It’s cold. About 43 degrees, somewhere between chilly and freezing. It even smells cold. Not crisp and cold, like a snowy night, but stale and cold, like inside a refrigerator or freezer.
It’s loud, too. Forklifts back up with a beep, beep. Doors whoosh open and slam shut. Motors whir on packing machines and grinders and tenderizers. It’s a staccato rhythm, unbalanced. Every so often a high-pitched squeal pierces the room as band saw hits bone. Joe Gaither stands behind that band saw, cutting T-bones. He’s done this for 24 years, and he has a routine. On Monday through Thursday, Gaither pulls into the parking lot of Southern Foods on Old Battleground Road in northern Greensboro. He swipes his pass that unlocks the door to the building. He wears two shirts: a gray, long-sleeve waffle-knit underneath a faded, red polo. He pulls on a black, cotton jacket with fleece lining. He puts a hairnet over his clean-shaven head (that’s the rule) and another over his chin and mouth to cover his goatee. He places a blue hard hat with the Certified Angus Beef logo on his head. He slips on a white, knee-length butcher’s coat and snaps it down the front. Then he steps onto a black mat filled with a bleach solution that kills any bacteria lingering on his heavy, black work shoes. He’s ready to enter the meat room.
He pushes back the floor-length pieces of clear plastic that hang in the doorway and walks in. It’s cold.
Inside, he continues to add layers. He hangs a white, plastic apron around his neck and ties it in the back. Then a white, cloth apron covered in stains goes on top. He steps over to a small pump by the door and sanitizes his hands. Then he pulls on cloth safety gloves. He blows inside a pair of blue, latex gloves and stretches those on, too.
His shift starts at 11 a.m. It’s Thursday, the busiest day of the week, so he’ll be here until 9:30 or 10 tonight, cutting T-bones. His first restaurant order of the day is from The Peddler Steak House in Boone. The chef there wants Certified Angus Beef, top of the line. Gaither heaves beef loins onto his cutting table. The band saw rings as he slides one through, lopping off individual T-bones and leaving streaks of fat on the blade. When he gets a stack of four or five, he throws each one onto the scale. He’s shooting for 20 ounces. He trims fat from the edges with a skinny, sharp knife and weighs it again.
“You can’t be perfect all the time,” Gaither says. “But 99 percent of the time, you usually hit it.”
The scale reads 20.00. And Gaither moves on.
Joe Gaither and Southern Foods are the middle step. They make up the largely unseen process of how our food gets from the farm to the restaurant to our plate.
We’re not crazy about middle steps. We prefer beginnings and endings. We celebrate marriages with weddings and mourn deaths with funerals. But all those days in between run together. They seem mundane. They’re necessary — you can’t have a beginning or an ending without the middle — but they’re not as exciting.
In today’s food-conscious world, consumers visit farms to see pigs in pastures and chickens running loose. They pride themselves on knowing that their pork chop was once a pig that ate grass or that their chicken breast was once a hen that roamed free. Restaurants gain credibility from diners by listing places of origin on their menus — bonus points for displaying chalk boards right up front. But no one ever asks about the middle.
“Restaurants like to be able to tell a local story,” Jim Nussbaum says.
Nussbaum’s in charge of sourcing and purchasing protein products, such as beef and pork. His father, Vic Nussbaum Jr., started Southern Foods in 1954.
Next year, the Greensboro-based company will celebrate 60 years of business. For almost six decades, Southern Foods has been that middle step. The company sources meat and specialty products; performs custom processing; and ships orders throughout North Carolina, Virginia, South Carolina, eastern Tennessee, and northern Georgia.
It’s a local, family-owned company that supports small farms and independent restaurants. So why isn’t it listed on menus and chalk boards? Why aren’t restaurants telling people that they get their beef and seafood, and specialty oils, cheeses, and chocolates from Southern Foods?
One reason we gloss over the middle and skip straight to the end is because the middle step is often long and complicated.
The history of Southern Foods is a good example.
