Golden yellow is the natural color of a chicken . . . So don't wonder why my chickens are so yellow, wonder why some chickens are so white. (Holding up a competitor's chicken) I wonder where the yellow went?
So it's important to look for the Perdue name tag when you buy chicken parts . . . I'd steer clear of unidentified frying objects.
If you want to eat as good as my chickens, you'll just have to eat my chickens.
It takes a tough man to make a tender chicken. -- Frank Perdue
FRANK PERDUE had tossed his old camel's hair coat into the back seat. The sun coming through the opening in his Mercedes was warm, and even in the glare of midday, his tan stood out, just like the golden tan of his chickens. His right hand rested casually on the back of the passenger's seat. With his left hand, he made his points. With his left leg, he drove. It is times like this that are the genesis of the dry one-liners, the unidentified frying objects that are the trademark of his commercials.
"The union's got a real problem here," he was saying. "There was supposed to have been an election last October, Oct. 2, I think. Just before the election, they backed out. They didn't have the votes. Legally, the way they did it, was file charges of unfair labor practices against us. There were 11 charges. Nine were dismissed. Two were supposed to go to court, but we agreed to post a notice on the bulletin boards -- not as an admission of guilt, understand, but in hoping we could get an election and get it over with.
"They've been working 24 months to organize, maybe even close to 30 months now. That's a lot of parties and free beer and hot dogs and bus trips to the ballgame. That's a lot of money."
He says the unionization is being waged for dollars. The union says it's for job security. They say he's an anachronism. They wrote a song about him: Frank Perdue is a tough old bird, Cannot keep abreast of things, And if he won't unionize, We'll have to clip his wings.
"Nah, it's money," he's saying. "If they win the election, they'll get a half-million a year in union dues. I think that's right. They get $12 per month from every worker. That's $144 a year.Through our five plants, there are about 4,000 people -- doesn't that come out to at least a half-million a year?"
Perdue seems to relax the more he talks. These have not been the easiest times for him. He has been fighting the union for two years now, and fighting the Great Chicken War of New York for five. The Chicken War had not been hurting him much until a couple of months ago when West Side Poultry, a wholesaler in New York, filed a $35 million damage suit against him, quickly followed by another suit, this one filed by the Justice Department, charging him with unfair trade practices. The Justice Department said he had threatened to cut off the supply of Perdue chickens if wholesalers sold Cookin' Good and Perdue. In other words, all or nothing.
"That's patently untrue. All distributors handle other brands. Most of them handle two to six brands, not just mine."
Legally, the Justice Department said he cannot demand that of a distributor or wholesaler. Short of that, he demands.
"When my truck pulls in," he says, "I expect it to be unloaded. Some distributors -- and I'm not talking about West Side at all, this has nothing to do with them -- but some distributors let themselves get caught with four or five supermarkets having sales on chicken at one time. So they all want big orders. And the distributor can't handle it. Now that's just a bad businessman. Their coolers get full and they're backed up and they'll use your truck for a cooler. They hold one of my trucks four hours, and it can cost me $75,000.
"We're more demanding on credit, too. We expect payment within a certain number of days. We expect it sooner than other shippers." That's no more than what Perdue does in return. When a farmer brings in a load of corn or soybeans to his grain mill, if he gets it to the mill by 11 at night, Perdue guarantees the check will be in the mail at 7 the next morning.
"Sometimes, they substitute another product for mine. A retailer will ask for my chicken and the distributor will sell him somebody's else's because he can make more money. I had a distributor in the Delmarva area who was charging four cents over his cost on the other brands and 13 cents more for mine. If the other brand is coming in at 42 cents a pound and going out a 46, and mine are coming in at 42 or 43 and going out at 55, that's too much. The housewife will pay more for my chicken, but not 13 cents a pound."
The meat business has always had its cutthroats. In New York and Philadelphia, payoffs were commonplace, and the lines of ownership often ended up at the front gate of a Long Island organized crime figure. A retailer might not want to know whom he was doing business with.
