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Pig Star: A Pork Story : When brand-name meats came of age, no one was bigger in Southern California than Farmer John.

February 08, 1996|DANIEL P. PUZO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Clougherty Packing Co. had some important decisions to make in the summer of 1964.

The family-owned firm's main advertising vehicle, "Polka Parade," hosted by Dick Sinclair on Channel 5, was going national, and that meant the producers would no longer accept local ads.

Wanting to aggressively promote his relatively new brand of meat products, Farmer John owner Francis Clougherty asked the station's salesmen to "throw him a bone" if they heard of any good local advertising opportunities now that "Polka Parade" had hit the big time without him.

The ad guys came through.

A sponsorship opportunity had just opened up on the pre- and post-game shows for the Dodger radio broadcasts. The baseball team was looking for companies to advertise on the programs, and Clougherty got a chance to meet club owner Walter O'Malley.

"The two Irishmen hit it off and things just clicked," recalled Clougherty's son Bernard, 47, recently. "Believe me, it wasn't anything planned."

Whether it was serendipitous or not, every Southern California baseball fan has since heard Vin Scully and the other Dodger announcers rave about the "superior Eastern-bred, corn-fed pork that is Farmer John's Meats." Farmer John and the Dodgers have been together ever since.

For the last 31 years, the Cloughertys, who introduced the Farmer John brand in 1953, have used baseball--and eventually other local sports--to build the area's No. 1-selling brand of fresh pork breakfast sausage, bacon and hot dogs, including the proprietary Dodger Dog.

"They are one of our star players," says Barry Stockhamer, Dodger vice president of marketing. "Having a Dodger Dog is part of the whole mystique; it is truly one of the unique things about going to a Dodger game, just like being in the stadium, seeing the team play, listening to Vin Scully and watching [Tommy] Lasorda in the dugout. Probably no other company in this country has so aligned itself with a single sports franchise as has Farmer John with the Dodgers. It stands alone."

*

These days, Farmer John actually does stand nearly alone in what was once the heart of Los Angeles' meat-packing district. As recently as 1970, there were more than 60 packing plants and 12 slaughterhouses concentrated in Vernon, an industrial hub about eight miles southeast of downtown Los Angeles. Today only two slaughterhouses and fewer than a dozen meat packers persist.

"Slaughter and packing plants have exited out of the nation's metropolitan centers," says Rosemary Mucklow, executive director of the National Meat Assn., a trade group in Oakland. "And that was the end of the stockyards in Chicago, St. Paul, San Francisco, Los Angeles and every central city."

Most of the plants relocated to the rural Midwest trying to save money by reducing transportation costs and moving closer to the source of animals and feed grains.

A once-thriving Los Angeles stockyard for hogs, cattle and sheep is long gone. Plants that manufactured more famous national brands--Swift, Oscar Mayer, Armour--are closed.

"These streets used to be lined with packing houses," says Joe Clougherty, president of Farmer John Meats, as he points to a vacant lot across Soto Street from his plant. "They all moved closer to the animals, and I guess we were the only dummies that stuck around."

Although other companies have fled, Clougherty Packing's Farmer John Meats has thrived. The company reports sales of more than $325 million annually and is the largest pork processor west of Oklahoma. It stands today as the last great meat plant in metropolitan Los Angeles, and its massive facilities on 10 prime acres prove it.

"Where would we go?" asks Bernard Clougherty, Los Angeles native and Farmer John vice president. "All our eggs are in this basket and we're staying. By choice. No matter what."

The Cloughertys certainly had an opportunity, or an excuse, to move as recently as 1994, when fire destroyed part of their hot dog processing plant. Instead, they stayed and rebuilt.

The company's most important attribute is the ability to deliver a fresh product. Live hogs, on average 5 months old, are trucked to Vernon, slaughtered and processed into more than 300 products, including 36 types of hot dogs. Organ meats are processed and packaged for sale within 45 minutes after a federal inspector approves the wholesomeness of the carcass. Fresh cuts of pork enter retail channels just hours after spending the required 24 hours in refrigeration.

The Midwest-based competition cannot come close, and Farmer John intends to remind consumers of that at every opportunity. Bernard Clougherty says that future advertisements will make an issue of the fact that some pork cuts from other parts of the country can be called fresh even though they may be as much as two weeks old.

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