Tom Demakes, president of Old Neighborhood Foods, and his sons (from L to R) Tim, Elias and Andrew together run the 102-year old business located on Waterhill Street in Lynn.
By Bill Brotherton
Old Neighborhood Foods has been in business on the same Lynn street for 102 years.
“But people who live down the street don’t know who we are,” says Elias Demakes, vice president of Sales and Marketing. He admits it drives him a little crazy.
Great, innovative things are happening at the Waterhill Street meat manufacturing business, just as they have for more than a century. The company that anticipated the minimally-processed, low-sodium, low-fat trend way back in 1985 with its Thin ‘n Trim deli meats line is now ramping up its Waterhill Naturals & Organics line with a national launch of new branding, package design and website.
Demakes says Waterhill Naturals & Organics produces premium foods that are flavored naturally and are free of nitrates, antibiotics, hormones and gluten. It also sells authentic coconut water that is raw, organic and packed with nutrients.
“We’ve come full circle. Organic and natural foods are now in demand, and we’ve been doing it for 102 years,” says Demakes.
His dad, Tom Demakes, 74, the president of Old Neighborhood and the man who steered the company into the powerhouse it is today, remembers a time when everything was all-natural. “We’d go to Jim and Stella Martin’s farm in Lynnfield to get a turkey or chicken,” he says. “They had pigs in the backyard. Everybody did that. It was not uncommon. The whole of Route 1 and pre-Route 128 was mostly farms. Many manufacturers use ingredients to boost yield and add flavor, we like to keep our products simple, with limited ingredients, cleaner labels, and great texture and flavor.”
“Organic food doesn’t have to taste terrible,” he adds. The buyer at Kroger, the country’s largest grocery chain by revenue, told the family that its organic beef franks were the best he ever tasted.
To reach the strict federal organic/natural guidelines, Old Neighborhood has made a major investment, opening a high pressure processing (HPP) facility in Danvers. Elias says they were trucking meat to a Connecticut processing plant that was organic-certified because “There was no room in Lynn. The machine we were to buy was very expensive and was the size of a school bus.”
Tim Demakes, director of Business Development/Fresh Advantage (the HPP business), says high pressure processing is a method where food is subjected to elevated pressure of up to 87,000 pounds per square inch. This helps to disrupt the cellular activity of bacteria and food-borne pathogens, he says, while HPP retains food quality, maintains natural freshness and extends shelf life of preservative-free food. Most processed foods today are heat-treated to kill bacteria, which often diminishes flavor and quality.
“Because most of our products are lower in sodium, and contain limited ingredients, we were not able to achieve good shelf life,” adds Elias. “With the introduction of HPP, we have the ability to deliver cleaner and safer products, all over the country. We believe that very few products on the market come close to us taste-wise, can compete with us nutritionally, or really offer the consumer what they are looking for. This makes us a very unique company.”
Tom has always been forward-thinking, but hesitant to toot his own horn. A great product should speak for itself, he believes. Elias and his brothers Tim and Andrew, vice president of Foodservice/Operations, the fourth generation of owners, have slowly convinced their father that the company’s achievements and innovations should be shared with the community. To wit: Old Neighborhood is one of Lynn’s largest employers (a staff of 375) and many workers have been with the company for 30-40 years. It will do $150 million in sales by the end of this year. Its products are in some of the nation’s largest supermarkets, including Market Basket, Stop & Shop, Kroger, Shop-Rite, Hannaford, Publix and many more. Customers are enthusiastic about their love for Old Neighborhood meats; just check out the testimonials on the company’s website.
Plus, Tom has long been committed to giving back to the community that’s given so much to him and the company. He will chair the fundraising efforts for a new YMCA this year. KIPP Academy, Lynn Community Health Center, Lynn Arts, Raw Arts, Lynn Museum and many more local organizations have benefitted from the company’s generosity. The new Girls Inc. building on High Street is named for the Demakes family, its biggest donor. And during the holiday season, Old Neighborhood donates boxes of hot dogs, sausages, deli meats and more to the city’s schools to help children and families who might otherwise go hungry.
To think it all started in the family home on this very site, 37 Waterhill St., in 1914, when Tom’s grandparents, Thomas and Jean, owned a small neighborhood grocery and lived upstairs with their eight children. In the back room of the grocery, grandma Jean used a family recipe from Greece to make sausage One day, grandpa “Papou” Tom brought home Locanico, which was reportedly “the best Greek sausage in Boston.” Grandma “Yia Yia” Jean was not impressed. “I can do better,” she boasted. And she did.
Before long, the couple’s four boys – Peter, Louis, Nick and Charlie – were jumping on the trolley to take orders and deliver her sausage to Boston, Haverhill, Lawrence. Holiday Brands was born. Hot dogs and other products were added. Business was booming.
That was threatened when the company van burned. Grandpa Tom and the four boys had bought the wagon for $600 and had no money to buy another. As one of the brothers was gassing it up in Haverhill, “it started smoking and then caught fire,” says Tom.
Leave it to grandma Jean to save the day, again. “My grandmother did laundry for other people, in addition to making the sausage,” adds Tom. “She had saved enough money doing various jobs and loaned it to the boys to buy another van. My grandmother was the disciplinarian.
She was the boss. A female started the business, ran the business and saved the business. My grandmother was very progressive.”
“Maybe one day my granddaughter (Elias’ daughter Hannah, 1½ years old) will take over the business,” he says.
Tom has never been averse to taking risks, such as his decision in 1985 to change the Holiday Brands name to Old Neighborhood. “My father and his brothers nearly had a heart attack,” he says with a laugh
Recently, at Tom’s urging, he and his three sons earned their MBAs together in 2012, attending Suffolk University’s Sawyer Business School at night for five years. Elias and Tim had been selling commercial real estate in Boston; Andrew had been selling residential real estate.
“We put all our money into the plant, into equipment, into making our products the healthiest, best-tasting they can be. You don’t see us on TV, at Fenway Park, or in magazines too often. We have always flown below the radar. High-quality products consumers can trust has helped us establish word-of-mouth buying and building a customer base,” says Elias.
“We are a nimble, high-quality food manufacturer … most of the large food corporations feed the masses with below-average products, whereas we try to give consumers exactly what they want,” he adds. “As a family-run business, we do not have to keep shareholders happy by boosting profits. Our responsibility is to keep our customers happy, and we do that by providing high quality, better-for-you,safe products 365 days a year.”
Photos: Reba Saldanha