Tabatchnick: The All in the Family Business

As you sit at your holiday table this Thanksgiving surrounded by family, do a head-count of the other families joining you.

By that I mean, what food products are you serving that are made by family-owned, family-operated companies? There aren’t many national brands left that have actual people behind the ‘family’ names on your favorite products. (I admit to some frustration over our current love affair with ‘local’ – we’re asking where our food comes from, but not from who).

According to the Small Business Adminiustraton, 90 percent of the 21 million US businesses are family owned, yet when it comes to national food brands, there are few families to choose from – and that’s a shame.

Some of these family enterprises go under simply becausre they run out of family to run them: only 30 percent succeed into the second generation, and only 15 percent survive into the third.

Surprisingly, success can kill a family business. When companies hit a certain sales level, they attract larger corporations who woo the family with promises of taking the company to the “next level.” Unfortunately, that really means wrestling control from the family and adding the company to the conglomerate’s list of latest acquisitions.

Families fight, of course, and those conflicts can also lead to dismantling or bankruptcy.

Why should we care that food companies keep it all in the family? As a fourth-generation soup-maker, I can tell you a family business has a unique culture. There are usually less layers of management and more opportunity for entrepreneurs to experiment and innovate. Sure, we don’t have the safety net of layers of bureaucracy to cushion the fall should we fail, but we also don’t have to deal with nameless, faceless managers who are only looking at the bottom line. (It’s tough to fire a family member, after all!)

Why should consumers care that there’s a Tabatchnick making Tabatchnick brand soups? When it comes to doing business in a family company, everything is personal – and that means meeting a customer’s expectations.

My name is on that package, and my father’s name, my grandfather’s name, my great-grandfather’s name. I create the recipes, choose the ingredients, I taste it, season it, taste it again. Not many national brands have a son or father or uncle or grandmother hovering in the production plant. We do.

"We’ve all heard the saying, “It’s not personal – it’s business. For family food companies like mine, it’s both." -CEO of Tabatchnick Fine Foods, Ben Tabatchnick

Family businesses bring a personal touch. They’re smaller, they usually have one or just a few locations, so you know where and how a product is made.

Have lunch at a mom-and-pop restaurant in your town, then drive down the street and have dinner at Applebee’s. Is it the same? No. Is one better than the other? Well, the diner’s family owners create the menu, source the food and are in the kitchen making sure every plate that goes out meets customers’ expectations. Does a national chain have that same standard of personal commitment and connection?

The bottom line is the bottom line isn’t the main concern for most family food companies. My company and others like it take personal pride in every product, and a failure in business means more than a financial loss. It’s a blow to family pride and tradition.

We’ve all heard the saying, “It’s not personal – it’s business.” For family food companies like mine, it’s both, and this Thanksgiving, I’ll be giving thanks that my family-owned, family-run company has been able to keep it that way.

Ben Tabatchnick is CEO of Tabatchnick Fine Foods, founded by Louis Tabatchnick in Newark, NJ as a chain of restaurants in 1895, followed by the company in 1905. Tabatchnick produces 30 flavors of frozen and shelf-stable aseptic soups and broths that don't require refrigeration. The company also has been a true pioneer in the development of healthful foods for needy populations. In the US, Tabatchnick provides high-protein soups, snacks and drinks to school systems, homeless shelters and soup kitchens. In the Third World, starvation-ravaged populations benefit from nutritional supplements and foods developed by Tabatchnick and its partners.