Why Does Willow Tree Chicken Pie Taste Homemade? Just ask Jeremy Zenlea!

Jeremy Zenlea is in the enviable position of Quality Control Manager for Willow Tree Farm. Why do we envy him? It’s part of Jeremy’s job to eat Willow Tree every single day. We took a few minutes to interview him about what sort of processes he and his team put into place to keep Willow Tree chicken pie tasting just like home-made.

Q: Jeremy, what interested you in making quality control your career?

A: I grew up around food science through my father, whom I work with here at Willow Tree. I got into the field because of my interest in science, but what comes with that is pride in developing a quality product. I’m very aware of what can go wrong in food, and that’s what makes me so strict about testing. I have a lot of passion for the science, and for the Willow Tree products.

I graduated from UMass Amherst with a BS Food Science and I’ve been in the food industry for years. I’ve done quality testing and product development. The way we do that here at Willow Tree is through quality inspections. Every single batch of gravy has different quality controls that it is tested against such as salt content, thickness, color – and that includes a taste test! Different lab instruments are used, as well as people.

When I started at Willow Tree, I set up a quality standard. I broke down what makes consistent gravy. Through months of testing I documented standards. One of the key parts of testing is that we have experienced tasters that compliment the instrument-based testing.


Q: Willow Tree has a lot of gravy fans out there. But what about the other great part of a Willow Tree pie, the crust? A lot of fans can’t get over how something that tastes like it was rolled out right there in their own kitchen actually started out in their freezer.

A: Constant tasting and quality control also helps with the crust. The fact is, you are cooking the dough at home, which plays into the freshness. It’s never been baked before it hits your oven.


Q: As you know, everyone comments on how fresh the chicken tastes, and how huge the chunks of meat are. How do you do it?

A: The biggest thing that contributes to the taste of the chicken is that it’s cooked here and deboned by hand. It’s hormone-free, fresh chicken breast. Because we cook it ourselves, it is very close to a homemade process.


Q: How do you approach USDA and food industry standards? It’s our understanding that there are areas where you actually exceed those standards. How do you decide when that makes sense?

A: There are certainly regulations and you can do the minimum needed to satisfy the regulation, or you can go beyond the regulation. We often exceed the standards. At the end of the day, it’s better for everyone. It makes it a safe, high quality product, and it tastes the best it can be.

Government guidelines are more concerned with product safety. We are concerned with safety as well as creating something that consistently tastes great. That is where we set our own high standards.


Q: Willow Tree customers have come to expect a consistently high-quality product.  What does that mean to you?

A: It means that we are satisfying both ourselves and our customers. To me it means that all of your bases are covered before something is released to the public.

I get a lot of customer feedback from people who want it to continue to taste as good as the first pie they had 15 years ago. That’s great motivation.


Q: How frequently do you eat Willow Tree products?

A: I eat Willow Tree products every single day, plus I bring something home every weekend.  I’ve involved my family in Willow Tree tasting events. My house is loaded with chicken gear. It’s great to be able to have a job that is such a satisfying part of my life, and my family’s lives.

Thank you for your time Jeremy, and for reminding us about the care that goes into each pie!

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