Paragon Foods invests in its people for the well-being of all

If an employee has a relationship with the CEO that goes back 20 years and suddenly a new person comes in, it can get tricky, Bellin says. It’s natural to have a period of reservation, especially if you’re adding management layers between them and the C-suite.

“I think that can be a challenge, and I think one of the ways in which we have made it less of a challenge is, frankly, that we were all part of the process of bringing new people on. We all had a hand in hiring all of the new C-level people and the middle managers.”

Not only were the employees part of the interview process, they collaborated on the job requirements for the new positions.

Change is always hard. Bellin says she’s had people who have worked for her for a long time and every time Paragon went through change, they got worried. But because all those changes have led to improvement, she feels like she’s finally earned their trust.

On the cutting edge

Many employers have trouble recruiting, but Paragon isn’t one of them. Bellin believes Paragon’s progressive reputation — and new and inviting facility — made it exciting to prospective employees.

It’s important for a company to advertise its strengths and competitive advantages so people want to work for it.

“We’ve created an atmosphere where they can challenge themselves, they can participate in the growth and they can be a part of all of these exciting things,” she says. “I think that’s what’s helped us to recruit such fine people.”

While Paragon’s JustCut brand is just one of its latest progressive moves, it has a history of innovation.

It was the first company in the region to track its products so it can identify exactly where all of the products in a case came from to better manage its food safety. It also developed relationships with local farmers. While local food is big now, Bellin says it was unheard of in 2000.

“Basically, we begged the farmers,” she says. “I’ll never forget the first meetings we had. They were so skeptical of a business because they had not — and there were only a few of them then — had the best experiences.”

It took a lot of convincing to get those local growers to trust Paragon, but now the company is often a farmers’ first choice to sell to.

JustCut supplies both food service and retail customers with fresh pre-cut produce that is locally sourced as much as possible — items like zucchini noodles or vegetables for GetGo’s sandwiches and salads.

Bellin says Paragon also embraces technology, such as social apps. If a chef gets done working in the kitchen at 11 p.m., he or she can get on his or her smartphone and put in an order. The company even uses algorithms for its inbound purchasing.

“Our industry seems to lag in technology, but we’ve embraced it and tried to use it to be on the forefront,” she says.

While some of the long-term employees don’t always have strong technological skills, Bellin and her managers are willing to spend time convincing them that it will make life better for everybody, ultimately, while also training and retraining them.

A clear fit

Not all of Paragon’s growth has been organic. Last year, it acquired John V. Heineman Co., a gourmet food supplier that was more than 100 years old.

Bellin says both companies emphasized fresh, clean and natural foods. (Paragon follows a three-day distribution model.) They had worked together for years, with Paragon buying epicurean products for customers outside of Heineman’s delivery radius.

“It just made sense for us because of the clientele that we serve — schools and universities, health care, country clubs, high-end white tablecloth restaurants, independent restaurants,” she says.