30 Years! Thank You, Mark.
Thirty years. 30!
That’s 360 months. Over 1,500 weeks. Just about 11,000 days. You get the picture. It’s a long time.
Earlier this month, we threw a surprise anniversary party at our HQ celebrating 30 years’ worth of loyalty and contributions by one of our longest-tenured members of the Original Philly team: Mark Freeman.
Even in an established, family-run business, it’s not every day you get to recognize someone for that kind of longevity. It takes a special kind of individual to remain with one organization for that amount of time—devoted, productive, determined, flexible, tireless, positive. Mark Freeman is all that, and more.
Mark has seen Original Philly grow from a small, mom-and-pop-type of business to an innovative, worldwide, Philly steak market leader, recently becoming part of Tyson Foods. He’s also seen the company welcome hundreds of “new” team members since he first joined our ranks—many of them every bit as valuable as he’s been to our operation. But on this momentous occasion, we were excited to bring everyone together to honor a man—a colleague and friend—who has dedicated a huge chunk of his life to helping Original Philly succeed and grow.
We took the opportunity to ask Mark to reflect on his time with Original Philly Cheesesteak Co. After some cake, naturally…
OP: What’s your earliest memory at Original Philly?
MF: I couldn’t find the building! On my first day, I walked past it like four times. I asked a lady. It was an old garage. I could barely see the sign. I rang the bell and a short, old man came out (lol). It was Mr. George (Original Philly co-founder George Kontodemos).
OP: What was your first job here?
MF: Packing meat in trays, molding.
OP: Biggest technology change at OP in the last 30 years?
MF: When we got the punch-in time cards. Let’s just say it was CRAZY!
OP: Most memorable colleague?
MF: Mr. George, that’s my buddy.
OP: Best Philly sports moment since you started?
MF: When the Phillies won the World Series, they closed the city down. We still had work though. Mr. Nick (Original Philly co-founder Nick Karamatsoukas) and Mr. George were like, “we still have to work!” Lol.
OP: If you didn’t join Original Philly, what might you be doing?
MF: Still in the restaurant business. I used to be a cook’s apprentice for seven years before I came here.
OP: What is your favorite thing about Original Philly?
MF: Coming to work every day. I am blessed to come to work every day.
And we’re blessed to have you. Cheers, Mark. Here’s to the next 30!
Last Thursday, Tyson Foods CEO Tom Hayes met with Original Philly leaders and team members at the company’s headquarters in Philadelphia. It was his first official visit since Tyson announced the acquisition back in November of last year.
Tom Hayes joined Tyson on the last day of 2016, and he had an eventful first year at the helm. In addition to the purchase of Original Philly late in 2017, he led Tyson’s $4.2 billion acquisition of convenience and ready-to-eat foods company (and former Original Philly rival) AdvancePierre in April, after announcing efforts to increase its focus on core protein-based businesses. Throughout the year, the company revealed plans to build and expand multiple processing facilities. He also committed to eliminating antibiotics from Tyson’s flagship poultry products. Nearing the end of his first year on the job, Tom Hayes was recognized as “Food Executive of the Year” by industry publication Food Dive in December.
As expected, Tom’s visit was met with much excitement. During the early part of the day, Original Philly execs and managers enjoyed the opportunity to meet with their new parent company’s chief, discussing Original Philly’s history, the brand, products, sales dynamics, and details about the unique manufacturing process, among other topics.
After that lively conversation, the proceedings left the conference room in favor of a “field trip.” This particular journey required our distinguished guest to suit up in the Original Philly “tour uni”: a hard hat and white coat. The senior team chaperoned Tom on an in-depth VIP tour of the plant and production lines. Tom’s knowledge about the Original Philly story and business was evident, but this was his first chance to get an up-close look at our innovative blast freezers and “Chop Shop” production floor. He finished a full morning with a robust sense of what makes us different.
THE RIGHT STUFF: Tyson CEO Tom Hayes joins members of the Original Philly leadership team on a tour of the company’s production floor—affectionately known as “Nick & George’s Chop Shop—at its HQ in Philadelphia (April 2018)
When it came time to break for lunch, there’s wasn’t much intrigue surrounding what the hosts would be serving. However, Tom was treated to a special visit from Jerry’s Kitchen, one of Philly’s celebrated food trucks, which parked itself outside the offices and cooked up Original Philly’s legendary WOW steaks and cheesesteak appetizers. Everyone, including the special guest, got to experience their ‘steaks to order: “wiz wit,” American or without. Despite the chilly April temps outside, team members loved the lunch surprise and congregated around the truck for a truly authentic Philly cheesesteak experience: tasty bites, spirited dialogue, and good friends old and new.
