News hit last week that Ettline Foods Corp., York, Pa., has been purchased by Gordon Food Service, the Wyoming, Mich.-based distributor that over the past two decades has expanded its presence in the Northeast, Southeast and Southwest regions of the country. The acquisition brings together two of foodservice distribution’s longest-standing companies. Gordon this year celebrates its 120th anniversary, while Ettline boasts a few more gray hairs, at 125 years old.
The largest family business in the industry, Gordon Food Service was founded as I. Van Westenbrugge, a butter and egg supplier to local grocers in Grand Rapids, Mich., that made deliveries by horse and buggy. Today, the company’s sales exceed $12.6 billion, it has more than 17,000 employees in the U.S. and Canada, and ranked No. 23 in Forbes‘ Top 25 Private Companies of 2016. Gordon’s history of growth and innovation has been well chronicled and its visionary leaders are credited with introducing game-changing operational, transportation and marketing innovations to the industry.
Ettline Foods was founded by Oscar O. Ettline as the Ettline Grocery Company, selling dishes, pots, pans, gardening tools and assorted groceries. Weathering a few moves and changes of ownership over the years, the company didn’t really begin to emerge as a broadline contender until the early 1970s, when then-owner George Stallman constructed a new, modern warehouse equipped with inside loading docks, railroad siding, freezer and refrigeration facilities. In 1973, produce was added to the mix and soon thereafter Ettline became one of the early members of the Nugget buying group, boosting its competitive positioning.
Over the next decade and a half, Ettline Foods continued to grow and in 1989 was acquired by Martin Whelan and his family. Whelan was an outsider: A former accountant and chief financial officer, he’d hadn’t worked in the food industry prior to purchasing Ettline. But he was a quick study and as its chairman brought integrity, passion, financial discipline and innovation to Ettline, including establishing an Employee Stock Ownership Plan in 2004. The company had since made that aspect of its business — employee ownership and the dedication to quality that comes with it — a key point of pride and competitive differentiation.
Ettline’s team, led by long-time President and CEO Joe Ayoub, now begins the task of assimilating into the Gordon Food Service family. In the acquisition announcement, Ayoub commented, “We at Ettline are thrilled to become part of Gordon Food Service, a company that mirrors our commitment to delivering exceptional value, while remaining competitive in a constantly changing market. We sought an organization that would be the right fit for maintaining the same level of quality that we are so committed to. We feel strongly that Gordon Food Service shares our values and will allow Ettline to continue to grow as part of its family. With Gordon Food Service, Ettline is able to continue its 125-year legacy, while proactively planning for the future of distribution and adding deeper support in areas such as menu management, recipe development, and increased buying power with a larger service area.”
Congratulations to Ettline Foods on its long history of perseverance and growth, and to Gordon Food Service on what looks to be both a strategically important and culturally complementary acquisition.