Big Chief Celebrates its Golden Anniversary
By Meline Beach
The trials and triumphs of a family founded business are many over the course of a 50-year history. Now celebrating its golden anniversary, Big Chief Meat Snacks has established itself as a well-branded and managed national foodservice business. Based out of Calgary, Alberta, the company has well established roots across three generations.Bert Klein, current president and owner and second generation in command of Big Chief shares his story of the family business – how his parents got it started to where it is today. Like many entrepreneurial stories, Big Chief’s success is based on determination, dedication, and time-tested recipes with 100 per cent Canadian beef.
Humble beginnings and a focused journey
In 1957, Wilhelm and Magdalena Klein, along with their two children, immigrated to Canada from Germany (two more children were born in Canada). They started off in Toronto and made their way west to Calgary – the city where they still call home. In 1964, Wilhelm and Magdalena opened two delicatessens under the name Tip Top Sausage. Seven years later, they purchased a small manufacturing facility in southeast Calgary and changed the name to Alberta Fancy Sausage.
“My dad, Wilhelm Klein, had an entrepreneurial spirit and was a master butcher by trade,” says Bert, the second eldest among his siblings. “Once my dad realized his expertise at making beef jerky, my parents sold the delicatessens and decided to focus the business in that direction. As the chief executive officer of the company, my dad’s friends and business associates would often affectionately call him big chief and hence our brand was born.”
Bert’s parents ran the business from a small factory and one van they used for transportation throughout Calgary and Edmonton. When the company began growing its distribution network, they purchased a small truck for deliveries and secured valuable relationships with direct to store (DSD) and wholesale distributors throughout Canada. Today, Big Chief products are sold in convenience stores, gas stations and grocery stores across the country.
In 2004, the company changed its name from Alberta Fancy Sausage to Big Chief Meat Snacks. They purchased land in northeast Calgary and expanded operations into a larger facility.
“When we began our move into the new building, I dismantled the smokehouses myself and transported them on my personal trailer to ensure they sustained no damages as they are one of the most important pieces of equipment needed to cook our product to perfection,” says Bert. “We slowly cook our jerky throughout the day to ensure a consistently tender, flavourful chew through to the last bite.”
Second generation leadership and beyond
Wilhelm Klein passed away in 1977, leaving the company to his wife and four children. Bert and his three sisters assumed active roles in the family business from an early age.
“I grew up in a home where a strong work ethic was very important,” says Bert. “When I was 12 years old, my dad taught me everything about the different cuts of meat and within a year, I was working full time in the delicatessens.”
Learning his dad’s skills as a master butcher, Bert soon took on the role of creating tender beef jerky and beef sticks that many Canadians enjoy today. The first flavour, original, survived the test of time and is a consumer favourite, followed by teriyaki and hot. In 2016, the company launched its popular jalapeño flavoured jerky. In celebration of its golden anniversary, Big Chief introduced black pepper and sweet & spicy to its flavour portfolio. Package sizes range from 12 -to-120 grams.
“Under my leadership, we have implemented new strategies to grow our brand,” says Bert. “This includes making improvements to our manufacturing processes to keep pricing competitive, increasing the number of communication mediums with both B2B and B2C and developing new partnerships.”
With Bert’s children in the business, his three daughters represent the third generation of Klein leadership at Big Chief. Angela Coverdale holds the role of chief financial officer, Michelle McGillivray as business development director and Jennifer Wagner as director of operations.
“Trust and empowerment are key to our family business and we believe that each person brings something special to Big Chief,” says Bert, who gives a lot of credit to his mother who always encouraged him and his siblings to be the best version of themselves.
“I had to earn everything I had and there wasn’t any special treatment for family members,” says Bert. “We believe in a team approach which helps us build on each other’s strengths and creates a family feel throughout the business.”
In addition to dedicated family members on staff, Big Chief has been an employer of choice for many tenured employees ranging from 10 to 30 years of service, with everyone adding value by bringing their own unique strengths and talents to the company’s operations.
