For Sierra Meat & Seafood Company in Marina, California, finding and retaining drivers and warehouse workers is not a problem. This busy wholesale distributor has developed an effective hiring and retention process. The larger challenge has been creating a more uniform fleet.

Located in the fastest growing city on the Monterey Peninsula, the company is principally a “fresh house” for beef, seafood, lamb, pork, poultry, and veal, and one of the nation's largest distributors of game meat and specialty poultry and fowl products. It also does custom and foodservice cuts and processing of meats.

Beyond that, it handles a mixture of frozen meats, frozen seafood, and related frozen foods, such as vegetables and French fries, as well as smoked fish and sushi.

About 85% of Sierra Meat & Seafood's business is with restaurants. The remainder is mostly with ethnic food markets. It services the San Francisco Bay area, the San Joaquin Valley — the area that lies south of Sacramento, and Stockton and Fresno. It also services 52 Popeyes chicken and biscuits restaurants in central and northern California.

The miscellaneous fleet of all-refrigerated vehicles makes standard route deliveries six days a week, with all trucks returning daily. Often, trucks are used to run a second or third route. On some of the longer tractor trailer delivery routes the rigs backhaul product.

For the most part, deliveries are made by hand truck. Trucks average anywhere from 10 to 25 stops per day, putting on around 40,000 miles per year. Friday is the heaviest delivery day because restaurants stock up for the weekend.

Despite the work being hard, Sierra Meat & Seafood has very little turnover of drivers or warehouse workers, says general manager James Pryor. “This is primarily due to a good pool of labor, our hiring system, good pay, and the chance for advancement within our operation.”

Hiring process

Farming is a major employer in the area, and a lot of strenuous physical tasks involve the cultivation and picking of crops in farm fields, says Sierra Meat & Seafood fleet manger Ray Erta. “Not only is working as a warehouse person or truck driver easier, since considerably less stoop or squat labor is involved, the pay is better. Whenever we need additional workers, we can choose from plenty of applicants.”

“I don't typically hire truck drivers,” Pryor explains. “I hire someone for the warehouse. If they work out, are dependable, show a good work ethic, and have good people skills, I send them to truck driver training school and promote them to truck driver.”

Pryor understands the importance of his truck drivers. “Our best salespeople are our delivery people. They spend more time with customers, and they're the ones that will make or break us. If they do the wrong thing, the customer may go elsewhere.”

Starting in warehouse helps new hires more quickly learn the product line, “which can be overwhelming,” says Pryor, who has nearly 30 years of experience in the meat business. “It takes about six months to learn our operation, and about a full year to learn and identify the nearly 1,000 different types of products and packaging.”

The company employs 60 people. There are 15 office and salespeople, 15 people who work as butchers and meat processors and packers, and 30 who are warehouse workers, of which 20 are also drivers.

Internal systems

Sierra Meat & Seafood's facility includes an all-refrigerated dock area with five doors for loading and unloading, a 5,000-sq-ft freezer, and a 5,000-sq-ft cooler. Standard equipment includes electric Hyster forklifts, and pallet, stacker, and reach trucks.

“We're pretty much a 24-hour-a-day operation,” Pryor says. “Inventory turns two to three times per month on fresh products.

“Meat processing begins about 2 am and cuts off around 2 pm. Order pickers, who are assigned to routes, come in around 1 or 2 am, are done by 6 am, and then run a delivery route. Others start routes at 4 am and upon their return fill out their workday working in the warehouse.”

The company uses a computerized order processing system that automatically routes its delivery trucks. “We're in the process of updating the system and putting in a barcoding system for more efficient warehouse and delivery operations,” notes Pryor.

“It's a very slick system. Eventually, it will tell us how to load each pallet so that we get the most product on, and don't crush boxes by improper loading.”

Presently, orders are combined on pallets. Each box gets a label that notes the customer and the number of boxes in the order.

Miscellaneous fleet

Sierra Meat & Seafood's fleet is “a hodgepodge of equipment with an assortment of makes and models,” says Erta. “We're now standardizing on International trucks, Great Dane and Utility trailers, Morgan truck bodies, and Thermo King refrigeration units as a way to reduce our parts inventory. Plus, it simplifies things when you don't have to learn how to work on many different pieces of equipment.”

As the costs of owning, operating, and maintaining the fleet have increased over the years, the company has been making a greater effort to better manage fleet expenses — one of the reasons why Erta was brought onboard as fleet manager four years ago. He has 37 years of refrigerated trucking experience, much of it hauling produce and food.

