#36: Sam Freedman – President & Founder of Mission Driven Foods
Sam Freedman Podcast Transcript
Neil Dudley: All right, everybody, the Pederson’s podcast is back on, and we got Sam Freedman. Sam, thanks for coming on the show. I’m really excited for everybody to get to meet you and learn a little bit about your perspective. I kind of use perspective a lot because everybody has a little bit of a different one, even when we work closely in the same industry. And that’s one thing we’re all about is sharing that and hopefully building a bigger, more transparent understanding of Pederson’s as a brand, the industry, our niche. And you’re certainly a guy that’s got some insight into that. So, thanks for being here.
Sam Freedman: My pleasure. You drive a hard bargain.
Neil Dudley: Yeah, wave to everybody out on the YouTube land.
Sam Freedman: Oh, we’ve got YouTube. I should’ve been rocking my mission-driven gear. I figured this was a voice only deal.
Neil Dudley: Oh no. Everybody’s going to get to see your smiling face.
Sam Freedman: It is a good thing I moved the entire mess that’s generally right here at least to the other side.
Neil Dudley: That’s right. Just off screen. Like someday I should take a picture of what it looks like.
Sam Freedman: Oh, if you saw a 360 view right now-
Neil Dudley: Yes, that’s right, where the camera is not pointing because there’s dry erase markers, there’s piles of cords, there’s papers, which I think people can to. Everybody that’s got a desk ends up with that kind of stuff on it. My favorite thing on my desk is this little John Wayne coffee cup. It reminds me look people in the face, speak where they can hear you. That’s some good advice. Maybe look them in the face is the wrong word – look them in the eye. Okay so, you are at the helm of Mission Driven Foods. Tell us a little bit about what you do and what that mission is.
Sam Freedman: So, we started about three years ago, and I’d say kind of to sum up who we are and what we do, we’ve taken the old school meat and seafood distributor model and really tailored it to e-commerce, understanding the consumer for all the big meal kits and online retailers, understanding their supply chain, where their warehouses are, how they need to order kind of on an individual fulfillment center level. Most of these companies have really lean buying teams and they’re trying to manage 20, 30 vendors moving product at different velocities to five different warehouses around the country. So, what we ended up doing is sort of just bringing a distributor mindset to that industry and kind of brought everything from tuna to smoked salmon to chicken to pork to beef from all over the world and brought it all under one roof to help these customers manage their supply chain, manage their protein categories easier. It makes it where they can focus on moving product, growing consumers, evaluating things like price, and let us worry about a lot of what goes on in the background.
Neil Dudley: I’m telling you, like you find a problem and you solve it. That’s entrepreneurship at its finest. Now, what kind of life prior to this- I mean, we’re going to have to get into what makes you want to found your own business and have that headache. What did you do prior so that you might even know that there was a problem? I don’t know, problem might be the wrong word, but opportunity.
Sam Freedman: So, I’m fourth generation in the meat business. My great grandfather and grandfather had a little slaughterhouse. My dad grew a company. I’m not too far from you; I’m in Houston, Texas, and my dad had a box-in, box-out beef business called Freedman Distributors, and one that cut steaks for restaurant chains called Freedman Food Service. And so, I was no stranger to the industry, kind of grew up around it, visiting him at work. I got out of college in 2011 and I went into the sports industry, which before the camera was recording, if you hear me gasp, it’s because I’ve got March Madness on the other screen. I’m hoping my bracket doesn’t get busted here within the first hour and a half. But yeah, so I went into that sports industry, grew a company selling tickets, ticket packages to events around the country, kind of bundling not only tickets, but call it a tailgate or a piece of merchandise. Grew that into a nice business until probably about 2018. In 2018, I just more or less took a year off, traveled a bunch, I got married. In 2019, I decided I wanted to kind of get into the family industry, but sort of do my own thing. Started out by looking at exporting meat to Asia. Some trade laws were changing, thought, hey, if we can make some contacts overseas, as the trade laws continued to loosen, maybe we can export some kind of high-end beef, partnering with my dad and a few other buddies of his in the industry. And then, I mean, you know the story pretty well of kind of how we really got our start was with a company, by partnering with a company called Imperfect Foods. At the time they were called Imperfect Produce. My little sister was using them as a customer in San Francisco.