Once the lunch truck party concluded (with full bellies, one and all), Tom and the senior team made the short drive to the Original Philly Fully Cooked office and production facility. There, the group met to discuss that unique side of the business, which included the second plant tour.
Despite the hearty lunch, the leaders of Original Philly and their important visitor found room for a nice dinner to cap the busy day. The theme of family was prevalent—as that is a vital part of the Original Philly story, and something it shares with the larger Tyson brand and operation.
Original Philly’s leadership in the growing Philly Steak category was a main attraction for Tyson, and a critical piece of the CEO’s vision for Tyson’s dominance of the protein-based food market.
As part of the dynamic Tyson family, Original Philly customers across the country and globe can look forward to increased distribution, new and innovative products, deep and useful resources, and exciting opportunities to grow their Philly cheesesteak offerings.
Tom Hayes and his new pals at Original Philly are going to make sure of it.
To say 2017 was a big year for Original Philly could be seen as a bit of an understatement. Sure, we made some headlines in November with the announcement that our family-run business was joining another, larger family of sorts: the unrivaled Tyson Foods company and collection of brands and household favorites.
But lots of good things happened on the way to that exciting news.
For starters, in March we helped celebrate the world-wide phenomenon that is the Philly Cheesesteak on National Cheesesteak Day.
Highlights of the busy spring show season included the DOT showcase in St. Louis in mid-May, as well as several events throughout the Mid-Atlantic region.
In late-May, we trekked back to the Midwest, this time to Chicago for our 21st NRA Show. The National Restaurant Association gathering is one of the food business’ marquee events, with thousands of vendors and attendees congregating to sample, savor, and (of course), to sell. Over the course of the NRA, we served up 6,400 cheesesteak samples to hungry show-goers.
Also in May, we were honored to make USA Today’s list of the best ballpark food in America—number 2, in fact—with their recognition of Campo’s Philly Cheesesteak at Citizens Bank Park, home of our Philadelphia Phillies. (Original Philly is equally proud to be the Official Cheesesteak Provider of the Phillies and their home stadium.)
Over the summer, we introduced our first Halal product: Original Philly Halal Certified Seasoned Beef Sandwich Slices, certified by ISWA.
Though it felt like a sweltering summer day, the 3rd annual Philly Cheesesteak & Food Fest took place in South Philly (naturally) in late-September. As usual, Original Philly was in the middle of it all, sharing thousands of cheesesteak appetizers to excited carnivores, along with a new photo booth where folks waited for their turn to ham it up as the Rocky statue or a “human cheesesteak.”
Also in September, our friends at Papa John’s re-released their Signature “Philly Cheesesteak Pizza” as a follow-up to the original Limited Time Offer that earned them rave reviews in 2016. In Papa’s words, “Better Ingredients. Better Pizza.” That’s why they choose Original Philly!
In addition, our busy September included the season and home openers for our beloved Philadelphia Eagles. The “Philly Phaithful” flocked to South Broad Street to cook up Original Philly ‘steaks in the Linc parking lots before cheering on their team to victory (which has become a common occurrence this year!).
Then, in October, we had a party for our amazing employees which included the dedication of “Nick & George’s Chop Shop,” the new name of our production room—really the heart of the Original Philly operation. The name is a respectful nod to Original Philly Cheesesteak Co. co-founders Nick Karamatsoukas and George Kontodemos.
Of course, throughout the year, we were also thrilled to welcome many new customers, as well as to continue serving the many relationships and loyal supporters that have made Original Philly a category leader for so long.
And while we were busy with all of that, we even made time to begin renovations on our main headquarters in Northeast Philadelphia!
Suffice to say we are gearing up for another big year in 2018. Our alliance with Tyson represents new and accelerated growth opportunities for the business, while we remain steadfast in our decades-old commitment to delivering the very best quality products.
Here’s to the future!
Tony Zirilli’s incredible career in the food industry spans 65 years. He’s been an entrepreneur, a problem-solver, a sales rep, a corporate exec, a bar owner, and more, working in all facets of the business.
“Tony Z.,” as he’s widely known, has built many lasting relationships, along with a reputation for being personable, energetic, knowledgeable, dependable, and fun-loving. We consider ourselves fortunate and proud to have him representing Original Philly.
To celebrate a distinguished career—which, for the record, is still going strong—Tony sat down with us to share some of his infinite wisdom and stories…
OP: When and how did you get your start in the food business?
TZ: I started in the business around 1952. My brother and I purchased bar in South Philly which became the hottest and most famous bar in the area. My brother ran it for about 10 years; I was there for 3 or 4. After we sold the business, I went to work for companies like Ogden Food, Tartan Foods, Delaware County Community College, Rotelli Corporation, and then eventually, Original Philly.
OP: When and where did you first notice Original Philly Cheesesteak Co.?
