In the spring of 1952, Dwight and Melva Gerber started a distribution route, to the Akron area, that featured eggs and fresh vegetables, out of their home in Kidron, Ohio. As word got around that someone were delivering items from the Amish Country of Ohio, many inquiries regarding fresh chicken products starting surfacing. Dwight and Melva began butchering about 30 chickens a week to include on this route. The chickens were purchased from local farmers, many of whom were from the Amish Community.
They set up a small processing operation, in the basement of a building directly behind their home on the family farm. As the demand for this fresh chicken increased, Dwight and Melva installed a small feather picker and scalder to speed up the cleaning operation. Most of the work was done by hand. It wasn't long until the main focus of the route turned to fresh chicken.
In 1954, as demand continued to increase, Dwight and Melva converted a barn on their farm into a four-story chicken house with the capacity to grow over 2,000 chickens on each floor. They purchased baby chicks from various sources and placed them in this building and fed them by hand until they reached the proper size for market. It took ten to twelve weeks to grow the chickens to market size at that time.
Distribution was done with the aid of a 1954 Ford half ton panel truck. In 1958 the demand grew to a level that they had to purchase a Dodge Truck with a ten-foot insulated body made by the Kidron Body Company. The Gerber Operation now has fifteen, twenty-two foot refrigerated straight trucks on the road today.
In 1961 Dwight and Melva decided to construct a new building for the growing business.
Production had increased to a level of 4,000 chickens per week. The four-story chicken house
was no longer able to provide the quantities needed for the demand and live chickens had to
be purchased from other sources to complement their own grow out facility. The customer base
continued to grow and now included many of the local grocery stores and restaurants.
During the 1950's over one thousand small poultry companies existed. By 1964, this number dropped to 325. Today, the National Chicken Council indicates that there are fifty companies in the United States remaining. Many of the fifty remaining companies have multiple facilities that give the industry 190 plants. The family business has survived these turbulent times. Hard work and a dedication to providing customers with fresh, clean chickens and giving them the personal service helped develop many loyal customers. The business became incorporated in 1972 and was on its way to becoming an integrated broiler producer.
In 1978, it was decided to develop a program for supplying live chickens for the processing operation. 12,000 chickens were now needed each week to supply the growing customer list. Amish farmers were contracted with to receive chicks and feed needed to grow the chickens to market weight. This program has continued to grow from an original list of ten farmers, to over eighty farmers and growers today. In 1980 the Hingle Company, (Hingle is the Amish word for chicken), was incorporated to handle the contracting of growers and the procurement of feed. All growers are located within a thirty-five mile radius of Kidron processing plant. The growers supply the building, equipment, utilities and labor while Hingle supplies the chicks and feed. The program has worked with great success. The Gerber Operation boasts that it has the "BEST GROUP OF GROWERS IN THE INDUSTRY TODAY".
Operations at the Gerber Poultry processing plant were temporarily interrupted in November of 1987 when a major fire destroyed the plant early in the afternoon on Veteran's Day. The loss included the main processing area, refrigerated coolers, freezers, offices, dry storage area and already processed poultry inventory. A decision had to be made in a relatively quick fashion as to whether or not Gerber Poultry would continue to operate. It was support from customers and the local community that encouraged the family to rebuild its operation. As a result of that commitment, and very rapid and difficult decision-making, the processing plant was operating within two months after the fire. When the plant began operating again in January of 1988, 99% of Gerber's previous customers began placing orders again.
The Company was back on its feet. Annual Sales increases of twenty-five to thirty percent were common. The Company was processing 92,000 birds per week on an average, compared to 40,000 before the fire.
The next step to becoming an integrated broiler processor was the decision to build a Hatchery Operation. In the fall of 1990, the Orrville Chick Hatchery came into existence and was incorporated. A facility was quickly constructed in the new Industrial Park in Orrville, Ohio with the guidance of the Gerber family and an experienced hatchery manager. In the fall of 1991 the hatchery placed its first group of fertilized eggs into incubation. In January of 1992, the hatchery was supplying the Hingle Company and its growers with a full compliment of live chicks.
The Gerber Operation now controlled the entire growing process of the chickens, and the quality of the product spoke for itself. Outside of having its own Feed Mill, the Gerber Operation was now considered an integrated broiler producer.
Sales continued to increase year after year. The growth presented several operational challenges as the Company made every effort to meet the demands of its customers. In order to maintain and increase the customer base and to automate and update the production process, it was necessary to expand the facility. In 1994, an addition totaling approximately 25,000 square feet, was added to the existing building. This addition provided more space for the Second Processing Area, an area for the new Chill Tank and refrigerated storage space. Due to restrictive environmental laws regulating the use of "Freon" for refrigeration purposes, a new, state of the art ammonia refrigeration system was installed for all freezing, ice making and cooling applications. An ammonia refrigeration system, in addition to being more economical and dependable to operate, plays an extremely important part in ensuring food safety. Refrigerated cooler space was added along with an independent Power Room for the operations use only. This addition to the processing operation necessitated a one-million dollar upgrade to the wastewater treatment facility. The Company maintains a very close working relationship with the Ohio EPA and returns environmentally safe water back into the local waterways.
The Company experienced major sales growth from 1995 through 1996 and plans were in the process to further develop its First and Second Processing Areas. However, on November 12, 1997, the Company was again dealt a set back when fire broke out in the First Process Area exactly ten years and one day from the 1987 fire. The entire First Process Area, which housed the "Kill" and "Evisceration" operations, was totaled by the fire. Due to the engineering of the 1994 expansion, the rest of the operation was spared from the fire. In fact, delivery trucks were on the road the very next day as fresh inventory was also spared. With assistance from other poultry processing competitors, Gerber's live chickens were being processed and the Second Processing Areas were able to keep fresh chicken products moving to the customers. At the time of the fire the Gerber Operation was processing approximately 160,000 birds per week.
Once again, hard decisions had to be made as to the future of the Gerber Operation. The decisions not only affected the 250 plus employee base at the processing facility but the entire community. As a result of the continued growth of the company, the effect on growers and suppliers was at a major risk. The Gerber Operation sought the services of Poultry Industry Experts in Engineering and Design and built a State-of the Art addition that now houses the First Processing area along with added space for Second Processing and dry storage. The First Processing area now has high-speed processing equipment that has the capability of processing 65,000 chickens in an eight-hour shift, (130,000 chickens with a double shift or 650,000 chickens per five-day week). This is a long way from the thirty chickens processed by Dwight and Melva in 1952.
The Second Processing area now houses two high-speed Cut-up lines that automatically cut up chicken into the parts necessary to fill our expanding customer's needs. All of our Gerber's Amish Farm Chicken is 100% all natural with no antibiotics or animal by-products in the feed. You'll find our distinctively packaged natural, great tasting chicken in fine grocery store meat cases.
We also supply three different flavor profiles for specific restaurant and food service customers (such as pizza shops and delis). This product is produced by injecting the flavors into the chicken, therefore new injection and packaging equipment is also an added feature to the Gerber Operation today.
With labor recruitment, retention and costs continuing to be a major priority for the Company, we have focused our efforts on monitoring and controlling labor issues by enhancing employee training and benefit programs.
Dwight and Melva's four children are currently involved in varying capacities in the business operation. Their commitment to providing customers quality products and excellent service makes the success of Gerber Poultry possible. It all began with the dream and the determination that Dwight and Melva had when they started the business in 1952.