Neil Dudley: I’m so glad you’re diving off into this. I mean, it is that golden nugget that people should be looking for similar things. Like you happened to find that one, but there are other ones around, and I like the idea that this conversation can maybe spur somebody on because we need everybody.
Sam Freedman: And the similarity there was for my tickets, it was more, hey, you’re already having a- you’re already working with the customer. Their credit card is already out, their loyalty to you for buying tickets, so what else can you sell them? And then it was upgrading them to sell merchandise and tailgates and experiences. And when I saw this company Imperfect Produce, I loved what they were doing. I got the founder’s permission to kind of mention them as how we got our start in this space. And Ben Chesler is still a great buddy of mine. And what I thought, I love the mission. I mean, as you guys, many kind of listeners will know, they built their brand on rescuing produce that was off spec, rejected by the retailers, and kind of packaging it into a subscription box to customers who wanted to do their part to fight food waste.
Neil Dudley: Oh man. Isn’t food waste such a big topic? It really is sad the amount of food that we just waste.
Sam Freedman: It is. And I think what I- this whole thing actually started off a cold email to the two founders of Imperfect and I said- and actually the idea at the time when I sent them a note was- look, I’m not going to lie and say in the meat industry, food doesn’t necessarily go to waste like a rotten apple, but it’s basically finding a greater home for it. And the example I gave in this initial cold email was my dad had a business that was cutting steaks for a large chain, and I was saying, hey, at the end of the strip loin, we’re going to have some fours, some six, and eight ounce cuts, some vein steaks, some stuff that would go into steak tips. And if you guys have built a customer base full of people who want to support and sustain a better food system, why don’t we package up some of those, but don’t necessarily care what it looks like as long as the quality is there, why don’t we partner, and much like my tickets, adding on merchandise and experience, it was you’ve already got a captive customer. How can we help you expand into a new category and grow your basket size?
Neil Dudley: It’s a solution that’s a win for everybody. People that were already getting produce, et cetera, from Imperfect now had a chance to add protein to that. Now, since you guys have got together, there’s fish options. And so now then Pederson’s comes in. Now we have an outlet for stuff that typically is wasted within our system. Maybe it’s overruns, maybe it’s some kind of just ugly looking packages.
Sam Freedman: I think what’s so special about some of the programs you and I have run together is the opportunity and the ability to tell a story online is so much different than it is behind a retail counter. So, where you and I have found some success and thanks to customers like Imperfect, if you have a use or freeze by on a package for a pack of bacon that you were selling fresh to a large retailer and they had over forecasted or you had overproduced, and the product is totally fine and you froze it well, well before that use or freeze by date, it still has a year shelf life left on it. But you can’t explain that to a customer. If that says use or freeze by March 17th, even if it still has 30 days of shelf life left, a customer that picks it up at the grocery store on March 24th is going to be ticked off because you can’t explain to them behind a retail counter, no, here’s what happens in the real world of meat. But here’s our guarantee that this was frozen well before the use or freeze by date, and that once you received the package, it has X days of shelf life on it. So, I think it’s finding a greater- you and I have been able to find a greater home for some of those types of scenarios then your other outlets I imagine.
Neil Dudley: That is perfect. It’s exactly true. It’s exactly- it saves. And it does so many things outside of saving precious meat, which I think is a simple thing for everybody to understand.
Sam Freedman: You make bacon, so bacon is a precious, precious-
Neil Dudley: That’s right. So you’ve got a thing that’s also tied to a living animal that has given its life so we can have this food. So, it makes it important to me. I don’t want it to end up in a rendering facility, not that- I think rendering plays a great role within the industry, but if we can use it for human consumption, somebody that can enjoy it, that’s the number one best place for us to send it. But it also saves cost. So now we’re able to mitigate some of those losses due to poor production practices, bad decisions. Just in the form of or in the way of doing business, this stuff happens. If you can’t kind of get the best value out of that, well that cost, if you’re going to stay in business, has to go out and add it to everything else that you do. So, this helps us really stay away from that and do the best we can. And in today’s price climate, every chance we can do that is very important. By the way, what do you think about today’s price climate? Don’t say it all at once. You can only say one thing.
