Keeping It Local With Merit Foods

Photos by Liora K

Merit Foods might be the most successful Tucson grocer you’ve never heard of.

You can bet that many of your favorite local restaurants and caterers are loyal customers, however. And now the word is getting out: Home cooks can also take advantage of this bulk distributor’s discounts.

Since the 1960s, when Irving Sadowsky founded the poultry business that morphed into Merit, the family enterprise has been a part of southern Arizona food service circles. A member of the Tucson Originals and the statewide Local First Arizona, Merit is known for its fresh, high quality products, from hand-butchered meat to fresh vegetables, as well as for associated dry goods like paper plates. Some 500 dining rooms, hotels, casinos, and retirement homes as far south as Nogales, Arizona, and as far north as Black Canyon City depend on the company’s reliable, fast delivery service.

But until recently, few members of the public were aware that Merit also welcomes individual shoppers. You can place orders in advance on line or by telephone, or just turn up at the South Tucson distribution center and make purchases in the front office; in all cases, your goods are conveniently delivered to your car at the back loading bay. A display case in the office highlights a sampling of popular products, and weekly specials are posted on a chalkboard.

It’s the best of both worlds: Merit offers the savings of bulk retailers like Costco and Sam’s Club, but because its goods are kept behind the scenes in a huge warehouse with temperature-controlled rooms, you don’t face the dangers of impulse buying.

Items that started it all at Merit Foods (Photo by Liora K)

Items that started it all at Merit Foods (Photo by Liora K)

Part of the Merit history is a familiar one. In 1941, the Sadowsky family moved to Tucson from New Jersey because one of the children suffered from asthma. In 1962, son Irving began raising chicken and eggs and selling them off Miracle Mile. According to Mike Sadowsky, Irving’s grandson and company Sales Manager, Irving named his business Ace Poultry because he “borrowed $200 from a guy named Ace to get it started.” Soon Irving was doing so well that he enlisted the help of his son, Mort, who was in Manhattan at the time, selling typewriters in the Empire State Building.

After Irving died, Mort sold Ace and tried his hand at other professions, including selling beauty supplies—a business in which his baldness was a bit of a liability, Mort likes to joke. He decided to return to his roots and team up with Merit Marketing, a company that specialized in smoked salmon. Merit’s owner died two weeks after they signed a partnership contract, however. Mort was back in the food business—and in full charge.

Slowly diversifying from chicken, eggs, and fish, Mort grew Merit until it now stocks some 5,000 items. His oldest son, Matt, bought the business in 1998 and is President, with younger brother Mike holding up the sales end. Mort still comes in every weekday, however, to buy eggs and chickens—which remain steroid and antibiotic free–for the company.

Of the diverse provisions for which Merit is known, perhaps its meat most stands out. “Restaurants can order custom cuts of beef, pork and chicken up to midnight of the day before they’re needed and get delivery the next day,” Mike explains. The butchers—there are 10 of them on staff–come in at 2am and work through the morning, creating everything from ground beef with a specified fat content to an 1855 Black Angus rib eye. Merit is the only supplier in Arizona for 1855 beef, named for the year that the Swift company, its producer, was founded.

Meat prep at Merit Foods (Photo by Liora K)

Meat prep at Merit Foods (Photo by Liora K)

Since the days when it was Ace Poultry, Merit has been tailoring the “wishbone cut”—small, easy-to-bread pieces–for Lucky Wishbone, Tucson’s first fast food restaurant. Merit also special orders exotic fare for Jonathan’s Cork, known for serving the likes of ostrich, alligator, and bison. Establishments ranging from BK Carne Asada, Luke’s Italian Beef, Brushfire BBQ to McMahon’s Prime Steakhouse and PY Steakhouse at Casino del Sol feature Merit’s meat on their menus.

And those are just a few carnivore-centric spots. It’s no surprise that a place with a history of smoked salmon should also cater to seafood-oriented restaurants such as Mariscos Chihuahua and Kingfisher. Indeed, the list of places to which Merit provides its wide range of products crosses all culinary, cultural, budgetary, and stylistic boundaries: Sandwich shops like Eegees and Bison Witches; Italian dining rooms including Tavolino and Vivace; ethnic restaurants like Don Pedro’s Peruvian, Shish Kabob House, and Fronimo’s Greek Cafe; chic bistros such as Feast and Downtown Kitchen + Cocktails…the list goes on and on.

If there’s anyone to credit for giving Merit a higher—and more contemporary—profile, it’s Miranda Morrison, who came on board as Marketing Director a little more than a year ago. Morrison redesigned the Merit Foods logo and took to social media such as Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram to spread the word about the company and its customers. “I am working to create a hub for local food bloggers, to publicize upcoming events and to post pictures. I want to show everyone what a great food community we have,” Morrison says.

She’s also helping to expand the company’s service beyond the delivery ramp by providing free marketing and design help to customers. In Tucson, for example, she has worked on menus for the Wooden Nickel and RJ’s Replays and created table tents for the Red Garter. Ragazzi International Cuisine in Green Valley and Tubac has also benefited from Morrison’s logo redesign.

In addition, Merit hosted their 1st Annual Customer Appreciation Show last August at The Desert Diamond Casino & Hotel.

But while the style of outreach may be new, the focus on helping local businesses achieve success and giving back to the community has long been part of the Merit tradition. As a member of both the Tucson Originals and Local First Arizona, headquartered in Phoenix, the Sadowsky family understands that keeping the money within the state benefits everyone. They not only sell at reasonable prices to Arizona businesses, but also buy and distribute local products as often as possible. Moreover, “If a product is not selling well, we donate it to the Tucson Food Bank,” Mike Sadowsky says.

The bottom line is that the bottom line isn’t everything. “We need to make a profit, but we don’t gouge anyone,” Sadosky adds. “We try to be good citizens.”

Edie Jarolim writes about food and travel for a variety of local and national publications. For details, visit ediejarolim.com.

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