Rouses Markets and Sanderson Farms had similar origins, with the two local, family-owned companies starting out initially in the produce business.
In 1947, Bob Sanderson decided to move from produce into the feed and farming supply business, opening a Purina feed-and-seed franchise in Laurel, Mississippi, about two hours north of Gulfport. Not long after, his dad and uncle added poultry to the burgeoning family business, starting a hatchery to sell baby chicks at the supply store.
After a few years, the Sanderson family decided to go all in on chickens. In 1955, Sanderson Brothers Farms opened their first dedicated feed mill and hatchery. Six years later, they acquired a poultry processing business and rechristened the company “Sanderson Farms.” They opened a major poultry complex in Laurel at the very same site that once hosted the feed and seed store. In the years to follow, they would branch out to multiple plants across the Gulf South. No one then could have imagined the astounding success that Sanderson Farms would one day become. It was inevitable that they would end up in the Rouses meat department.
“The Rouses customers in South Louisiana and Mississippi and Alabama — they know Sanderson Farms,” says Steve Barkurn, the company’s vice president of retail sales. “Rouses has been in business for over 60 years, and we’ve been in business for over 70. We grew up together.”
Today, Sanderson Farms processes about 16 million chickens a week in five of the newest facilities in the United States, each built from the ground up and including everything from hatcheries to feed mills. They even make their own feed, which is composed of corn and soybean meal. The chickens love it!
Hilary Burroughs, vice president of marketing and communications for Sanderson Farms, says, “We have veterinarians who check on the birds; we have service techs who service the farms several times a week. Houses for chickens must be built a certain way — we handle it all from start to finish.”
“It’s all natural, and the quality is the best in the industry because we handle things from the beginning to the end,” says Barkurn. “We lay the eggs, hatch the eggs, raise the chicks.” Sanderson Farms employees go through a rigorous training program to make sure everything remains top of the line.
In addition, Barkurn explains, Sanderson Farms “runs to order” rather than “running to inventory” — and in the poultry industry, that’s a big deal. “When we get an order, that is when we run it, which guarantees freshness and convenience.”
Barkurn says it takes complex logistics to get chicken on store shelves. “It’s not that easy, with a lot of players involved in it. Once we hatch the chicks and get them to the farm, you’ve got to bring feed there at the same time.” The chicks are monitored continuously. When they get to the right age, they move to a USDA-approved plant, and from there, they eventually end up packaged and shipped in a cold truck bound for Rouses.
Operating humanely is paramount at Sanderson Farms as well. “We take the best care of that bird,” he says. And over the years, because of the reputation his company has built, he reiterates that customers know what they’re getting. “Every one of them, when they walk in a Rouses, they see our label and know what they’re getting. They’re getting fresh, they’re getting quality, they’re getting a good price.”
For both Rouses and Sanderson Farms, “local” and “family” are more than sales pitches. Local companies mean local jobs, not only for those directly employed, but also for area suppliers, and the local startups that only local companies tend to take risks on. Last year, the company employed 18,000 people.
The Sanderson Farms commitment to the local community extends beyond the payroll, however. “If we have a processing plant in Hammond, Louisiana, some of our growers may be in McComb, Mississippi or on the outskirts, and we support those local areas as well.”
Both companies are also known for giving back to the community, as the Gulf Coast sees firsthand every hurricane season. Rouses always endeavor to be the last stores to close and the first to open for communities after hurricanes and storms, and has always given away truckloads of water and ice and food at locations right after the storm. Sanderson Farms is out there as well, feeding their communities. Says Burroughs: “We don’t seek glory for doing the right thing. We just do the right thing, the responsible thing, especially in times of great need.” Especially in the aftermath of storms, she says, “we’re one of the first ones in with ice and trucks and boxes of chicken.”
She adds, “It’s just the culture of our company. The Gulf South is where we originated, and where we live and work. And we are so excited to be at Rouses.”