Sam Freedman: I mean, I think one thing that’s- it has just been so crazy. The rollercoaster the last couple of years has just been, I mean, nothing short of a roller coaster. I mean, there’ve been some just absurd highs and some of absurd lows. I mean, right now it’s pretty much all highs. But I think, and I’d be curious your reaction more on the typical retail side, but I used to be terrified to tell any customer about a price increase. And right now, I think we’re all just in this together. No one’s really fighting anymore because everyone knows it’s necessary. And I don’t see it coming back down anytime soon. I mean, I think also even on the pork or the chicken side, a lot of these items that they didn’t need to be sold as cheap. It didn’t need to be as cheap as it was. I mean, I think realizing that people will pay it. And also, y’all, I mean, costs on the production side and the grain side and the labor side and the packaging have skyrocketed. So, I don’t know, I think it’s almost become numb to it.
Neil Dudley: Right. Well, does that scare you? Because that scares me. Now you’re going to- like, we’re living in a world that’s just not real. You should be afraid of increasing price. Like that’s the real world of capitalism should feel like that, right? You should be a little scared of increasing price because the competition is going to find a way to stay where they’re at and that’s how we get the best price for the consumer. Now buyers, and you’re a buyer, like in the role you play, you buy and sale, so you’re seeing, you’re feeling that same pressure on both sides of the business, which so is Pederson’s, so is everybody. We’re buying bellies and selling and bacon. So, we’re feel the pressure on all sides. It’s getting to where you say price increase, and somebody says okay. I mean, and it used to be like you get a little cussed out, they’re mad about it. You have to kind of negotiate, really prove why. It’s got to where you don’t have to prove why because everybody just says, oh yeah, everybody’s going up. So, at some point, everybody’s going to be riding that little horse too long.
Sam Freedman: And I think a lot of the value we bring to our customers is if we bring them a price increase, we also will help them think of solutions on how to mitigate it. Hey, here’s some other- strips are just getting- strip steaks, ribeyes, they’re just getting out of hand. Let’s think about other value steaks. Yeah, I love our lamb program, it’s an awesome domestic producer, but at a certain point, do we need to consider here’s what the difference looks like if you went to an Australian or New Zealand product and kind of helping them do a lot of that due diligence and kind of presenting options. And we like that- we obviously have a close network of vendors and suppliers we work with, but we like to say that we’re supplier agnostic for our customers, that everyone has- we’re going to present you with different options ranging on different quality, claims, price points. It’s not our job to decide what’s best for your customers. It’s our job to tell you, present options for y’all to evaluate.
Neil Dudley: Yeah. I mean, you’re doing that work for them. I mean, could you imagine being a buyer for a retailer, an e-commerce business, you might not have come out of the meat industry, and now you’re trying to navigate those conversations where they’re saying words that you’ve never heard before, they’re using different kinds of measurements across the board on all the different products. So, solving that or being a trusted source of education and leadership in that understanding. Man, that’s just valuable. That’s what I feel like Pederson has to do even with any buyer. Let’s say a buyer’s even been in the business for 20 years. They know all the tricks, they know all the different things everybody talks about. Right now today, they’re just trying to stay in stock. So, they’ve got fires burning on so many fronts, having somebody trusted to help is just so valuable to them. All right, so you mentioned a little bit about your family being in the business and that kind of thing. Like what did you see about the meat business that intrigued you? Like you hear a lot of kids that grow up in a business. I mean, I can answer it for ranching. That’s where I grew up, in ranching, and it’s just always calling me back. It’s just this thing that’s kind of in my blood. Is that how you feel about the meat business?
Sam Freedman: Yeah, I think so. I think I love my kind of family legacy in the meat industry, and I thought it was pretty special for me. I’ve enjoyed kind of carrying on another generation, but still having a little entrepreneurial fire and doing it my own way has been exciting. And I mean, my dad is right in the office right behind me. He and I share office space. He’s been an amazing mentor, as is my partner, he is one of my dad’s close buddies, Benjamin Warren. He has taught me so much and it’s been- I think also it’s good because I think if I was really working hand in hand with my dad, we’d- it might be-
Neil Dudley: Well, you butt heads a little bit.