Big Chief was the first meat processing company in Alberta to be Hazard Analysis Critical Control Points (HACCP) certified – a management system that addresses food safety across raw material procurement and production, including all handling, manufacturing, and distribution of the finished product. In addition, Big Chief has also attained Safe Quality Food (SQF) certification as a further step regarding excellence in quality assurance. SQF certification assures buyers and consumers that food has been produced, processed, and handled according to the highest standards in food safety and quality.
Community, mascots, and memories
It’s one thing to build a company and another to build a brand. Big Chief has been successful at both. Their quality product with its deep roots represents fun, big taste, big adventures, and evokes fond memories. This is all reflected and strengthened through the company’s marketing efforts, mascot, and creative team.
The company has come a long way from its early days when jerky was packaged by hand in jars before progressing to a vacuum sealed pouch. In 2019, after a complete redesign and overhaul of the logo and packaging, a new era of Big Chief was born. Standing 6’10” from hoof to horn, Bert the Bull, is the newest member of the family to join the Big Chief team. Dressed in flashy orange shorts and a cowboy hat, he matches the brand’s packaging and symbolizes the company’s proud western roots. Envisioned by Bert’s daughter Angela, Bert the Bull, named after her dad, represents the fun side of the business.
Bert the Bull’s outgoing personality and adventurous spirit reflects the brand’s demographic and resonates well with consumers. Prior to the Covid-19 outbreak, Bert the Bull handed out product samples at various outdoor and indoor events, including interactions at the Calgary Zoo, Olympic Oval, The Dude Show Expo, 2019 Grey Cup, Hitmen’s Teddy Bear Toss, and the Stampeders tailgate party.
“Bert the Bull helps us communicate with our consumers and enhances our presence within various communities,” says Bert. “This mascot increases our brand visibility, encourages consumers to learn more about our products and brings out a fun element that helps us engage with our target audience in person and through our social media channels in a positive and cheerful way.
Bert the Bull really brings out the spirit of our company wherever he goes!”
Big Chief is also a key contributor to numerous charitable organizations.
“Helping organizations reach their goals benefits us all,” says Bert, who has supported several charities through in-kind donations over the years, often delivered by Bert the Bull directly. “We believe in giving back to programs that help our communities thrive and are dedicated to initiatives that promote the health and wellbeing of Canadians.”
Using an online store, Big Chief came up with the idea to create a “meat mountain” as a means of donating product to the Calgary Food Bank. https://bigchiefmeatsnacks.com/meat-mountain-for-calgary-food-bank/
Big Chief also launched a fundraiser program, developed by Michelle, in response to meeting the needs of the sports community. This partnership opportunity creates a win-win situation and has since expanded to schools and other community organizations. Over $89,300 has been raised to date.
Quality equipment and processes, attention to flavour detail and a commitment to community are part of the company’s DNA. Character traits and family values have been passed on from generation to generation. The operations team inspects everything by hand and the human eye, listens to consumer feedback and apply changes, when needed. Big Chief aims to be the number one go to meat snack in Canada.
“My mom taught us to always treat people with dignity and respect, to always answer the phone when people call, and to shut down at Christmas and on weekends (unless we have an unexpected demand) because family time is very important,” says Bert, who has fond memories of working alongside his parents and girls. “For years my daughters would join me at the factory every weekend to transfer meat from the freezer to the cooler for tempering with the promise of a warm piece of jerky right from the smokehouse. These are all great family memories!”
From incorporating Bert’s favourite colour (orange) in the company’s mascot and packaging to applying Wilhelm’s strict work ethic and Magdalena’s family values in the company’s daily operations, Bert and his daughters remain committed to keeping the founders close to their hearts, and honouring them and their vision.
Big Chief is celebrating 50 years of amazing memories and milestones with more in the making – year by year, flavour by flavour, stick by stick.
Meline Beach is a Toronto-based communications practitioner and frequent contributor to Convenience & Carwash Canada. In addition to freelance writing, Meline provides communications and public relations support to businesses across Canada. She can be reached at www.mlbcomms.ca.