Frozen Dinners To Support Families

    HOLLAND — Faith, family and business always have been inseparable at Request Foods Inc.

    The Holland-area company’s latest product offering — frozen dinner entrees sold at 400 Wal-Mart SuperCenters nationwide — elevates that connection to an even higher level, while pushing Request Foods further into the retail market.

    The line of nine “Mary Ellen’s Blessings At Home” dinners are meant to accommodate busy family lifestyles and bring families together for dinner. Once together, a card packaged in each entrée offers a prayer and activity as a way to encourage discussion around the dinner table.

    “How often are you together as a family if you don’t sit around the table?” said Jack DeWitt, founder and president of Request Foods Founder, whose company actively promotes Christian values in both the workplace and community.

    The company does not operate Sunday production schedules and offers flexible hours so employees can better balance work and family.

    “We want to strengthen the family and build upon it,” DeWitt said.

    “And we think meal time is the place to do it,” added Mary Ellen DeWitt, Jack’s wife and the namesake for the product line. “We want to see them back to the dinner table and caring and sharing together.”

    The new product line is the result of collaboration between Request Foods, one of the largest custom frozen-food companies in the United States, and a chef in Dallas, Texas, who has worked for the company before and had an idea to package inspirational messages with meals.

    Request Foods then partnered with Dan Seaborn, a pastor, author, and radio commentator who founded the family ministry Winning at Home. The Holland-based organization creates the inspirational messages and family activity cards that are packaged with each meal.

    “It’s a seed, and the seed may grow to something,” said Jack DeWitt, the son of Bil Mar Foods co-founder Marvin DeWitt who formed Request Foods in 1990, three years after the DeWitt family sold Bil Mar to Sara Lee Corp.

    Request Foods primarily produces frozen foods for several companies, including the Bob Evans restaurant chain, Wal-Mart’s Great Value label, and Grand Rapids-based Gordon Foods Service’s GFS retail stores.

    Request Foods also has its own labels, including Overbrook Farms, a brand it acquired three years ago, and Zerilli’s lasagna. The Overbrook Farms products, sold at Sam’s Clubs stores, come with Scripture printed on the back of the packaging.

    The company added to that retail lineup last month when it debuted the Mary Ellen’s brand at Wal-Mart stores in 40 states under a six-month, exclusive arrangement with the global retailer.

    From a business perspective, the new Mary Ellen’s meals diversify Request Foods’ product line. The company’s goal is to have 20 percent to 25 percent revenues generated from its own retail labels, DeWitt said.

    He’s optimistic the Mary Ellen’s Blessings At Home product will meet with success in the marketplace and expand to additional Wal-Mart stores and perhaps other retailers.

    “We’re going to see,” DeWitt said. “It’s in the Lord’s hands.”

    Request Foods employs about 385 people at its Holland Township facility, which recently underwent a major expansion with the construction of a 100,000-square-foot addition that gave the company additional production and warehousing capacity.

    The company is on pace to reach revenues of $120 million for the fiscal year that ends this month and has targeted revenues of $130 million for FY 2003, DeWitt said.           

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