Sam Freedman: Yeah, you butt heads, and here, he’s there to be a sounding board and teach me what he can, but at the end of the day, it’s my business. So yeah, I’ve been pretty proud to have the Freedman name get one more generation.
Neil Dudley: I’m proud of you for that. Like that’s hard to do. I think what you’re talking about is a great illustration for any listeners that are in those family businesses – ranches, farms, dairies, meat business, tech business. Wherever you have kind of a legacy of a family that’s going from generation to generation, that transition or figuring out a way to kind of pass that baton is tricky because, I promise you, anybody that’s built a business is an aggressive kind of person. They believe in their ideas; they go after it. Any kid that comes along and wants to take those reins is an aggressive kind of person that wants to have their thoughts. So that just sets up for, I guess, the potential for a tense relationship, and navigating that and doing it well is good. It sounds like y’all found a way to do it. And any listeners out there thinking about that, here’s one option that’s working for these guys.
Sam Freedman: Or if it is, my dad didn’t have a- there wasn’t a company necessarily for me to step right into. But if there is a company for a listener to step into alongside a parent or a brother, find your own- the worst thing that could happen is it really puts a strain on family. So, if you’re going to do it, try and, as much as you can, find your own way within it.
Neil Dudley: What is the good thing? See, I also think, man, working with your brother, working with your family has a lot of really awesome things. Like we’ve been talking about oh well, be careful, watch out for this. What’s some of the great stuff outside of the mentorship that you could think of or you might share?
Sam Freedman: Oh man, right before this, I ordered a sandwich. It was sitting in my dad’s office, watching March Madness, and just my dad is 72 years old, fortunate to kind of have this time. Really just getting to spend that time with him and also just learning from him. I mean, shit, sorry about the language, but he’s been doing this since he was- for 60 years. I mean, I’ve got so much to learn from him.
Neil Dudley: Now, did he start it, or did his dad-? Like let’s go back.
Sam Freedman: He started Freedman Distributors and Freedman Food Service. Before that, there was just a packing house. And I mean, I think one thing that was great about having partners like my dad and Benjamin and David Houseman, and Billy Rosenthal and Pablo Salazar, kind of my dad’s crew that have guided me, when I jumped into the industry, I got to skip a whole lot of steps. I was introduced to the right people, kind of came with a little bit of credibility, got to skip a lot of the- avoided a lot of mistakes, skipped a lot of-
Neil Dudley: How did you know that’s what I wanted you to say? I mean, because that’s the thing, it’s that network you have access to that’s already kind of within the industry and within your wheelhouse and it gives you a little bit of that trustworthiness. You nailed it.
Sam Freedman: Especially when I started, I had no real experience in meat. And the first thing I wanted to do was work with an ugly produce company to sell ugly meet. So, everyone thought I was out of my mind, but because I was fortunate to have my dad or Benjamin or whomever make that first call and say, hey, Sam believes in it, I believe in it, it went a long way. And I think it certainly paid off for how we got our start on our partnership. It worked out well for Imperfect. Obviously, Imperfect, they source from other suppliers as well. We do quite a bit with them, and other customers, but you help align with the right folks who aren’t going to cut corners, who aren’t going to cheat, who are going to treat you fair. And I mean, even thinking back to the beginning of COVID, I think one of the most interesting, powerful things was if you weren’t named Walmart or you weren’t named Costco, a lot of your suppliers were just saying, hey, I don’t care, I have to take care of Walmart or Costco, and just shorting the crap out of other customers. And some of those long-term friendships and loyalties. I was- we had only been in the industry for six months at the beginning of COVID. But people treated us right, and our suppliers honored commitments and made sure that we continued getting the product we need, which was a period of explosive growth that paved the way for how we built the rest of our business.