Vic Nussbaum Jr. started the business in 1954 as a home-delivery service. He hired someone for delivery and someone for the office. He bought a used pick-up truck and knocked on doors and asked people if he could supply the meat for their homes. They agreed. Eight families signed up in the first few weeks. Families bought Southern Foods freezers from Nussbaum, and then deliverymen stocked the freezers full of whatever meat they ordered every four to six months.
At first, Nussbaum contracted a butcher shop to fill the orders. But within six months, he had his own meat shop. Two years into business, he built an 8,000-square-foot building in the current location. Over the years, as the company grew, Nussbaum extended the building. Today, the headquarters of Southern Foods is shaped like a megaphone, the old part of the structure opening up to newer additions.
As restaurants learned about Nussbaum’s business and the quality of his products, they began purchasing meat from Southern Foods. And in the 1980s, as eating out became commonplace instead of out of the ordinary, Southern Foods’s role as a source for restaurants grew. It now carries the tagline, “Supplier to Fine Restaurants.”
Nussbaum believed in serving the community that supported him. He served as the mayor of Greensboro for eight years and as a member of the city council for an additional six. He teamed with a Lutheran church to sponsor a group of Montagnards, emigrants from the mountains of Vietnam, providing them with jobs and housing. Many of them, and members of their families, still work for Southern Foods. The Nussbaum name is on the Red Cross blood center, community foundation, and home for single mothers. Nussbaum was generous with his fortune. He established a profit-sharing program at Southern Foods, where one-third of the company’s annual profits went back to its employees.
Jim Nussbaum remembers sitting down with his father and three brothers after Thanksgiving to write the checks. They included a personal note on the back of each one. They signed checks to employees for thousands of dollars apiece.
In the mid- to late-1990s, Southern Foods had 550 employees.
“Five-hundred fifty were stellar, and the other five were Nussbaums,” Jim Nussbaum says.
He’s half-kidding, but there’s some truth behind his self-inflicted jab. Vic Nussbaum Jr. died in 2001 and left company operations to his four sons. By 2005, the Nussbaum sons were looking to sell. Four men with four sets of opinions were too much for one company. First they sold the home-sales division to a company in Atlanta, where Southern Foods at Home is still in business. Then in 2009, they sold the restaurant-distribution side of Southern Foods to an investment group.
“It was a huge mistake,” Jim Nussbaum says.
The company defaulted on the sale, so the Nussbaums had two options: find a new buyer for Southern Foods or watch the business close. They found a fit. Pate Dawson, a 125-year-old family-run food distribution company in Goldsboro purchased Southern Foods in 2010.
“I’d much rather have done the first deal with Pate Dawson and skipped all the heartache,” Jim Nussbaum says.
Some steps are surer than others.
Pate Dawson, run by the Sullivan family, works with everyday staples, such as French fries and ketchup, flour and sugar. It’s the primary supplier for all the Bojangles’ stores in the country. Now with Southern Foods and Pate Dawson together, restaurants can purchase specialty items, such as Certified Angus Beef T-bones, and menu staples, such as chicken tenders, all from one company.
It takes awhile for one company to familiarize itself with another. But in this case, Pate Dawson had a crew of long-tenured Southern Foods employees to lean on.
“They told them from the start, ‘If you need to know anything about this whole place, you ask Jim Robb,’ ” says Jim Robb, smiling with pride underneath his handlebar mustache. Robb’s title is fleet manager. He oversees the maintenance on Southern Foods’ 30 delivery trucks. He also takes care of any improvements or repairs on the 140,000-square-foot building. A couple of months ago he remodeled the break rooms and some new employees’ offices. This afternoon he’s pricing new carpet for the office lobby. (He thinks something in “Southern Foods blue” would look nice.) While he was moving furniture around, he found a stain on someone’s office floor, so he offered to bring in the carpet steamer from his motor home in the parking lot. About a year ago, Robb decided to drive his motor home up from Grays Chapel, about 26 miles away, and park it here during the week. It saves him about $700 a month on gas. And it’s a plus for Southern Foods. If anything comes up at any hour of the night, Robb takes care of it. Last night a truck arrived at 2 a.m. with a flat tire. Robb changed it and sent the driver on his way.
