Want to create jobs? Stop complaining and get to work

  • Left to right, Erik Oosterwijk, president, and Leo Pruissen, vice president, Fells Point Wholesale Meats. stand beside a delivery truck. The company employs 65 people and supplies 450 restaurants, hotels and country clubs in Maryland, Northern Virginia and Washington, D.C.
Left to right, Erik Oosterwijk, president, and Leo Pruissen,… (Kim Hairston/Baltimore…)
February 20, 2012|Jay Hancock

I located some job creators. Fells Point Wholesale Meats puts protein on the table every day at hundreds of restaurants and hotels from Cecil County to Northern Virginia.

President Erik Oosterwijk hired 10 workers last year. Sales are growing by about a fifth annually. The company employs 60 people, who make decent pay with health insurance and a retirement plan. With more than $30 million in revenue, it keeps moving to larger and larger buildings to accommodate its growth.

Apparently, Oosterwijk and Vice President Leo Pruissen, both from the Netherlands, believe the way to succeed is to obsess over quality, deliver great service and treat workers well instead of bellyaching about taxes and government and regulation.

Maryland and the United States are not perfect for business, they grant. But, says Pruissen, 52, "what we've accomplished in the United States, we would never be able to do" in Europe.

"It's a great life here," he said.

Trained as butchers in Holland, the two met in the 1980s at A.M. Briggs, a Washington wholesaler that liked to use European meat cutters to serve French and Italian restaurants. Oosterwijk, 50, opened a meat counter in Baltimore's Broadway Market in 1988.

Pruissen joined him a few years later to start a wholesale operation that moved from Little Italy to a building on Monroe Street to its present location, in the Crossroads Industrial Park in Southwest Baltimore, in 2010.

Fells Point Meats starts the workday around 3 a.m., preparing overnight orders for everything from antelope to alligator meat. Butchers trim and customize slaughterhouse meat for each restaurant, hotel or country club. To maintain quality, management trains cutters from scratch, even if they have previous experience.

On Fridays, when restaurants build inventory for the weekend trade, Fells Point Meats might process 50,000 pounds of flesh. Much of it is beef, but you can also order kangaroo, duck, chicken and venison. All but the most exotic stuff is fresh.

Pruissen and Oosterwijk like to order from local meat producers when possible. They've successfully hired ex-addicts out of city rehab programs. They made a point of hiring local contractors when they rehabbed the Crossroads building.

"It stays in our economy," says Oosterwijk. "These people are now going out to restaurants, and whether they buy from us or our competition, it stays within our borders, so to speak. I'd rather keep it here."

Trucks start leaving about 5 a.m., but the place is still cranking late in the morning. Order a hamburger, steak or pork chop from a white-tablecloth restaurant in Baltimore or Washington, and chances are it came from Fells Point Meats.

Customers include Charleston, Petit Louis and other Cindy Wolf restaurants; Hilton hotels; and Caesar's Den in Little Italy. Eight of the 10 restaurants Baltimore magazine recognized in 2011 for the best hamburgers order from Fells Point Meats, Oosterwijk says.

In the Netherlands, where Oosterwijk and Pruissen grew up, everybody has health care coverage and retirement income. Perhaps that's why they feel obligated to offer good benefits, they acknowledge, but it's also about retaining workers, they say.

Fewer than 60 percent of U.S. small businesses (under 200 workers) offer health care coverage, according to a 2011 survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation. Not only has Fells Point Meats offered an employee health plan since it was tiny, but it pays 80 percent of the premium.

The company also matches 80 percent of workers' 401(k) retirement contributions of up to 5 percent of their salaries. Workers make from $25,000 to $40,000 annually, managers say.

"I think it's very important for people to save money for their retirement," says Pruissen. "If they make a commitment, if they say, 'I want to save this money,' I don't mind throwing in a little extra."

The two, now U.S. citizens, are no crazier about taxes and regulation than any business owners. But those haven't kept them from thriving. In how many small companies does the primary regulator keep an office on the premises, as the U.S. Department of Agriculture does at Fells Point Meats? The partners see it as society's price for a safe food supply.

While noting that Maryland taxes have been rising — and may rise some more — they point out that European taxes are higher.

"We're not opposed to paying taxes," says Oosterwijk. "And I think everybody has to pay taxes. As long as it's fair. As long as I know what happens to my money. Does it go to education? If it's used well in education, take all you need. Because we need to educate our children."

Last year, the company's banker, Bank of America, featured Fells Point Meats in advertisements promoting its support of small business. But the employer is poster-worthy for another reason, too. It shows how hard work, a good product, good service and commitment to community can produce success regardless of the economic background or political conversation.

"Job creators in America are essentially on strike," House Speaker John Boehner said last fall.

Not these guys.

jay.hancock@baltsun.com

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