Sierra Meat & Seafood has long-standing relationships with Bayshore International in Watsonville, California, and with Thermo King of Salinas, California, remarks Erta. It has been dealing with Alvin Trentelman of the Thermo King dealership for the past 25 years, and with Bayshore International's parts manager Jaime Garcia and service manager Moises Calvillo for a good many years.

Five tandem-axle daycab tractors — four Internationals and one Freightliner — range in age from 1995 to 2005. Engine make varies, but all are between 350 to 450 hp. Tractors have 10-speed manual transmissions.

“As we replace our tractors, we'll be getting Eaton Fuller AutoShift and UltraShift transmissions,” Erta says. “They're easier on drivers, we'll have less clutch problems, and they'll allow us a wider availability of drivers.

“With the AutoShift, the clutch is used only for starting and stopping. Once the vehicle is in motion, the transmission operates like an automatic. The UltraShift is a fully automated transmission so there is no manual shifting.”

Five refrigerated trailers include different brands, model 2001 and older, but all with Thermo King refrigeration units. Two are 48-footers and three are single axle 28-footers. “We're transitioning to 28-foot trailers because they're much more maneuverable,” says Erta.

Each trailer has either a Maxon or Waltco Truck Equipment 4,000-lb capacity railgate with a 60-inch-by-80-inch platform.

The oldest trailers will be replaced, and the others are being retrofitted to comply with the California Air Resources Board's emission requirements for refrigeration units.

Outside electrical outlets are being added as Sierra Meat & Seafood moves toward using more standby electric capabilities to power truck and trailer refrigeration units, Erta says. “This way, when the trucks are loaded and parked, we can run the reefers by electric rather than using the reefer's engine. This will not only save fuel but will reduce noise and maintenance costs.”

Sierra Meat & Seafood's 13 straight trucks are diesel powered with automatic transmissions. All but one requires a CDL. There are nine Internationals and four UD Trucks. Models and years vary.

Make and model of the refrigerated truck bodies vary as well, and they are equipped with Thermo King refrigeration units. Body lengths range from 16 to 22 feet.

Erta recently added a 2,500-lb capacity Maxon Tuk-A-Way liftgate with a 60-inch-by-80-inch platform to three of the straight trucks. “We did the work ourselves,” he notes.

“We try and do as much of our own equipment service and maintenance as we can to help reduce costs. We can do just about everything except major repairs and overhauls.”

Because the vast majority of deliveries are standard routes with few day-to-day changes, communication with drivers is done via assigned cell phones. Trucks are not assigned to drivers, “but we're looking at doing that,” says Pryor. “With assigned equipment, drivers tend to take pride in ownership, so they're easier on the equipment and take better care of it.”

Food safety

Food safety is a top priority at the company, says Pryor. The facility is USDA inspected and Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point compliant. HACCP has become the universally recognized and accepted method for food safety assurance.

All employees receive food safety training. Food processors receive extra training.

Stringent food safety procedures are followed for returned products, he says. They are inspected to be sure that they are wholesome for resale. Otherwise, returned products along with waste matter from meat processing are stored in tallow barrels for pickup by a local rendering company.

“Anything placed into the barrels is mixed with green dye so it can't be used or resold,” says Pryor. “The waste is hauled to a rendering plant where it is processed into ingredients used in a number of products, such as perfume, pet food, cosmetics, and shoe polish.”

One division

The operation in Marina is one division of Sierra Meat & Seafood. Headquartered in Reno, Nevada, it serves California and Nevada. It also has a facility in Santa Clara, California. All three operations have the responsibility to purchase, operate, and maintain their fleets.

The Marina division was created about four years ago when Sierra Meat & Seafood purchased Carmel Meats. That company, which Pryor had been with for 25 years, was established in 1977.

Sierra Meat & Seafood has grown to become one of the largest independently owned and operated meat and seafood companies in the western US. Begun as the Durham Meat Company in San Francisco in 1890, it became Sierra Meat & Seafood in 2002.

Finding efficiencies

Company-wide, the biggest business challenges are dealing with the significant increases in cold chain costs - “from the cost of electricity, diesel fuel, and labor, to everything in between,” Pryor says. “Along with keeping the fleet well maintained, we're continually looking for ways to conserve energy.”

On the whole, Sierra Meat & Seafood is looking at bottom layer accounts, he continues. “We have to make some very hard decisions about which type of customers we're going to service.

“It's getting less and less cost effective to serve the smaller customers, especially those located a good distance away.” The company already has established a poundage amount for a minimum order.

“You have to know how much gross profit dollars are being generated at a stop,” says Pryor. “Then you have to consider whether or not you can afford to deliver to the account. Nowadays, that's the cold hard fact.”