Neil Dudley: That’s a similar story to Pederson’s. Like in that fray of labor being tight, production lines just flat couldn’t run, so when supply gets short, companies, some companies had to make choices – who were they going to take care of? And most of the time, they do lean towards the bigger accounts. I mean, it’s sensible. Hey, they’re a bigger share of my air. I want to make sure I have access to that air. So, we got a lot of calls thanks to that from some of what they kind of consider might be smaller customers, which turned out being big customers for us, so it was just kind of a fun wave to ride. Now then as the wave dies on the other side of the hill, that’s another interesting scenario. I wanted to touch a little bit on what it’s like owning a business, running a business, and having a family because that’s got to be a delicate balance. I know the listeners, there’s a bunch of them, that are either living the same thing, thinking about living it. How do you navigate that?
Sam Freedman: It’s interesting. I was actually talking to exactly to Ben Chesler, the founder of Imperfect, yesterday afternoon about this. Because I had a son, my first baby, a little over a year ago. His favorite toy is the little plush calf that you sent him. Yeah, he loves it. And I think when you have a kid, and I’ve heard you talk about your family, really a lot of that stress and anxiety that I carried all day, every day, the first couple of years of growing this business, once I had George, I’m going to be home from 5:30 to 7:30 and I’m going to be with George, and I’m going to take my- I think you just have to reach- the one thing, once you have a kid, your time is not your own anymore. Any decision you make has a great deal of planning that goes into it. So, now I know, hey, I’m going to be hands-on, fully committed to being George’s dad until 7:30 in the morning. I’m going to get home so I can have an hour and a half with him before bedtime. And if I have more work to do once he’s down, I’ll do it. But really, it’s easy to get super addicted to your work when you are starting something. And I think whether you like it or not, you don’t have a choice when you have a kid, there’s just time that you cannot- you have to just be a dad and you don’t have the option of-
Neil Dudley: That’s right. I think you can’t take that easy excuse of, well, I’ve got to provide. Look, I mean, this is just me kind of on my soap box, but I really think this is important. What you need to do to provide for your family and your kids, now yeah, you’ve got to do a certain amount of financial generation, but your time is the thing that provides for them. That time together to learn a thing, to be told no, all that stuff is so important. How did you build that skillset? Because I mean, the facts are until you have a kid, you’re not practicing having a kid.
Sam Freedman: I mean, and also, I’m sitting here saying like I’ve got it all figured out, but if Ana was on here, I’m sure she’d be rolling her eyes thinking that yeah, I’m never- that I’m always fully present is a load of BS and she’s probably right. I mean, you go to visit customers and I think a big change in how I approach that is it’s no longer leisurely two-day trips. I mean, I’m figuring out ways to take the early morning flight or the red eye, so I get back and there fewer days out of the house. And if I’m going to go see one customer out on the west coast, I’m going to make sure that I find another customer to make two stops in a day so I can be away from the house on fewer trips. I just think you don’t have a choice. No matter how much I’d want- it’s not a skill, it kind of is just forced on you. He’s going to be there pissing and shitting, and-
Neil Dudley: There’s no practice for it. It just comes and you have to figure it out. And everybody has to figure it out their own way. I mean, Stacy and I figured it out differently than you and Ana. Either way, that’s what makes each family kind of special and makes that closeness different for everybody. I went out to Expo West for a few days, two nights. And like I used to think about staying the last day of the show, stay over another night. No, I’m out of there. And I also empathize more with people I work with that have families. Before I had a family, I’m like why are y’all going to bed, man? Let’s go have fun. No, they’re going to bed or they’re going to the rooms so they can keep up with their business and then get back home to the family. Just wait until George gets a little older and starts playing sports or acting or whatever it is he ends up being interested in. I mean, right now, I’ve got three kids playing two sports, so basketball and softball, three kids doing it. It is a whirlwind of trying to keep up. And then I can’t imagine being a single parent. We’re going way off the topic of meat, so listeners, this is real life. This is what business owners have to do. This is a couple of guys running businesses that make sure meat is available online or to you if you want it and done in a way that you find valuable, just talking about, man, that’s how it works.