Robb started working at Southern Foods 37 years ago. His neighbor was the plant manager and asked him to talk to Vic Nussbaum. At that time, Southern Foods had six trucks and offered to build Robb a one-bay shop to work on them.
“I told them they’d never have enough for me to do,” Robb says. So he kept working for other tractor-trailer companies on the side. By the early 1990s, Southern Foods had 65 home-service trucks and 25 tractor-trailers for Robb to keep running.
“Mr. Nussbaum never let me forget those words,” Robb says.
Robb is 66 years old, so last year, he tried partial retirement, only coming in three days a week. But last November they asked him to come back full-time. He said yes and started living in the parking lot.
“They call me the superhero,” Robb says. “I don’t think it’s amazing. I just do what I do.”
Robb’s been working for Southern Foods a long time, but not the longest.
Sue James moved from Indiana to North Carolina with her family when she was in high school. Her father worked for Chrysler, and when Chrysler got into racing, the company sponsored someone named Richard Petty.
James graduated from Smith High School in 1972 and took a position with Southern Foods that same year at age 17. She started as Nussbaum’s secretary.
“I’ve done pretty much every job in the office,” James says. Her current title, after 41 years here, is business analyst. “People in the ’50s, once you got a job, you were dedicated to that job and stayed there.”
James can’t speak of Vic Nussbaum without tearing up. She’s become the company’s de facto historian. She has VHS tapes and DVDs of company happenings through the years. Those rocky steps in the mid-2000s scared her, but she stuck with Southern Foods.
“Mr. Nussaum taught me a lot about who I am,” she says. She remembers one of his favorite mantras: “Don’t do something because somebody tells you; you have to have a purpose.”
Every move Bill Mutton makes has a purpose.
“Are you coming to the meeting?” the director of human resources calls into his office.
“Yeah,” Mutton says. “It’s at 11:30, right? It’s 11:28. I have two minutes.”
When Pate Dawson purchased Southern Foods, the company hired Bill Mutton as president. Mutton’s full of energy. The 53-year-old talks quickly in a New York accent. He has a green chalk board in his office with the days of the week written across the top in pink chalk. Action plans printed off on computer paper line the side wall. An article from CNN Money hangs by the door; “Beef prices may hit record high in 2013,” the headline reads. His iPhone, which he checks often, has a Certified Angus Beef logo on the cover.
It’s Mutton’s job to see Southern Foods through this transition, to lead it back to the top of the industry.
Mutton is one of the newest employees; he’s been here less than three years. But he’s been in the food service industry, mastering this middle step, since high school. His father was the second generation in a meat distribution company in Buffalo, New York. Mutton began working in the ground-beef room during his summers off from school. He helped slice 400 pounds of raw beef liver every week. He scrubbed his hands with lemon juice to rid them of the smell. He still has his first paycheck for $2.10 an hour.
Mutton went on to run the company until 1997, when he sold it. He then made his way south, moving to Richmond and working for a national food distributor. But he traveled all the time, and missed his wife and son and daughter. When the company was sold, he received an attractive offer to leave, and he took it.
“I had a whole year of, ‘What do I want to be when I grow up?’ ” Mutton says. Then he got a call from the people at Pate Dawson, who invited this New York man to come to Greensboro to run a family business called Southern Foods. Mutton said yes.
And people like Sue James are glad he did.
“You can’t get any better than Bill,” James says. “Bill is the glue that keeps this place together.”
In April 2012, Southern Foods switched to a new computer system. The day the changeover was scheduled to take place, the power went out for seven hours. No one could cut meat, no one could package, no one could deliver to hundreds of restaurants. The power came on at 11 p.m.
Mutton and several office employees donned white coats, hairnets, aprons, and gloves, and worked until 10 a.m. helping the meat cutters fill orders. Then they went home, slept, and returned at 2 that afternoon.
Employees, some of whom had been wary of this new man with a new accent giving them new rules, came up to Mutton and thanked him for sticking it out that night.
