Building a Brand on Chicken Salad: from Providence Business News

By Kelly L. Anderson

PBN Staff Writer

December 26th, 2011

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.

To date, Willow Tree Poultry Farm products are distributed in close to 2,000 markets, Cekala said.

New product lines include buffalo-chicken dip, which was distributed this past summer, he said. The dip is the buffalo-wing concept turned into a dip for tortilla chips, crackers and sometimes even as a sandwich spread, Cekala said. It can be eaten hot or cold, although Cekala recommends eating it hot.

And just last month, Willow Tree distributed a new turkey and chicken gravy line.

“We’ve always made gravy on the premises, but we just invested in a packaging line that hot packs the gravy to give us a longer shelf life,” Cekala said, “again, without adding preservatives or things like that. That’s always our main thrust, to create a clean product with a very simple ingredient legend.”

The chicken salad has a 14-day shelf life, which makes it a little difficult to get too far outside of the Northeast region. But that’s an ongoing process, figuring out how to get the chicken salad out to a broader customer base.

“We’ve actually, through just really good manufacturing practices over the years, been able to put out a no-preservative salad that has a 14-day shelf life. So we’re pretty proud of that, but still 14 days isn’t 28 days, which is what supermarkets would love to have on salad items, Cekala said.

But the company refuses to hurt the taste or the quality of the product just to give it a longer shelf life, he said.

“We want the product to always taste as good as it does today,” Cekala said.

The gravy became available in the major markets Willow Tree supplies in early November in time for the holiday season.

“We’re not certain if they’re going to hang onto it all year or they’re just going to carry it as a seasonal, Thanksgiving Day-type item,” Cekala said. “We moved thousands of gallons of gravy and we just literally launched it in November. … It’s good when the plan works.”

Cekala said the company is constantly looking at new markets and new products. He tastes poultry samples three times a day and never tires of it.

“We sample the first run off the machinery, and then middle run and then last run, so I’m eating chicken every day,” he said.

10 Ideas to Make Holiday Festivities Tastier – and Easier!

As most people will tell you, as much as they want to enjoy holiday festivities, being responsible for entertaining or providing tasty treats at every turn can be a challenge!  Willow Tree has come up with a number of ways to help you serve festive foods that have the look, freshness, and most-importantly taste, of home-made holiday goodness, even when you don’t have time to cook from scratch between all of your commitments.

We also threw in a few gift ideas that are sure to be a pleasant surprise for friends, relatives, co-workers, and folks who provide you with valuable services through the year.

1. Serve a great Party Platter – A ready-made tray with a variety of delicious finger sandwiches can be a pretty impressive site to party guests (of any age) – not to mention how satisfying it is to be the one to serve it! Our retail store will be happy to make a variety of party platters, including cold-cuts, seafood, tuna, ham, egg, and chicken salad.  

Willow Tree chicken salad is available at your favorite deli or grocery store, if you’d like to build your own platter. One idea might be to add a few of your favorite mix-ins to our chicken salad as well as use different types of bread, or crackers, to make a very enticing platter.

2. Chicken and Turkey pies – in different sizes for different occasions. The convenient thing about Willow Tree pies is that they come in different sizes. If you’re having a small group over for lunch, or even brunch, each guest can have their own personal pie. Larger sizes might be better for dinner parties – or for serving to your family when you are too wrapped up, no pun intended, in holiday preparations to cook. 

Turkey pies are available at our retail store, while chicken pies are at grocery stores throughout New England, and can be ordered online. Have you tried our new varieties yet – Red Bliss Potato and Classic Vegetable?

3. Gift cards – Give the gift of good taste this year! Our gift cards, which are redeemable at our Attleboro retail store, can be ordered online for your convenience. Download our retail store menu here so you can see what a gift card recipient can buy!

4. Coupons – Treat yourself to a discount. Join us on and download a coupon, one per customer per campaign please! This will get you a discount when you buy Willow Tree chicken pies at your grocery store.

5. Recipe ideas – side dishes can make all the difference! Whether you’d like to add a little zing to traditional chicken salad finger sandwiches on your party platter, or serve your poultry pies with something extra special on the side, we have some recipe ideas for you.

6. Need full-proof gravy to go with your chicken or turkey? – We have you covered in both varieties. Here is what one customer wrote in as she was preparing for Thanksgiving:   

“I have never tasted such authentic gravy in my life!  I had to control myself from eating it right out of the pan with a ladle!  I can’t say enough about it…and even on this day when I have a million errands to run, and countless dishes to make, I just had to write to you and let you know I am a friend forever!” 

Our gravies are available at the Willow Tree Retail Store and now in select grocery stores throughout New England.

Willow Tree sells fresh turkey for the holidays! Click here to order your fresh turkey and dessert pies!

7. Dessert pies YUM! – Did you know that our retail store carries high-quality, 10” dessert pies for the holidays? Call ahead and see what kind we have ready for you – apple, coconut custard, plain custard, strawberry rhubarb, and others. A great way to top off any holiday feast. 

8. Save time with online orders. Not only can you order many of your favorite Willow Tree items online, but we ship throughout the US and internationally. Willow Tree fans who have relocated write in to tell us this is a great way to keep Willow Tree with them across the miles! Do you know a fan who can’t pop into the retail store, or find us in their grocery store? This option may make a great gift to them, while saving your shopping time.

9. Visit our retail store – for Attleboro area shoppers. Located along side our production plant in Attleboro, Massachusetts, Willow Tree Farm’s retail store has served the local community for over 60 years. On your way to a holiday party, or hosting one of your own? Stop by our full deli with cold salads, cold cuts, fresh poultry, hot food items, fresh baked pies, milk, eggs, grocery items, chips and soda. Store hours are 8am to 6pm seven days a week.

10. Give aways and prizes to reward you through the month.  In December we’ll be rewarding our loyal fans who follow us on facebook and Twitter with chances to win family packs of P-Bruins tickets, free 26oz pies, and other great prizes like a winter supply of Willow Tree Premium Chicken Pie! Did you know that you can enter our “How do you Willow Tree?” contest multiple times, as long as you submit a different idea of how you like to enjoy your Willow Tree Chicken salad each time.

We hope we’ve given you a few ideas for how to easily prepare for a tasty holiday season, minus much of the stress that can go along with it!

Happy Holidays,

Your friends at Willow Tree Farm