The response to COVID-19 has impacted businesses in various sectors differently. Healthcare providers are taxed due to an increasing demand for care, while government mandates have forced many businesses to close or shift operations in some fashion. Seltzer’s Smokehouse Meats, Palmyra, has seen an uptick in demand for its products.
As a food manufacturer, Seltzer’s is considered a “life-sustaining” business and may operate its physical plant. “We’re seeing a spike in demand right now. Our first big week was about two weeks ago,” said Jason Heilman, Seltzer’s marketing manager and key account sales person.
He said Seltzer’s products, which include all-beef Lebanon Bologna, Sweet Lebanon Bologna and beef sticks, are available nationwide. However the “bulk of what we do is local.”
“Our name is what people connect with,” said Heilman. “We find that folks outside our main market area who purchase our products are mostly transplants—people who lived in the area and have moved to other areas. Among those areas are Arizona and Florida.”
“We’re also seeing growth in the Carolinas. That area has become a tech area, and people are relocating there from our region.”
He said demand for Seltzer’s products, which include all-beef Lebanon Bologna, Sweet Lebanon Bologna and beef sticks, is usually relatively steady. There is a slight uptick in demand over the summer and over the holidays. “Over the summer, people make more sandwiches or have barbecues and may bring bologna snacks. With the holidays, bologna may be served as an hors d’oeuvre,” he explained, “We’ve also had about a dozen varieties of direct-to-customer distribution (such as online orders for holiday packs).”
Seltzer’s production begins in a plant in Lebanon where raw meat—premium quality lean beef— is received and prepared with the company’s special blend of savory spices and seasonings. Butcher and company founder Harvey Seltzer created the recipe in 1902, and it’s been handed down through the generations. Heilman said after the spices and seasonings are added, the beef mixture is then transported to the Palmyra plant where it’s put in a casing. A stocking net is then placed over the bologna and it’s sent to a wood-fired smokehouse to cure. Hardwood to fire the smokehouse comes from a local lumber yard’s trimmings.
He explained that a smoke master is on-premises 24-hours a day while there’s a fire going. The smoking process can last two to three days; the smoke master determines the proper timing based on temperature of the fire, ph of the bologna, and time it’s been in the smokehouse.
After bologna is removed from the smokehouse, it can be packed. It may be stored prior to packing. “At the packing stage is where we have two separate areas—bologna may be pre-sliced and packaged or it can be packed as a deli piece—a larger piece that’s in a grocer’s deli, and deli staff slice to order,” Heilman explained, “The bulk of what we provide to our customers is used at the deli counter.”
“We’re very traditional and hands-on. That’s good, but in times like these when we’re experiencing a sudden surge in demand, it can be a challenge,” he said, “What makes it a bit more challenging is that the demand right now is mainly for pre-sliced pre-packaged bologna. I think it’s happening because more people and families are now at home, and also because some grocers are shifting deli counter service.”
One of those grocers is Weis Markets. Dennis Curtin, Weis Markets director of public relations, wrote in a March 30 email: “Limiting customer touch points has also been a big priority for us. We’ve temporarily shut down our salad, hot food and soup bars as a precaution. In bakery, we are temporarily stopping the sale of all loose bakery products i.e. individual rolls, bagels and donuts. All baked product will be packaged. In addition, to ensure customer and associate safety, our delis no longer offer sliced to order meats and cheeses. Rather, we are pre-slicing deli meats and cheeses and putting them in our deli cases. We continue to make pizza, fried chicken and rotisserie chicken”.
Curtin added that staff has also been diligently cleaning and sanitizing Weis stores on an hourly basis when they are open and for two additional hours after closing (stores are now open 7 a.m. to 9 p.m.). “We do this, and more, every day to ensure the safety of our customers and associates,” he wrote.
Heilman said Seltzer’s is also focused on safety of its staff and customers. “As a food manufacturer we’re focused on GMP (Good Manufacturing Practices) with regard to food safety and cleaning. It’s even more important now,” he said.
Seltzer’s employs 55 people including truck drivers. Typically the bulk of the manufacturing is done from 7 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Monday through Friday with a second shift for sanitation as well as a smoke master through second and third shifts. To meet the increased demand for pre-sliced pre-packaged bologna, production has increased to 12-hour shifts 7-days a week, and the smoking practice continues to go round the clock. “We have a fantastic staff, and they’ve been very flexible and willing to adapt to the changes. The fact that all this is hand done with our traditional time-taking methods is particularly difficult to scale,” Heilman explained.
He said Seltzers anticipates adding about 10 people to its roster to help meet the increased demand and is working with temporary staffing agencies to fill that need. “Our people have special skills that are difficult enough to teach others under typical circumstances. That makes rapid expansion to keep up with demand particularly challenging,” he said, “What we do is definitely considered manufacturing, and that’s not something that everyone is suited for. But we have found some great temporary staff, and we continue to look for a few more people”
In addition to adding some temporary workers, Heilman said Seltzer’s has also staggered break times for staff. He said it’s a response to the COVID-19 social distancing guidelines—by staggering break times, the break room is not as crowded and staff can spread out.
“I think all of us are pleased to be working right now, but we also feel a greater sense of responsibility. Responsibility to keep ourselves and our families safe and healthy, and a responsibility to continue to provide a quality food product to our community,” Heilman said.
Looking for Seltzer’s products near you? Check your local deli counter or visit their online store here.
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This post was updated to clarify the reference to “GMP,” or Good Manufacturing Practices.