The Natco Way

The family-owned business embraces change from its Port of South Louisiana facility

You might be hearing the words “pivot” and “adapt” more and more these days, as businesses small and large find ways to position themselves for sustainability and survival during the coronavirus pandemic. Luckily for Natco Food Service, the perfect pivot has long been a part of the handbook, leaving the company ready and able to not only continue operations, but to grow into new arenas.

Family owned and operated since its founding in 1925, Natco Food Service was housed in New Orleans until Hurricane Katrina, a test of resiliency which ultimately pushed the company into expansion.

“We were already looking to move into a larger facility,” says current owner John Lalla, the grandson of founder Nicholas Lalla. “We lost our facility when the hurricane hit, so we were able to negotiate a long term lease with the Port of South Louisiana and started building our USDA-approved facility.”

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Natco’s main service is providing restaurants, hotels and casinos their “center of the plate,” or COP, food products.

“We primarily deal with beef, steaks, veal, lamb and pork,” Lalla says. “We custom cut all fresh products which we sell across the country, including Louisiana, Houston, California and Mississippi.”

In March, when restaurant closures and stay-at-home orders dramatically affected Natco’s main clientele, Lalla and his team immediately prepared a new business plan more suited to the changed social landscape.

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“We started to reach out to the retail sector and offered a custom-cut program,” Lalla says. “These are restaurant quality steaks sold directly to the retail market. It’s taken off very well.”

Lalla says part of the appeal for consumers is the company’s existing packaging and sanitation standards, which has provided peace of mind regarding freshness of the meat and cleanliness of the product.

“With the virus, a lot of people are hyper aware of bacteria,” Lalla says. “We’re a USDA facility that is inspected daily, and we have a state-of-the-art slicing machine. So, we’re able to offer retailers a product that is machine cut, meaning there are no people involved in the handling, and there’s no possibility of human contamination.”

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On top of that, Lalla says their machine wrapping process yields a more airtight seal, as opposed to traditional retail wrapping. Natco’s packages are completely airtight, and Lalla says you can even run them under soapy water without risk of air or water compromising the meat contained inside. This is a level of safety awareness, Lalla says, that many people have gravitated toward.

“We’re doing well,” Lalla says. “I tell people: If you’re still in business and paying your bills, that’s a success story.”

Another lucrative branch of business that Natco continues to focus on for long-term sustainability is a process called repacking, something their facilities are uniquely equipped to handle.

“We can take a 30 pound box of pork spare ribs, and because we’re a USDA facility with all the necessary saws and equipment, we can cut it, repackage it between six 5-pound boxes, and deliver those packages to the grocery,” Lalla says. “So, now the consumer can buy specialty items like pork spare ribs at a cheaper price. That has really taken off and has been another extremely beneficial aspect for us. This has long term sustainability, and in three years, 20 percent of our sales will likely be from retail and repack.”

Consumers looking for Natco’s repacked, restaurant-quality meats don’t just have to check their favorite retailer, either, as the company has provided another convenient means to purchase frozen goods. Natco’s Pop-Up Truck sells favorites like prime New York strip, ribeye, tenderloin and more at various locations, which are updated on the company’s website.

Lalla says that because food is such an important part of Louisiana’s culture, changes in Natco’s operations will always be geared toward providing restaurants, retailers and families with the top-grade items they need to create memorable dining experiences. It’s a mission that he says has been heavily aided by Natco’s partnership with the Port of South Louisiana.

“None of this is possible without the Port,” he says. “They’re just pro-business and will always work with us when we have improvements or projects. They’re always receptive to helping us grow, and having a partner like the Port makes it easy to grow and focus on the big picture of your business.”

While Lalla can’t say for sure what future changes Natco and the restaurant business will face in the coming months or years, he’s confident his company will continue pivoting and adapting to meet the needs of the community — until that day when he hands off the reins to the fourth generation of the Lalla family.

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