"Sure, I've been asked for payoffs. A fella in New York wanted money under the table, a meat buyer for 10 stores in Brooklyn. This was 10, 11 years ago, when we were first going into New York. I said I'd sure like to see them selling Perdue, and this fella said to me, "That can be arranged, Mr. Perdue. But, uh, I don't make enough money.' I refused. Absolutely."
But demand, yes.
"And I'll tell ya what, we haven't been demanding enough about getting our trucks unloaded. And we're going to."
The question is, how tough do you have to be to make a tender chicken?
Until the mid-1800s it was difficult keeping chickens around. They'd wander off, and the predators would wander in. Then came the invention of chicken wire and voila! the chicken-and-egg business. With the Perdues, at least, the eggs came first.
Back in 1920, Frank's father, Arthur Perdue, built his first chicken house, acquired 50 white leghorns and began producing table eggs. Arthur began teaching the business to his son when he was 10. His son's visions, though, were not of double-yolk eggs; more than anything, he wanted to play baseball in the big leagues. Those visions vanished with the eventual realization that he wasn't even a good-field, no-hit infielder. "I was average-field, no-hit." In 1939, at the age of 19, he came back to Salisbury and went into business with his father. Perdue Farms consisted of Frank, his father and the hired man.
Following nature's inevitable process, the Perdues ended up hatching their eggs and selling chickens, though these weren't white leghorns anymore. Leghorns are of Italian ancestry and lay white eggs. North American chickens lay brown eggs. Since we're on the subject, South American chickens lay blue eggs, but the American housewife doesn't know that and doesn't care. All she knows is that she wants white eggs. Once cracked and in the pan, she can't tell a brown egg from a white egg. Can't taste the difference, either. That's the reason Frank Perdue isn't selling eggs. "There's no latitude from a good egg to an average egg. The housewife can't tell 'em apart. But there's a big difference in chickens."
It was live chickens the Perdues were selling then, most of them going to meat packers like Armour and Swift, and even though the Perdues weren't processing their own chickens their business was growing bigger, more profitable and expanding into other subsidiary areas. The expansion was a way of increasing profit. Never, though, did Arthur Perdue borrow money to expand. "His father owed money all his life," Frank says."He was an old man when he finally paid off his last debt.I think that had a profound affect on Dad." Frank was willing to borrow a buck or two, but not before he'd thought about it a lot.
Nonetheless, they continued to expand, and in 1958 they decided to build their own feed mill. "At first, we were going to build half a mill. Then we went ahead with the whole thing," Frank says. The farmers on the Delmarva peninsula reckoned if Arthur Perdue, who was in his 70s then, was confident enough in the chicken business to build his own feed mill, then it was time to get in. "That catapulted us," Frank said.
All of this made Athur Perdue and his son rich. It did not make them household words. That was yet to come.
"My husband and I used to have a restaurant down the road 'bout 10, 12 miles," Thelma Bayly was saying, "and we always used Esskay chickens. Esskay's out of Baltimore. They were a good chicken. But whenever we were havin' some people in for somethin' special, some money people who, you know, were puttin' on the dog, I'd have my brother drive over to Salisbury to get Perdue chickens. It was 58 miles there, 58 back. So you know what I thought of Perdue's chickens."
Thelma Bayly operates the cafetria at Perdue's processing plant in Accomac, Va. Processing is the official term; what it is is a slaughterhouse. Every day, a quarter of a million chickens with no heads pass before Perdue's workers on their way to and from the automatic neck breaker and the lung gun, and in the midst of this day, the workers go into Thelma Bayly's cafeteria for lunch.
Amzingly enough, they order chicken.
Fried chicken, roast chicken, chicken and dumplings, chicken creole, chicken pot pie, chicken salad, chicken, chicken. In Thelma Bayly's cafeteria, Perdue chicken outsells beef 4 to 1, outsells fish 5 to 2.
