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Savannah Stalwart: Roger Wood Foods

  • A fleet of early Roger Wood delivery trucks lined up at the plant (Photo courtesy Roger Wood Foods)
  • Brothers David, left, and Mark Solana are bracketed by portraits of their father Joe Solana, left, and grandfather Roger Wood, who founded Roger Wood Foods in 1936. (Photo courtesy Roger Wood Foods)
  • Sausages are processed at Roger Wood Foods in this 1961 photo. (Photo courtesy Roger Wood Foods)

Mark Solana answered questions for this series.

Location and hours:

Located at 7 Alfred St. in Savannah, Roger Wood Foods is open from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m.

How long have you been in business?

The company was founded by Roger Wood in 1936, according to his grandson, Mark Solana, who now operates the business with his brother David. This year, the company celebrated its 80 year in business.

How many employees do you have?

250

How would you describe your business?

We are wholesale meat processors.

How has your business changed over the years?

The retail grocery industry has changed and evolved over the last 80 years, and we have had to change to accommodate it.

Back in 1936 when my grandfather started the company, he and a handful of employees created and delivered our products, including finished primal cuts and sausage to the stores. As the business grew after World War II, we started buying our meat supplies directly from other slaughterhouses so we could concentrate more on the manufacture, delivery, and sale of our products. Back then, we would deal in “fresh” products like pork loins, fresh hams, Boston Butts, etc., as well as smoked items like wieners and sausage.

From the 1930s until the 1970s, Roger Wood was “state inspected”, which meant we could distribute these fresh and smoked items only in the state of Georgia. We began using “peddler trucks”, which meant that we would load a truck with products and the driver would go out on a store route and sell them off the back of his truck. He would reconcile with our father , Joe Solana, at the end of the day. This system worked well until the early ‘70s. At that time, we started to see more grocery chains come onto the scene, and they had a central distribution warehouse to deliver all of their grocery products (meat, deli, dairy, dry goods, etc.). If we weren’t in that warehouse, we would be left behind.

The problem for us was that most of these chains also had stores in multiple states, but we were allowed by our inspections designation to sell in Georgia only. Although our business had been built by independent store owners, we absolutely had to develop a new sales and production system to incorporate chain store sales in order to thrive as a business. In 1980, we obtained a large construction/plant improvement loan to increase our capabilities and to give ourselves the “federal” inspection designation. We decided to stop selling the “fresh” items and concentrate on what we believed were our strengths - smoked meat items. We were then able to supply grocery chains and distributors, using our own fleet of trucks selling in neighboring states like South Carolina and Florida.

As we supplied chains like Food Lion, BI-LO, and Piggly Wiggly in South Carolina with our top-selling Lumberjack sausage, our market share continued to grow. We had similar results in north and central Florida in the ‘80s and ‘90s. People in other states were finding out what Savannahians already knew about the great value, quality, and taste of Roger Wood products. Overall sales volume grew steadily over the next 4 decades, and our facility has expanded and grown to meet these needs.

What has been your biggest challenge and how have you overcome it?

We have had many challenges over the years. There are so many moving parts to this business. The biggest challenge in my opinion is the fire we had at our plant in 2007. Our shipping dock, offices, dry goods warehouse, and part of our packing room were all destroyed. The business interruption was just unbelievable. We had to outsource production for a while, do all of our shipping out of a cold storage facility in Rincon, and deal with several delays in getting things rebuilt. It all came together eventually, and we are stronger than ever now, but that was a tough couple of years.

What aspect of the business are you most proud of?

Probably the fact that from humble beginnings in 1933, Roger Wood now sells more pounds of smoked sausage than anybody at the retail level in the southeastern United States. According to Nielsen and IRI, we have the No. 1 market share at retail in the southeast with our Original Lumberjack Smoked Sausage! My hat is off to all of our outstanding employees for their hard work in making this happen and keeping us at the top of our game. Of course, I also want to thank our loyal customers everywhere for their business.

What are your hopes for your business in the future? We want to continue to do what we do best and to grow into other areas of the U.S. We get calls from all over the country from people wanting to know where they can buy our products. I want to make sure they can get them at their local grocer sooner rather than later.

Stalwart is defined as “marked by outstanding strength and vigor; loyal, hardworking and reliable.” What is it about your business that makes it a Savannah stalwart?

What do you hope for the future of your business?

First of all, there are many businesses in Savannah that are “Stalwart” according to this definition. Roger Wood Foods is highly honored to have been selected as one of these.

Numerous locals have enjoyed our products for generations, and I guess they just inherently know that it takes all of the adjectives listed above to endure for 80 years. The food manufacturing business is not easy. It takes dedication to show up at 6 a.m., work in a cold facility and be on your feet all day. Perishables have to rotate to ensure freshness, and our quality standards dictate meticulous checkpoints and cleanliness all through our processes. When you are handling over 500,000 pounds of meat every week, there have to be stringent checks and balances in place. My brother David, who is the chief executive officer, and I are incredibly proud of our employees and their work ethic that is required to sustain this business. You don’t become No.1 in your industry without pushing your personal limits every day. We are blessed to have been doing it for 80 years, and we look forward to a bright future.

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