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Swedesboro meat processor expanding

The economic recovery depends mightily on the willingness of business owners to spend on construction and equipment and to hire new workers.

The economic recovery depends mightily on the willingness of business owners to spend on construction and equipment and to hire new workers.

Ray Rastelli, president of Rastelli Foods Group in South Jersey, is doing his part: The meat processor plans to start a $22 million expansion this month that will nearly triple the size of its Swedesboro plant and add 120 to Rastelli's overall workforce of 625.

The addition of 91,000 square feet to the 49,000 square feet built six years ago continues the rapid growth of Rastelli Foods, which has its roots in a butcher shop opened in Oak Valley, Gloucester County, in 1976.

From small-town retail roots, Rastelli Foods evolved into a big supplier of beef to high-end steak houses, such as Union Trust in Center City, as well as chains with 1,000 locations. But a big driver of the latest expansion is RastelliDirect, a new effort to sell to consumers over the Internet.

"It brings us really full circle back to what we started 34 years ago," explained Rastelli, 53, who said the private company is on track to have nearly $1 billion in revenue this year.

Despite its growth and size, the company has kept a relatively low profile, with the exception of last year's launch of frozen cheesesteaks in partnership with Tony Luke's of South Philadelphia.

Even though Rastelli heads one of the biggest food companies in the Philadelphia region, he works without the trappings of many chief executive officers at smaller companies. His office may be in a corner, but it is small and right next to a break room/kitchen.

"Nobody has a secretary here," said his son, Ray Rastelli III, 27, who described his own job as doing whatever his father needs done, though his business card says he is in sales and purchasing. "We want it to be hands-on."

That shows in customer service, said one local chef who has been buying from Rastelli Foods for eight years.

"If you're not getting a quality product, you're not going to buy it, but if you don't get good service, you're not going to buy it either. Their service is just as good as their product," said Fred Kellerman, chef-owner of Elements Cafe in Haddon Heights.

Rastelli Foods, which also sells pork, chicken, veal, lamb, and seafood, ranked 39th on a list of top meat processors published in March by the trade magazine Meat & Poultry. The magazine listed Rastelli Foods with $640 million in annual revenue, but did not specify the year.

The only larger local company on the list was Keystone Foods L.L.C., a global supplier of fast-food hamburgers and chicken nuggets in West Conshohocken, which had $6.3 billion in sales.

Rastelli Foods' revenue surpassed that of better-known local firms: Clemens Food Group Inc., which includes pork processor Hatfield Quality Meats Inc., of Hatfield; and deli-meat processor, Dietz & Watson Inc., of Philadelphia.

However, a third of Rastelli Foods' sales are to the U.S. military, not all of it meat. A division of the company, Rastelli's Global, is a consolidator of food and beverage supplies for troops in Afghanistan, Qatar, Germany, and South Korea.

The company also ships to nonmilitary customers overseas. "We have our first container leaving for Cuba on the 24th of June," said Rastelli, who opened his first Meat Stop location when he was 18.

Eventually, Ray and his brother, Tony, who joined him as a partner in 1983, had eight Meat Stop locations in South Jersey. They still own the one in Deptford, which is about to undergo a major renovation.

The evolution of the business was prompted by customers. "Soon after each store would open, what we found is every local restaurant started coming to those stores to buy their meat products for their restaurants," Rastelli said.

In 1993, they opened a processing plant in a former furniture store in Deptford to serve restaurants, hooking up with U.S. Foodservice Inc., a big restaurant supplier, as a distributor two years later.

After 10 years, Rastelli Foods outgrew the Deptford plant and in 2004 moved to the current plant in Swedesboro's Pureland Industrial Park, off Interstate 295.

Prime cuts from the 2,000 head of purebred Black Angus slaughtered each week for Rastelli Foods are wet-aged at the plant for at least 28 days before being cut into filets, ribeyes, and sirloins.

The company has three steak-cutting machines, each of which cost $500,000, that use lasers to aid in cutting, for example, 10-ounce steaks with a tolerance of 9.99 ounces to 10.01 ounces. The U.S. Department of Agriculture standards, by comparison, allow a 10-ounce steak to weigh between 9.7 ounces and 10.3 ounces, Ray III said.

He said the laser-aided machines can cut 300 steaks per minute, compared with 10 to 12 per minute by a human.

The savings from such efficiencies have helped Rastelli Foods expand: in 2006 it bought an Egg Harbor seafood company and built a plant in Puerto Rico, where it makes fully cooked products.

Now, Rastelli has high hopes for RastelliDirect, which started in January and is using a marketing technique that gives customers free shipments if they sign up four other customers who would spend $100 a month on Rastelli products.

Rastelli said in early June that 4,000 were getting meat deliveries from RastelliDirect. "We expect over 100,000 members by the end of the first year," he said.