HOME TO ROOST: Walter Cekala, president of Willow Tree Poultry Farm, in the company's Attleboro manufacturing plant. The business started as a poultry-raising farm and has been in the Cekala family since 1954.
It started out as chicken scratch, literally. Now, more than 57 years later, Attleboro-based Willow Tree Poultry Farm has expanded its operation area, thus allowing it to grow its customer base – moving for the first time through the New England states and into metro New York.
“Our facility can handle about 40 percent more capacity now, so we couldn’t really seek out any new customers until we were able to find that capacity,” said Walter Cekala, president of Willow Tree. “So that’s really what we’ve gone through these last three years, getting to this place where now we can pitch bigger markets like Costco and Sam’s Club and go after some more club stores for business.”
The farm put a new warehouse facility on the site that was completed three years ago and just last year finished corporate-office renovations as well, Cekala said.
Those changes mean the one-time mom-and-pop egg provider can distribute its products further south. They also mean more products can be produced with longer shelf life, Cekala said.
The farm started as a poultry-raising farm, selling eggs and chicken to neighbors. Then Cekala’s father bought the farm in 1954 after working there.
The farm raised poultry until the early 1960s when getting feed into the area became an issue, Cekala said. So the company decided to enter into the end-processing side of the business, where they brought the chickens in already slaughtered and Willow Tree did things such as deboning and cooking the chickens and eventually making them into chicken pies, chicken salad and other poultry-line items.
Then came frozen chicken cacciatore and chicken croquettes.
“We started wholesaling the chicken pies, and [they] were really our only product we produced until about 1986,” Cekala said. “We always had a retail store attached to the plant, and we sold chicken salad.”
But it wasn’t until RoJacks Supermarkets requested the chicken salad be sold in their stores that the company decided to make it a wholesale product, he said.
“We started selling at RoJacks, then other markets picked it up and within about eight years, we were in about 300 different markets,” Cekala said.
And now, with the chicken salad sold throughout New England, Willow Tree will have their frozen chicken and turkey pies in the New York area in 2012, he said.