TZ: When I had my distributorship around 1986, [Original Philly founder] Mr. Nick Karamatsoukas came into my office down in Wildwood, NJ and asked me if I would sell some Original Philly cheesesteak products. At that time, Quality Steaks was the one of the biggest in the industry. I agreed to take on the Original Philly line and sell it. Not long after that, Quality went out of business, and I continued to rep Original Philly Cheesesteak.
A man of the people: Tony Z.!
OP: After so many years in the business, what made you decide you wanted to be part of the Original Philly team?
TZ: I knew they had a great reputation. I knew they had a great product. It was a company that I’d love to represent. So I had an offer from Original Philly’s [then] president, Jim Trivelis, and at the time I also had four or five other offers. I said to Mr. Trivelis that I was going to go to Florida, and when I came back I’d make up my mind. I left Florida, came back, and said I was going to work for Original Philly Cheesesteak Company. And here I am!”
OP: What has impressed you most about the Original Philly operation?
TZ: It’s a family-owned business. I can pick up the phone, talk to the president or the owners of the company, and I will get answers.
OP: Has anything surprised you about Original Philly since you joined the company?
TZ: I’m impressed by the close-knit relationship of the employees with the owners of the company. A family organization, a family team.
OP: What do you like most about getting out and meeting with Original Philly customers/operators on-site at their locations?
TZ: The face-to-face relationship—there’s nothing better than that. You can have all of the electronic devices in the world, but there’s nothing like walking in, looking a guy in the eye, and saying, “I’m from Original Philly Cheesesteak Company, and this is my product.” Customers appreciate that immensely.
Tony Z. visits with Original Philly customers at the Jersey Shore.
OP: After a day cruising the Jersey Shore and checking in with customers on the boardwalks and in the towns, where might a popular food industry veteran like yourself go to unwind?
TZ: I go to The Bocca in Margate City, NJ. I also go to a place called JoJo’s in Pleasantville, NJ. Both are excellent food operations. I know both of the owners very well, and I enjoy both locations.
OP: Is there a particular individual—a boss, mentor, colleague, family member, etc.—that had a big impact on your career?
TZ: I did work for a gentleman by the name of Bob Willoughby—the #1 buyer for Tartan Foods. He had a huge amount of experience. At that time, they would send him to Japan to buy tuna fish—that’s how knowledgeable and how good the guy was! He would travel all over the country and world to source and buy food. And Bob said to me one time, “Tony, everybody sells string beans.” So it’s not just the product, it’s the person that’s selling the product. “Everybody has string beans.” From then on, I always thought about that.
OP: If you weren’t in the food business, what profession do you think you would have pursued?
TZ: I can’t even think about not being in the food business. I’ve been doing it since I was a little kid. I started in my father’s grocery store when I was 12 years old. I didn’t like it at the time, but that’s what I’ve done. I don’t know anything else I’d be interested in.
People often have nicknames for their friends, family members, places they visit, even their cars and pets.
Here at Original Philly, employees are notorious for their various monikers for the production room floor. It’s the heart of our operation, a place in constant motion, always under scrutiny (for safety reasons), and where many of our team members spend a good portion of their days.
So, given its importance, as well as how often it’s talked about here at our headquarters and primary production facility, we thought it would be fun to give this special spot an official name. In fact, we decided to make it a contest, inviting anyone at Original Philly to share their ideas for what it should be called. The way we see it, it’s their office, and everyone here takes pride in their individual roles, helping to produce the most preeminent Philly steak in the world!
As expected, the ideas ran the gamut—from witty, to serious, to respectful, to downright wacky. Most were short and sweet. Some were a mouthful. All were appreciated.
In the end, “The Chop Shop”—or, more specifically, “Nick & George’s Chop Shop”—was the winning selection. What a perfect way to represent this space, honoring the innovators of portioned sandwich steaks (and co-founders of Original Philly Cheesesteak Co. back in 1981), Nick Karamatsoukas & George Kontodemos.
We were proud to disclose the winning entry, and unveil the new sign that adorns the main entrance, at a company-wide gathering last month. Everyone in attendance also got a “Chop Shop” long-sleeved t-shirt to commemorate the occasion.
The name has almost instantly become part of our Original Philly jargon, and the shirts have become a popular “uniform” for folks on the production floor and in the offices.
In addition to the Chop Shop logo on the front that matches our sign, the back of the shirt features the phrase, “It’s All About Family”—a nod to the fact that, not only is our company still family-owned and operated, but we’re fortunate to have the commitment and loyalty of many long-time employees. Those who’ve joined us more recently are part of it, too.
We hope that Nick & George’s Chop Shop helps engender a sense of belonging for every single member of our team, as well as to customers, partners, and visitors alike. We’re grateful for their contributions to building something increasingly uncommon in the business world—a true family.