April 25, 2011

Anyone who has ever moved into a new home knows what a disruptive experience that can be. For a business that has to continue operating during the move, the headaches are many times worse, said Georgeann Quealy, president of Integrative Flavors.

The long-time Michigan City business recently completed its move from a small, 6,700-square-foot building on Cook Street not far from Blue Chip Casino, Hotel & Spa in Michigan City, to a 28,000-square-foot facility on U.S. 12 in Pines Township, just west of Michigan City.

Integrative Flavors has been around since 1938, starting in Chicago and later in Gary before moving to Michigan City in 1982. The company specializes in food bases and during World War II provided bouillon for C rations. A thank you letter from the Army is framed and on display in lobby.

Today, Integrative Flavors provides food bases and flavorings to chefs, restaurants, hotels, schools and other food providers around the country.

Quealy said the company was known as Williams, Witt & West when it started. Later it was purchased by Elwood and Donald Carr, two brothers who had been bellhops at the former Spalding Hotel in Michigan City. The Carrs owned the business and were about to retire when Quealy’s parents bought the business in 1981.

Her parents, Victor and Dorothy Palmer, took over a business that had just two employees. At its peak in World War II, it had more than 100 employees. Today, Quealy says Integrative Flavors (an Indiana Certified Women Business Enterprise) has 15 employees, but that could expand as the company looks to enter new markets.

Now that Integrative Flavors is in a larger building with room to expand, Quealy said the company can begin going after customers it couldn’t previously because it simply didn’t have the space to expand production.

“The old building was a real Rubik’s Cube,” she said. “We had walk-in coolers and we had to constantly move things out in order to move things in. It wasn’t an efficient way to operate.”

In the new building, there is a huge drive-in cooler, along with a separate freezer. There is plenty of room to not only rotate stock, but to bring in new deliveries without having to move anything out in order to make room.

“I went to work for my parents in 1990 and Brian was doing public accounting and came over in 1995. We bought it in 2005 and changed the name to Integrative Flavors and moved here last August,” said Quealy, whose degree from Indiana University is in radio and television.

“We’re making a move similar to what my parents did when they bought the business. When my dad called me and told me he bought a small company I thought it was a midlife crisis,” said Quealy. “I wondered what soup base was. At first, I thought he said toothpaste.”

Among the many offerings Integrative Flavors has for its customers are soup bases for seafood, chicken, ham, pork, turkey and beef. There are low sodium products, vegetarian and vegan bases, dry bases, organic products, all natural products and gluten free products. In all, Integrative Flavors has over 100 different bases it provides to its customers.

While Integrative Flavors has a very small retail niche, which is sold under the Cook’s Delight brand at places like Valueland and Meijer, most of its soup base goes to major food manufacturers whose products show up on the grocery store. It’s also used by restaurant chains like Red Lobster, Steak & Shake, Panera Bread and Applebee’s.

Even though Integrative Flavors didn’t complete its move until last August, Quealy said the company began looking in 2007 and decided on the former Palatek building in 2009. For nearly a year, remodeling took place to convert it into a food processing facility.

“It was truly an exercise in doing the next step one at a time instead of focusing on the big picture,” said Quealy. “We had to break it down on what we had to do right now. It could get overwhelming doing this building and running a business if you didn’t take it one step at a time.”

Quealy and her husband, Brian, who is vice president, said the move wouldn’t have been possible without the help of their employees and also friends and family. Their two children, Aidan, a sophomore at Indiana University, and Kiera, a sophomore at Chesterton High School, also helped with the move.

“We evaluated expanding the old location, but it wasn’t feasible,” said Quealy. “Our plan with sales and marketing now that we have space is we’re starting to see some new customers. We’re getting some business we couldn’t before. Within five years I would like to add one or two people a year so we can fill those 30 parking places we have out in the lot.”

Brian Quealy said the business is also trying to address the seasonality of many of its products. “We’re busiest in the fourth quarter. We’re developing products that are seasonal other times of the year. For instance, we just developed a line of rubs and we’re talking to a customer about pudding mixes. We couldn’t do that before.”

But as Integrative Flavors has grown, so too, has the scrutiny by the Food and Drug Administration and government inspectors. It is a daunting process, said Georgeann Quealy, but it’s a necessary one. “And you don’t get a break just because you’re small. We have to follow the same rules as the big companies like Hormel and ConAgra do,” said Quealy.

“When I first came to work here in 1990, my mother did everything – the office and regulatory compliance. Now we have six people doing the same thing my mom was doing,” said Quealy. “Last year we hired a Quality Assurance Manager full time just to do the regulatory compliance paperwork.”

“We’re USDA inspected and they’re here every day we’re processing meat. We’re FDA inspected and they could pop in whenever they want. We’re third party inspected because we do work for Nestle and Heinz and they have their own set of rules on what they want to see. Our customers require paperwork from us because they’re being inspected.”

Brian Quealy said the amount of oversight and paperwork has increased gradually over the years, but it’s still a huge responsibility.

Georgeann Quealy said she likes to sit in with the inspectors, which takes away from her other responsibility, but she is slowly turning that responsibility over to her new Quality Assurance Manager.

One of the things Georgeann and Brian do is travel to trade shows three or four times a year to get the word out on Integrative Flavors. “We just got back from the Boston Seafood Show where we met up with customers there,” said Georgeann. “We also go to the Research Chefs Association annual show. It was in Atlanta this year. It’s a very good group for us to belong to. There is a listserve in the group where chefs will put out what they’re looking for and other members will tell them how to source it. That is an excellent resource to generate leads.

“We have to target our advertising money. In a huge magazine, it is possible no one will see you, but if we target where we want to go, like with the chefs, it’s a lot more successful.”

By working with the chefs, said Brian, Integrative Flavors has had it products featured on the Home Shopping Network and its seafood base used in the clam chowder and lobster bisque served at Augusta National Golf Course.

“It’s a real benefit for us to go to those meetings as well as to our local chamber meetings where we learn about what’s going on here. Everyone needs to become more aware of what is going on here in our backyard.”

Learn more about Integrative Flavors here.