The company — owned by Chris and Colleen Carroll — is called Flavorseal. And the goal is simple: to take products that have been the same for decades — products that no one could imagine being any other way — and make them better. The company moved to Avon in 2005 after growing so fast that it was forced to move four times in six years. It now has more than 100 team members on its 8-acre site in Lorain County.
But the term “food packaging” really doesn’t do justice to what the Carrolls and their team have accomplished. In an industry where everything tends to stay the same, they innovated. While industry research shows that only 17 percent of food companies launch a new or improved product during a three-year period, Flavorseal prides itself on constant
“We had products that everybody else had,” says Chris, the company president. “But we would try to bring a value-added angle. Something they hadn’t thought of.”
Chris has been doing things his own way for a while. Rather than just get a job at McDonald’s as a teenager, he and his friends started detailing cars — for $20 each. “We made hundreds of dollars in a weekend,” he says. “And we had fun doing it. People loved it.”
A graduate of St. Ignatius High School, Carroll went on to the University of Michigan, where he majored in English and communications in preparation for a career in law that never happened. Instead, he went into the family business.
Chris’s grandfather, a butcher, had operated his own meat market on the west side of Cleveland for decades — a foundation that Chris’s father later built upon when he went into business selling food packaging supplies. “It was a nice business,” Chris says. “But I knew we could do more.” Chris decided to sell his father’s business and started his own.
In 1998, Chris and his wife, Colleen, made a bold move. She resigned from her job at Lucent Technologies, they rented a 3,000-square-foot warehouse in Rocky River and the new company — then called Carroll Sales Agencies — launched as a distributor of food packaging supplies.
They began to hire people, the first big step, and then made the purchase that would catapult the company into the world of manufacturing — a machine that makes bags with a heat sealer. “What I remember the most is that it was enormous and it was a big deal,” says Colleen, who now operates as the head of human resources for Flavorseal. “We had gone from doing some really easy converting; now we had a machine that was doing a heat seal. It was just exciting.”
With only a handful of employees at the time, everyone got to work figuring out how to work the sealer. “People just jumped in and they learned,” Colleen remembers.
At 30 feet long and 10 feet wide, the machine spanned the entire width of the Carrolls’ warehouse. Within six months of moving to the facility, the company was out of space and moved to a 10,000-square-foot facility down the road in Rocky River.
“At that time, everything’s a big deal,” Chris says. “I was traveling quite a bit, trying to secure the orders. Colleen was running the facility, making sure that people were hired and trained.”
The couple worked until dinner, then after dinner. Weekends were no different from weekdays. Chris was moving so fast he wore his running shoes to work. “From an emotional standpoint,” says Chris, “you’re exhilarated. You’re gaining new customers and solving problems and creating jobs and putting in new systems.”
But, more than anything, the company was innovating. “Whenever we would distribute a product we always tried to have an angle or pitch,” Chris says. “Something that would add value to our customers’ business.”
One example is the disposable latex glove. They were first used in 1890 by William Stewart Halsted, the head surgeon at John Hopkins Hospital, and began being mass produced in the 1960s.
But, until 1990, those gloves were more or less all the same. That’s the year Flavorseal began distributing different colored gloves. The idea is that, if you’re handling raw meat, you wear one color glove. If you’re handling cooked meat, you wear another color.
Flavorseal then did the same thing with hairnets and aprons.
The result? A huge reduction in cross-contamination.
Another example is the netting that Flavorseal makes. For decades, meat has been packaged in netting and, for the most part, it’s always been the same. The first change Flavorseal made was to put a loop on the product — a simple move that made the product much easier to handle.
To attach the meat clip to the net, Chris needed an air compressor to drive the industrial stapler. “The compressors that we bought were just these little things you pick up at Home Depot,” Chris recalls with a laugh. “We would have competitions to see who could clip nets the fastest. The poor compressors didn’t last but five days and then we would take it back.”
After a few rounds of that, they discovered industrial air compressors — and the netting business took off. While plenty of companies sell netting, Flavorseal knits its own, which allows for quick customization to suit a client’s needs.
“There’s hundreds of different types of netting,” Chris says. “Whether it’s the color or the pattern, it builds value to the customers’ product.”
