Thanks to turkey pot pies, N.H. company becomes national brand
How Blake’s All Natural Foods of Concord gained an entry into the national marketplace
Charlie and Sally Blake needed money. Selling turkeys from their Concord farm just wasn't making ends meet for the couple and their infant son.
"The price of grain went extremely high," Sally Blake said. "It was just tough at the time, and we needed to do something different."
So the couple got creative — and got cooking. They dug out a family pot pie recipe. Sally Blake baked the pies in their kitchen. Charlie Blake sold them out of his van.
More than 40 years later, those kitchen pot pies are now only one product in the Blake's All Natural Foods line and can be found in major grocery store chains around the country. Though the business has grown exponentially since those early days, in many ways, it's still a mom-and-pop shop.
Clara Blake, Charlie Blake's grandmother, started the farm in 1929. But it wasn't until after World War II when the focus of the business became turkeys. Once it did, Blake's turkeys — which were free-range before that was a “thing” — became a holiday staple in the area.
When the 1950s rolled around, Clara's son Roy Blake was running things and decided to start teaching his son Charlie about the turkey business. So for Charlie Blake's 10th birthday, Roy Blake gave his son 100 two-day-old turkeys. Rising to the challenge, Charlie Blake tended his new hatchlings around the clock.
By the time Charlie Blake was out of high school, he knew what his life's work would be. After high school he attended the Thompson School of Applied Science at the University of New Hampshire. He started learning about managing the farm after getting his degree in 1966 and took over the operation four years later.
By that time, Sally and son were part of the picture. Things were tight. Sally Blake noticed that other farmers in the area were making and selling pot pies, so the couple thought they’d give it a try.
"We sold them from the farm only in the beginning," Sally Blake said. "Charlie filled his van with pies and would go to a different spot in the state five days a week. And he sold out. That's when he started approaching the grocery chains."
They started out making 100 pies a week, and quickly graduated to 1,000. By the late 1970s, the Blakes' pot pies were in grocery stores around New England and the couple had to convert a building on the farm into a kitchen large enough to handle the production.
For years, Charlie and Sally Blake continued to tend the turkeys, the business, their kids — and watched them all grow.
The legacy lives on
By 2006, the Blakes’ daughter Amy was married to Chris Licata, had twin 3-year-old girls — Blake and Lucy — and lived out West.
"I was in a different industry at the time," said Chris Licata. "I had always looked at the business that her parents were running with such admiration because the product was so good. It was truly authentic, made-from-scratch food that you just couldn't find. And I'd always said to her, ‘You know, there's such a business opportunity if someone with a business background came into it, it would really have huge potential.’ I never in a million years thought that that was going to be me."
Licata was running a ski company, but once their daughters came along they became passionate about organic food and saw the movement taking off. Seeing the direction in which the country was going and believing Blake’s could be a part of it, the young family thought the time could be right to return to New Hampshire and give it a go.
"You get few chances in life to reinvent yourself professionally," Licata said. "And this seemed like a great opportunity to ensure that the legacy of this family business lives on and evolve it from being just a regional company into, ideally, a national brand."
The first order of business was to get the facility certified organic — a process that took about six months and included upgrades, implementation of a plan for integrating organic and non-organic food and keeping extensive and detailed records of where food was coming from, among many other things.
The couple also raided Clara Blake's other recipes, which resulted in the addition of several new items in the product line, including shepherd’s pie, macaroni and cheese and macaroni and beef.
To round out the process, they revamped the packaging and all their marketing materials and by the end of 2006, Licata headed out to the new Blake’s first national trade show.
"It was just a terrible presentation," Licata said. "The packaging was literally taped to the boxes, but the food — it was such a unique product in the market in that it was 70 to 100 percent organic. The quality of the food was really the sweet spot. So we started to gain attention from some natural retailers around the country, including Whole Foods."
In fact, Whole Foods liked them so much — terrible presentation and all — that by the first quarter of 2007, Blake's was shipping to Whole Foods stores around the New England Region.
"Then we went to the Northeast region and we sort of slowly went around the country," Licata said. "I think by the end of 2007, we had gotten approvals for at least three of our products in just about every region of Whole Foods."
Since then, Licata said, the company has grown exponentially in terms of revenue, though he declined to give exact numbers. He has tripled the staff, and Blake’s now ships to roughly 8,000 grocery stores across 47 states. Despite the growth, Licata said they are still making the food from scratch, using automation only in the packaging portion of the process.
"We mash the potatoes ourselves, we cook the beef ourselves," he said. "It's still a made-from-scratch product, we've just gotten very efficient at it."
To further ensure the legacy of Blake’s, the Licatas’ 10-year-old twin daughters are getting in on the action.
Avid entrepreneurs on the lemonade circuit, the girls wanted to expand their offerings. With a little help from mom and dad, they developed a line of lunches called Blake and Lucy's Lunchbox, which are meals made from locally sourced ingredients.
In the summer of 2012, the girls developed a business plan, explained their concept to the selectmen of Newbury and paid the $350 to get a business license that would allow them to sell their meals to vacationers on the southern tip of Lake Sunapee.
They spent every weekend, almost without exception, selling those lunches. And at the end of the summer, they donated 50 percent of the proceeds to a local cancer charity.
It was such a success, Licata said, that during the school year, parents in the Hopkinton School District — where the Licatas live — who had tasted the lunches over the summer, asked the girls to provide local sports teams with the lunch boxes.
Licata said one of the reasons they were so supportive of the girls was because they envisioned getting these healthy lunches into the schools. And that too has come to fruition.
Licata said the Shaker Road School in Concord has agreed to serve Blake and Lucy's Lunchbox meals two days a week this school year.
"It's hard to explain how proud I am of them," Licata said. "We had weekends last summer when it was overcast and we'd be debating whether to go, and they would say, 'Our customers are going to be expecting us to be there. We need to go.' They took it seriously. As a dad, I was proud every step of the way."