venturing into the natural chicken market. But the term is almost old hat at Bell & Evans, the pioneer that put natural chicken on the map.
At Bell & Evans' headquarters in Fredericksburg, Pa., everybody's talking about “gluten free.” After two years of product development, Bell & Evans last fall introduced gluten-free, ready-to-cook chicken tenders, made with rice flour and yellow corn flour. By the end of the summer, the line should include garlic Parmesan breaded breasts, Italian patties and other items.
“I get emails from people saying we've changed their lives,” said Thomas Stone, director of marketing at Bell & Evans. “People had been asking us for years to make them gluten free.”
Bell & Evans targets the upscale market with premium products. The air-chilled chickens are raised without antibiotics, and fed a natural diet of hexane-free soybean meal and corn, with added vitamins and minerals. Bell & Evans also sells turkeys, Cornish game hens and ducks.
Business is booming at the family-owned company, which expects sales to reach $175 million this year. Bell & Evans is seeing increased demand from its biggest customers including Chipotle Mexican Grill, the Panera Bread Co. and Whole Foods Market stores, Stone said. Whole Foods sells Bell & Evans chicken under its private label.
Two years ago, Bell & Evans completed a $30 million expansion and upgrade of its Fredericksburg plant in Pennsylvania Dutch Country. A $7 million expansion that will provide employees with a subsidized cafeteria, as well as new offices and a test kitchen, is under way. The company, which got its start in the 1890s, employs about 1,200 people.
Bell & Evans spends more to raise poultry the natural way, so customers pay a premium for the products. Compared to conventional chicken, Bell & Evans boneless skinless breasts can retail for $1.50 more per pound, while whole chickens sell for 40 to 50 cents more a pound, Stone said.
Consumers don't seem to mind paying more. “They're interested in eating food that's raised better on farms, that tastes better, that's not necessarily the cheapest alternative,” he said.