"Why, of course," Thelma said. "That's why I sent my brother 58 miles one way and 58 miles back to get Perdue chickens."
In 1971, Frank Perdue had this idea.
The poultry business had always been extremely competitive, without the price supports or regulations of the government. What sold a chicken was its price, pure and simple. If Perdue was selling his chickens at 21 3/4 cents, someone else might try to sell at 21 1/2 to undercut him. Quality meant meant next to nothing to the big processors, only to Thelma Bayly.
But Frank Perdue thought if he could convince the housewife that his chickens were better than the southern chicken, he could sell his at a premium price. The place was New York. "If anybody would pay a premium, I thought New Yorkers would."
That's how he came to Madison Avenue, carrying in his wallet a quotation from Alexander Hamilton:
Men give me some credit for some genius. All the genius I have lies in this. When I have a subject in hand I study it profoundly. Day and night it is before me. I explore it in all its bearings. My mind becomes pervaded with it. Then the effort which I have made is what people are pleased to call the fruits of genius. It is the fruit of labor and thought.
He went to 46 advertising agencies before finding Ed McCabe, a copywriter at Scali, McCabe and Sloves, and he hounded McCabe until finally McCabe told him, "You know, you're a pain in the a-- and I'm not sure we want your account." Perdue, though, decided he wanted McCabe. They spent six months talking trying to find the way to sell chickens. McCabe knew the whole idea of selling chickens on TV was funny, but Perdue saw no humor in it at all. He kept telling McCabe, "Food isn't funny." McCabe told him people would be laughing. They'd have to make their point while they were laughing. The question was how.
"In retrospect," says McCabe, "it seems so easy and obvious, but it wasn't." The idea came like the print on photographic paper, slowly developing, slowly, slowly and then -- there it was. He'd put Perdue in the commercials.
A funny-looking man, with a funny-sounding voice, a deadpan expression, selling chickens on TV. With conviction.
Perdue appreciated the concept immediately. But for someone else. The more he thought about it, the more reservations he had. He looked around and the only people doing their own commercials were used-car salesmen. "He had a big ego and didn't want to embarrass himself," McCabe said. Perdue had always been terribly shy, a poor speaker, and frankly just didn't want to make himself a laughing stock.
"I'll know if it works after I see the first one," he said.
"You won't know even then," said McCabe. "I'll know."
McCabe doesn't think Perdue became convinced until the ripples of reaction began to hit him like waves on the Eastern shore. The commercials were a hit. His chicken was hot. He was a star.
Frank Perdue was beginning to revolutionize the chicken business.
The Great Chicken War of New York began about five years ago. At the time, Cookin' Good was selling 500,000 chickens a week in New York. Perdue was a big No. 1, Paramount was a distant No. 2, Cookin' Good close behind at No. 3. So Showell Farms, which produces Cookin' Good, went to Madison Avenue and hired the John Emmerling Agency, which, interestingly, also handled Avis. Scali, McCabe and Sloves and Hertz.Now Emmerling had Cookin' Good, and Scali, McCabe had Perdue.
Cookin' Good fired the first shot.
At the beginning of 1978, Cookin' Good passed Paramount. Then, Emmerling conducted a taste test against Perdue with 371 New Yorkers. It claimed 53.1 percent preferred Cookin' Good, 42.1 percent preferred Perdue. "You know, Frank," said the voice on Cookin' Good's commercials, "New York may just get to be a one-chicken town again."
Apparently, the Justice Department will paint a scenario of counterattack by Perdue, for they charged in court that Frank Perdue personally went to distributors who handled both Cookin' Good and Perdue and demanded that they drop Cookin' Good. Otherwise, he'd drop them.
In New York, distributors can't do without his chicken.
"The housewives demand it," says Milt Riegert. Riegert is the sales manager for Schnoll Distributors in New Jersey. "If it was A&P, say, and they said we're not gonna sell Perdue anymore, the housewives would go down to Waldbaums."