Sam Freedman: Well, and the week that Ana had COVID, the first week of January, and that was also coming off Christmas, everybody all of a sudden wanted to get their orders in because they’d all taken off and you get a ton of work. But George and I were still testing negative, Ana was positive. So, I mean that week of being a hundred percent full-time dad and a hundred percent full-time work was the longest week of life. Ana finally- I was like, Ana, I don’t know what initiatives we could get behind to support single parents, but we got to step up. This is nuts.
Neil Dudley: Yeah, it totally is. So, shout out to all you single parents that are listening. And there are people in our organization that were raised by single parents, and they’ll tell you, once you kind of get- it’s almost, I don’t know where the line is, but you get old enough, then you start saying, oh yeah, my parents, they were doing a lot for me, and I just thought they did nothing for me. It really wakes you up. Sam, man, this has been a fun conversation. I know everybody that listens to it is going to enjoy it. It is some great insight into just Mission Driven Foods, you, a thing that most people won’t even know is happening. Like really, who is going to know about the role you play? Because you’re not telling consumers about it that much. You’re just facilitating other people’s stories. And I wanted to just highlight you and say, man, I appreciate you, tell the world that Sam’s not the only guy out there, but he’s a guy I know that does a good job. And we appreciate y’all so much.
Sam Freedman: I appreciate it. Yeah, we’re not really looking to be the brand on the package or anything. We want to- so many of our customers care for or do private label or we’ve worked with great producers like Pederson’s, we don’t need to put another name on that package. Our job is just to make sure meat gets there on time, and make our customers look good, keep their shelves, so to speak, stocked, and the fewer problems they have, then we’ll continue to stay in business.
Neil Dudley: Yeah, that’s right. And the point of the podcast is to tell these kinds of stories. The listeners now have a deeper insight into what it really takes to get bacon on an e-commerce site like Imperfect. There’s a whole chain of important people.
Sam Freedman: That’s a great example because I think each of these e-commerce sites has anywhere probably from three to six warehouses. If you were to ship to each different warehouse the pallet or two pallets that they need to turn inventory in a reasonable amount of time, you’re freight would- the LTL, less than load, for those not- where it costs a dollar a pound, and not only that, if they wanted to issue a bacon PO to Neil and the Pederson’s crew, and they want to do something with their salmon person, their beef person, their pork person, their chicken sausage person, and 20 others for 5 different warehouses from 20 different vendors, they’re dealing with absurd freight rates and a hundred different orders, a hundred different deliveries every week. So, by being able to kind of bring it all together, they’re able to say, hey, this week, our warehouse on the west coast, we need two pallets of Pederson’s bacon, but we also need three pallets of ground beef and two smoked salmon and one pork chop and build a truck at a reasonable freight rate that they can rely on to get there on time and with cutting one PO and having one delivery rather than relying on- rather than doing that 50 times over.
Neil Dudley: It takes waste- It’s not just food waste. It takes money waste out of the system, which when you’re paying for these, let’s say, and there’s times we have to do it. Like we got two pallets that need to get somewhere. We got to buy a whole truck because the LTL deal just will not work out or they can’t find a driver. Look, shout out to the truck drivers and these freight companies across the country because they are in a big battle just trying to find truck drivers. And some of them have also got a good deal, maybe they own their own truck, they get one trip that they really like, and they can now price it in a way they don’t need another trip. So, it’s just an interesting thing that’s going to be interesting how it- interesting thing that’s going to be interesting – how many times can you say that in a sentence? It’ll just be cool to see how it all shakes out, where we end up. Okay, man, I know you’ve got some other stuff to do. As always, it was great talking to you. Thanks for being on the show. And folks, you’ve got to come listen to the next one because Sam’s not the last guy I’m going to talk to that knows something about the food business, the better for you niche and this I just think beautiful industry of meat, and the people in it really do rock.
Sam Freedman: Thanks so much, Neil. I appreciate it.
(5:10) – Sam’s role at Mission Driven Foods
(6:46) – Sam’s career before MDF
(10:34) – Food waste
(15:26) – Thoughts on price increases
(20:14) – What intrigued you about the meat business?
(23:11) – What have been some great things about working with your family?
(27:50) – How do you balance running your own business and raising a family?
(34:28) – Final thoughts