“I’ll never forget that as long as I live,” Mutton says.
If Southern Foods is a family company, then it has to have one employee who plays the role of the crazy uncle. That’s executive chef Laurence Willard.
It’s Thursday afternoon. He’s late for a 4:30 appointment, but he says he’ll be here in 92 seconds. He rolls in wearing black, wrap-around sunglasses and a Wrangler jean shirt unbuttoned down the front to reveal a black T-shirt from Chinatown with a red dragon design. He flips through the stack of bills on his desk and snatches a water from the mini-fridge behind his chair. He’s exhausted.
Willard spent the last three days in Wilmington at an event called Competition Dining. A restaurant owner in Blowing Rock started the event several years ago to raise money for fire safety. Now the year-long, statewide event holds competitions in Blowing Rock, Asheville, Charlotte, Greensboro, Raleigh, and Wilmington. Chefs compete against one another in an “Iron Chef”-style event, and diners — who pay about $75 for a ticket — vote on the winner.
Southern Foods supplies all the ingredients for Competition Dining. It’s Willard’s job to stock the Southern Foods truck with ingredients and then act as “chef ref” throughout the evening.
“I try to keep it light,” Willard says. “And make sure everybody plays pretty.”
The event involves 80 restaurants and their chefs. About half of them are Southern Foods customers, and the other half are potential customers, Willard says. The Competition Dining event lets chefs see what Southern Foods has to offer. And last year, the event helped Southern Foods earn an award for Specialty Meat Company Marketer of the Year from the Certified Angus Beef organization. Southern Foods beat out 124 other distributors across the country for the title. The plaque now hangs in the front lobby.
Willard says one of the most difficult parts of his job as chef ref is to refrain from making suggestions and correcting someone’s technique.
But Willard’s suggestions come with 35 years of experience in the food industry. After graduating from Page High School in Greensboro, Willard attended Lees-McRae College in Banner Elk. But he became more interested in his part-time jobs in restaurants than his classes, so he decided to apply to the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York. He got in.
He spent the next eight years cooking for high-end restaurants and hotels, like the Four Seasons, in big cities, like San Antonio, Texas, and Washington, D.C. When he and his wife decided to return to North Carolina to be closer to their families, Willard went on a tour of Southern Foods. He remembered visiting the company’s small retail facility with his mom as a child.
“It was a big deal to come out here with Mom and get a leg of lamb before Easter or something,” Willard says.
The tour impressed him, so he took a position with Southern Foods in 1990. He spent half his time cutting fish and the other half breaking down carcasses in the hanging-meat shop that the company had at the time.
One day, a supplier couldn’t fill an order for bacon-wrapped scallops.
“I said, ‘We got bacon, we got scallops, and we got toothpicks,’ ” Willard says. That statement evolved into an hors d’oeuvre department and a niche industry of customized products for chefs.
“I’m an idea person,” Willard says. “I take it to the next level, bringing new ideas to the table.”
Willard helps chefs understand that Southern Foods can fulfill their needs. With his bold personality and culinary credentials to back it up, he’s a good front man. In this business, it takes someone like Willard to make people notice someone like Joe Gaither’s work. It’s easy to skip over the meat cutter because if he does his job right — if the T-bone is the right size, thickness, and tenderness — no one ever notices. But let him slip, let him cut one too thin or leave too much fat or fill the order one T-bone short, and someone will notice.
The same goes for Jim Robb with his trucks. Let one break down on a Friday and not make its delivery for the weekend rush. And the same for Sue James. Let her skip over one section on her analysis work sheet, so one department doesn’t run as efficiently as it should. And someone will notice.
You won’t find the names of Joe Gaither or Jim Robb or Sue James on any menu or chalk board. You won’t see Southern Foods listed, either. But next time you order a Certified Angus Beef T-bone at one of the finest restaurants in the state, take notice of how perfect it is. Its size, its tenderness, its flavor. And know that someone in a cold meat room in Greensboro is proud to have a hand in putting it on your plate.
To purchase tickets to an event, visit competitiondining.com.