The housewives of New York believe with the faith of chicken. The grocers know it. Frank Gerano, the meat buyer for Dalessio's supermarkets in the Bronx, said they pay a penny or two pennies a pound more for Perdue than Cookin' Good. "We sell Perdue for 10 cents more," he said. They know the housewife will pay it.
So West Side Poultry had to have Perdue's chickens and, according to West Side's suit, when Perdue threatened to yank his chicken, West Side took him to court.
"If just happens," says Harry Factor, part owner of Grow Distributors, also in New York, "that I sell both Cookin' Good and Perdue and I'm not approached by Frank. Should I be different? I don't think so. If somebody came in here and told me I had to quit selling another brand or he'd take his away, I'd let him take his. Do I need that? I don't think so.Maybe with West Side, it's two personalities clashing. Maybe the wrong things were said at the wrong time."
Lenny Goldberg answers the phone. He's part owner of L&A.
"I don't talk about Frank Perdue," he says. He holds his hand over the phone. His partner, Lloyd Verner, picks up the extension. He's asked about Frank Perdue, and their relationship.
"Off the record?"
No, on the record.
"On the record, everybody in the industry had the same relationship with him," Verner says. From the tone of his voice, it doesn't sound like Verner and Perdue would share a cab.
"I don't want to talk about the (s.o.b.)."
Lloyd says L&A bought almost $4 million of chicken from Perdue last year.
"West Side [says it] had a bellyfull of trouble with Frank. I don't wany any trouble. My partner's going out the door right now and he's yelling at me to shut up. I ought to. The thing with West Side was two personalities going at each other, that's all. Frank isn't any better or any worse than any of the others and you ought to say that. You gotta be fair to Frank. For what Frank did with the chicken business, the rest of these producers ought to get down on their knees and --- -- ---. They're making a thousand to 4 thousand dollars more per trailer load because Frank Perdue taught 'em how to sell. He showed 'em how to get rich.
"We've had more problems than anybody in the industry with Frank, but we chose to fight it out between ourselves. West Side took him to court. But whatever Frank did to us, other producers did to us, too.
"Remember this, they're all bastards."
A few months ago, after a lot of union stories had been in the papers, Ed McCabe did some research of his own. He wanted to find out what kind of effect the negative stories were having on Frank Perdue's good name. A research company brought in 10 or 12 housewifes, showed television clips of the news stories, then asked them what they thought.
McCabe, sitting behind a one-way mirror, leaned forward to listen.
After several of the women had spoken, they came to this one particular housewife. "She said, 'I got the impression he cared more about his chickens than the people who work for him. That's when I realized I was buying the right chicken.' All the other women agreed."
Half of this group flew in from New York, the other half from Baltimore. They were meat buyers and retailers, mostly, along with some chicken farmers, come to see how Frank Perdue had become the king of chicken. They had begun early that morning in Accomac, watching mesmerized chickens coming into one end of the plant and being grabbed out of coops and hung by their heels on the conveyer, and 75 minutes later being packed in ice and shoved into a refrigerated truck -- not just hundreds or thousands of chickens, but tens of thousands an hour -- slit, plucked, gutted, trimmed, flooded and packed in ice at a rate that produces 1,300,000 chickens a week. And this is just in Accomac. Frank Perdue has five of these pluck 'em and pack 'em houses, one of them going 16 hours a day.
