Willmar: At Jennie-O, a commitment to turkey, quality, innovation

The turkey burgers were on the grill. The cameras were ready to roll. In case the crowd wasn't large enough, Jennie-O Turkey Store had hired some actors to help film its new television ad, set outside a California taco shop and touting the taste ...

Jennie-O is always looking for new ways to put new and innovative products on every single table. The company's ultimate goal is to have people eat turkey 365 days a year. Submitted photo

The turkey burgers were on the grill. The cameras were ready to roll.

In case the crowd wasn't large enough, Jennie-O Turkey Store had hired some actors to help film its new television ad, set outside a California taco shop and touting the taste of lower-calorie, lower-fat burgers made with ground turkey.

As it turned out, the best lines -- and the ones that ultimately made it into the ad -- didn't come from the actors. They came from the spontaneous reactions among the 3,000 visitors who saw the film shoot and decided to sample Jennie-O's answer to the American quest for a more healthful burger.

"That was powerful," said Jen Ehresmann, director of marketing for the Jennie-O retail and deli division.

The ad, which debuted in 2010, launched a national campaign by Jennie-O urging consumers to "Make the Switch" to turkey. It has been seen in millions of households across the U.S.


Jennie-O has its roots in Willmar but its reach is global.

"You can go anywhere in the U.S. and walk into a grocery store and see a Jennie-O label on the shelf or in the deli," said Brent Koosmann, product manager for the retail division.

From hot dogs and ground turkey to the traditional whole bird for the Thanksgiving table, the company is all about turkey. As one of the world's largest turkey producers, Jennie-O processes more than 40 million birds -- that's 1.3 billion pounds of live weight turkeys -- per year.

Its turkey burger dominates the marketplace, accounting for roughly 75 percent of all turkey burgers sold in grocery stores in the United States. It has the No. 1 distributed brand of turkey in supermarket delis at U.S. food retailers; four out of 10 grocery stores carry the Jennie-O label in their deli case. The company was among the first to develop a turkey hot dog. Its food service division supplies turkey products for school lunchrooms, hospital cafeterias, restaurants and more.

Ten percent of its products go overseas to markets as far-flung as Taiwan and Mexico.

In a move rare within the U.S. poultry industry, Jennie-O has a processing plant that meets European Union requirements. "We've now got some product going into the EU as well," said Glenn Leitch, company president.

It has been a long and amazing journey for a small company that got its start in the late 1940s when founder Earl B. Olson, a creamery worker in tiny Swift Falls, Minn., decided to raise and sell turkeys. Today Jennie-O is owned by Hormel Foods Corp. and has nearly 7,000 employees. Besides its turkey processing facilities, it owns eight feed mills, three hatcheries and more than 100 farms.

It's a uniquely favorable time for turkey. Consumers increasingly conscious of their cholesterol, weight and overall health are flocking to turkey for its low-fat, high-protein qualities and mealtime versatility.


"We are a better-for-you product and a better-for-you company," Ehresmann said. "Our goal ultimately is to have people eat turkey 365 days a year."

To that end, research and marketing teams labor continuously to develop and test new products and bring them to market.

Although Jennie-O still produces traditional standbys such as turkey roasts and whole birds, its repertoire has become vastly diverse.

"Today's portfolio has 1,500 products in it," Ehresmann said. "We have a constant pipeline of new products coming through."

Feedback from consumers shows people want convenience and easy preparation. In response, Jennie-O developed an oven-ready bird that goes directly from the freezer to the oven. The company's So Easy turkey pot roast includes its own gravy and can be prepared in less than 10 minutes.

"We're always looking to create the more convenient version for the next generation," Leitch said. "We're working really hard to put new and innovative products on every single table."

Flavor has risen to the fore. Jennie-O has turned adventurous with products such as lemon-garlic turkey tenderloin, Italian-flavored turkey sausage and even turkey nachos.

"That's something that has come out more and more," Koosmann said. "It's part of the fun in the development -- trying all those different things."


Consider rotisserie turkey, Jennie-O's alternative to the rotisserie chicken that's a mainstay at many delis.

"It's uniquely different in that you get more meat. We sell millions of pounds every year," said Renee Cool, product manager of the deli division.

Jennie-O is now expanding into the breakfast market with breakfast sausages and a newly reformulated turkey bacon.

It's turkey's healthful reputation, though, that has really helped fuel growth and sales, especially in the past decade. In 2007 Jennie-O became a corporate sponsor of "The Biggest Loser," earning cameo appearances for Jennie-O products on the NBC hit reality show. In 2010, the company's savory seasoned turkey burgers made the Women's Health list of 125 best packaged foods of the year.

Several of the company's gluten-free, extra lean and reduced-sodium products are endorsed by the American Heart Association.

The nutritional benefits of turkey also are filtering into the school lunchroom through Jennie-O's food service division. "We have a campaign to 'Make Every Thursday Turkey Day' in schools," said Sarah Anderson, product manager for the food service division.

At any given time, Jennie-O has a dozen people working directly on research and development, and at least another several dozen indirectly involved. R and D team members are highly specialized, often holding master's degrees and doctorates in meat and food sciences.

It can take anywhere from weeks to months to bring a new product to market. Every phase is tested, starting in the pilot plant -- a scaled-down version of a full Jennie-O processing plant -- where processing and packaging of the turkey product is studied and evaluated for feasibility, through test kitchens that replicate home kitchens and commercial food services.

Whether it's a brand-new product or a variation on an existing product, "all of that has to get vetted out," Leitch said. "Folks can't believe how much technology we have and how sophisticated we are in our food processing."

"People are really committed to putting out the best possible product," said Cool.

Ehresmann hears regularly from customers who call Jennie-O's 800 number, visit the company website at or leave a comment on the company's Facebook page.

"It's hard not to be proud of that when we read stories about how Jennie-O has touched people personally," she said.

Said Koosmann: "If you're from Willmar, you can be proud of the fact that product is based in your hometown."

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