Rabbit stew big to fail.

COURTESY: METRO - Portland's dynamic foodie culture has propelled Geoff Latham's Nicky USA to success, supplying a broad variety of proteins to the regions restaurants.

Geoff Latham founded his meat supply company, Nicky USA, in 1990, seeking to provide local restaurants with rabbit and quail sourced from local farms. Twenty-five years later, the list of offerings, as well as the staff, is expanded. Now Nicky USA, with its main operations on Portland’s historic Produce Row and its own farm near Aurora in Marion County, is one of the region’s main players in the popular farm-to-table movement.

The success of Latham’s business, and others like it, is tied with the success of the region’s thriving food scene as well as with the success of newer, sustainable farms and ranches here and around the state. As the region continues to grow, Latham sees opportunities as well as challenges ahead.

Why did you choose to live in this region?

I grew up in Sherwood and I went to college at Oregon State. I got a job in Idaho selling potatoes. That didn’t work out so I decided to come home and start my own company 25 years ago. I knew I wanted to move back to Portland. I like the culture here. I like having the ability to go to eastern Oregon, to the coast, to the valley – it’s all here – and I like having four seasons.

What did Nicky Farms start out doing? What has it evolved into?

Nicky USA is the corporation that I founded in January 1990. I was working at night as a waiter out in Durham, and I was still trying to export at the time, but the emphasis on survival kicked in and so I started selling rabbits. I went a couple years, didn’t pay myself anything. I just knew I wanted to work for myself, and I knew I was born to sell food off the land.

Then what happened was back in the early ‘90s, we had the turning point of Portland’s food scene. It was 1994, exactly, when five great chefs who were all big allies of mine said, 'Hey, you need to do more than just sell rabbits around town, you’ve got to be finding other stuff, and do it like they do in New York. Come tell people about your rabbit and tell people about the quail that you brought to market.'

Over the last 20 years we’ve added virtually any type of protein that you could find in the region like bison, water buffalo or elk. We founded Nicky Farms about six years ago. That’s the next phase of this business. Nicky Farms is our brand. It’s the products that we either have raised for us or that we process in our processing plant. We work with about three dozen small family farms here in Oregon that are raising great products that end up being processed and marketed by us.

So what is the state of your industry?

My industry’s going very well. What’s happening for me is that I think that the age of my customer, chefs and kitchen managers, has also gone from somebody, when I first started that might have been 40 to 50, is now 30 to 40, probably, somebody that is more of our target market of somebody that’s going to be open to trying new products, expanding their menu. I mean, we don’t have just a dozen or two, we’ve got dozens of really talented people in kitchens here in Portland now – it’s a growing customer base and it’s growing pretty rapidly.

How many employees do you have? Are you hiring more?

We have about 49 people right now. We’ve been averaging between 50 and 55 between Portland and Seattle. We have four people in Seattle right now and then we have a dayshift and a swing shift here. We have job postings for both cities right now going, just trying to find the right applicants.

We have customer service, we have sales people, we have marketing department, we have an IT department now, we’ve got accounts receivable and accounts payable and purchasing. And then we’ve got a production facility here, so that means a production manager, production assistant, we’ve got sanitation people, we’ve got meat-cutters and baggers, we have inventory specialists, drivers, warehouse managers. It’s the whole gamut.

Can you find the employees you need?

It’s hit or miss. There are some government programs that we’ve never looked into before but we’re going to start utilizing, to help train a person to go from entry-level to somebody that’s fluent in data capture and inventory management. This is a new thing for our company this year, going all-digital, and a huge investment.

It is a family business, still, but my wife and I are in the process of delegating more to staff. We can’t keep it all in our heads anymore. So we’ve recently hired an HR person that’s coming in. We’re looking at doing a lot of neat things for employee retention, because it is an issue that is really important to us, to retain the people that we’ve trained.

As we grow, because we are going to keep growing. We are looking at things like 401(k) plans for the first time ever. We’re looking at disability insurance because of an issue that came up this year with an employee that got sick. We’re increasing our paid vacation package that we’re giving people, and I hope to be the first to meet the $15 minimum wage requirement. We’re trying a lot of things to stay a leader in our industry, and to attract people to our company to help us grow it.

What are the barriers to doing business here? What public investments or policies would help your business in the future?

In the area where we’re located is getting so dense, for me to stay, there has to be a decision about parking made, otherwise businesses like mine aren’t going to be able to survive. It’s a critical area for the city, an area that’s going to be the focus of development for the next 10 to 20 years. Right now I pay $2,000 a year for parking permits for my employees, but this coming year, they won’t be valid across the street from my business. Luckily, thanks to the amount of bike (routes) in Southeast Portland, about 15 of my employees can bike to work, but something still has to be done about the development and the effect that’s having on parking in the area right now.

Interview by Justin Sherrill.

Contract Publishing

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