Then these retailers and distributors had been bussed across the state line into Maryland, to Salisbury, where Frank's father had begun in 1920 with 50 white leghorns and a chicken house out back, where they had been seated in the dining room of the Elks Club, for a solid hour and a half of chicken details. They were now talking "hatch rate" and "grow out" like they were everyday terms. They now knew more about chicken genetics than they'd believed existed. They'd heard from the chicken nutritionist on Perdue's $3 million-a-week food bill ("What we call chicken feed"); they'd seen 78,000 eggs rolled out of an incubator on a cart; they'd seen eggs crack open and life begin; they'd found out that if they'd grown as fast as Perdue's chicks they would have weighed 350 pounds at eight weeks. They'd seen chicken breasts before and after, and theirs, dissected and cross-sectioned ("We've taken the top side off this bird," said the speaker with the pointer, "much to his objection"). They'd been overwhelmed by details, numbers and, especially, percentages ("With some processors, as high as 30 percent of their giblet packages don't have hearts," the speaker said. "That's why ours are hand-packed. We made sure the housewife gets all the giblets. We run about 3 percent without hearts").
Before they'd gotten on the plane that morning, all of them had at least an idea what Frank Perdue's name meant in the industry. He'd revolutionized it. He'd put his name on his chickens. He'd guaranteed them. rAnd what they'd seen today only supported what they had come to believe, what Frank Perdue's commercials had been telling them for years: It takes a tough man to make a tender chicken.
Finally, after an hour-and-a-half warmup, with a reminder that Perdue Farms had never had a losing year, they called for that man with the familiar, funny face, the nasal voice, the 28-second star of television . . . Frank Perdue.
"Well, actually, we have had years where we've lost money on chickens." Silence. "Fortunately, we've made enough in soybeans and other things to get out of the red."
So much for the buildup.
He went on: They were losing money on chickens now, too, of course, as they all knew. They'd been losing money for months, he said. Everybody in the business was losing. The chicken market had always been cyclical and volatile. Up in Maine, he said, there'd been five major producers. One of them had closed this spring. And another was in bankruptcy proceedings. Another, he'd been told, was supposed to quit producing May 29. Still another might close in June, he'd heard. That would be four out of five.
He was talking in a monotone, talking into the rostrum mostly, glancing up only occasionally, and then seemingly only on a dare, his eyes moving like rockets up into the air and then back down to the rostrum to safety. He was like a high school kid whose mother has prodded him into speech class. If he'd been a chicken, he would have hidden his head under his wing.
Abruptly, he thanked all of them for coming, whether they ever ended up handling Perdue chicken or not, and turned it back to the emcee.
He walked quickly to the side of the room out of the line of sight, and then, as soon as diplomatically possible, out the door.
Frank Perdue is 61 years old now, divorced, usually still working 10 and 12 hour days, and a celebrity. He has even become, in much the same manner as Woody Allen, sexy. That may sound crazy, but ask a few housewives. He vacations more than he used to, flys south to play tennis and tan on the beach, and has more money than he could ever spend.
But he is not about to retire.
"Oh, I've been letting loose for years," he says. He is in Salisbury now, pulling out the drive of the Perdue headquarters. He points to the white frame house across the street. "I was born in that house. Those chicken houses, the two-story ones, we built about 1941." He goes back to turning loose.
"I've slowed down a lot. Dad, you know, came to the office every day till he was 91 and got pneumonia. That's when he died. Dad never rusted out, he wore out."
The implication, or at least the inference, is that Frank Perdue will wear out rather than rust out, too. He quoted Andrew Carnegie.
"Carnegie said, 'I love the business of business.'"
At a time when American business management is in a dreadful state, Frank Perdue has revolutionized a business, climbed to the top and stayed there. His prime motivation has always been fear, that is, the fear that he could be wrong. That is sometimes not easy for a man when he's constantly being told he's a genious. He fights that.
He is a businessman of the old sort, an atavist of the days of Carnegie and Rockefeller and Morgan. The United Food and Commercial Workers Union might say that he wants working conditions to return to the days of Carnegie and Rockefeller and Morgan, too. But he's smarter than that. He's paying 24 cents an hour more than the union wage, and giving equal benefits. It's difficult to unionize a plant under those conditions.
Yes, he's demanding.
Yes, people get fired at Perdue.
Yes, it takes a tough man to make a tender chicken.