The netting used on a ham, for example, conveys an image. If a customer comes to Chris looking for a larger, triangle pattern to give the ham a more modern look, Chris doesn’t have to search overseas — or anywhere — to see if that type of netting is available. He simply walks back to his knitting room, consults with his loom operators and makes it happen.
Bob Shearer is the cofounder of Shearer’s Foods Inc. and the CEO of Shearer Solutions. He became a board member of Flavorseal through a head-hunter’s search, which he says is a “very entrepreneurial way” to form a board of directors.
That’s the way Chris does things. “The thing that makes Flavorseal different is their philosophy toward research and development,” Shearer says. “They do more to stay ahead of the trends. They come up with some really neat projects and ideas. Then they go to their customer. They bring their customers ideas for products that they didn’t even know they need.”
Colleen and Chris were just starting to get a handle on Flavorseal and their lives when they were blessed in 2003 with a new challenge — twins.
A life that had been exhilarating became exhausting.
Shortly after the twins were born, Chris was sitting at his desk in the company bullpen. All around him, salespeople were doing their thing on the phone when they saw it. “I just literally fell forward,” Chris says. “It could have been 10 minutes. It could have been two hours. I was physically out at the desk in front of how many sales people. Everyone just let me sleep. You look back and wonder how you got through it. Every day, I just got through it.”
While the Carrolls might have stopped sleeping for a while, they never stopped innovating.
One of their biggest products breakthrough happened in 2009, when they figured out how to treat netting with release agents of liquid smoke or seasonings. Chris says they had customers who would literally apply spices with a spoon. “We believed that there was a better, more controlled way of adding spice to protein,” he says.
Three years ago, the pre-sliced, seasoned lunchmeat you see now at the grocery store didn’t exist. “They couldn’t make these crazy bold flavors until we introduced this technology,” Chris says. “Our culinary teams are constantly working on new flavors.”
In addition, Chris points out that Flavorseal has gluten-free and organic certification for its facility. “Strategically, we made a decision to be a part of this whole movement toward natural and organic,” he says. “We are committed to closely monitering nutrition trends.”
Whether it concerns the products he makes, himself or his employees, wellness has always been a part of the Carrolls’ lives. When he was in 20s, Chris — who has run 35 marathons — achieved his best time ever of 2 hours and 32 minutes.
These days, Chris still runs, but his marathon days are behind him. He also enjoys hiking and biking — as well as sharing his enthusiasm for fitness with his employees and the community at large.
Chris serves as chairman of the Eagle Run, a 5-mile run, 5k run/walk and a 1 mile fun walk through Avon, in which 28 of his employees and their families participated last year. Flavorseal is also a corporate sponsor of Avon’s new aquatic center and Chris is on the board of the French Creek Family YMCA, as well as part of the capital campaign.
The Carrolls have come a long way since their days in their tiny Rocky River warehouse. “We didn’t know anybody when we moved out here,” Chris says. “It was a compete risk, but I do believe in Mayor Bryan Jensen and his vision.”
Avon city officials appreciate Flavorseal as well. “The company is committed to the health and welfare of its employees and the community in which it is located,” says Dan Urban, an Avon councilman and partner at the Avon-based Wickens, Herzer, Panza, Cook & Batista. “Lorain County and the City of Avon are fortunate to have Flavorseal’s corporate presence here.”
And all parties agree that companies like Flavorseal — clean, innovative and growing — are the future of the county. “I’m a firm believer that a rising tide lifts all ships,” Chris says, “ and I believe that manufacturing, in particular, has a real opportunity in Lorain County in the years ahead.”
After being so successful with business-to-business sales, Chris and Colleen Carroll made the decision in 2010 to expand their company to consumer sales. They created a spice bag that could be filled with meat and water and put into a crockpot to make a quick and delicious meal.
“It failed,” Chris says.
That’s the short story, but the long story is how much time and money the company put into that failure — and what they learned from it.
“We did everything,” Chris says. “Educating a consumer on something new is super expensive. We did the IX Food Show; we did all these things to try and generate interest.”
Chris says the company spent millions of dollars trying to break into the marketplace, but the concept, as simple as it may seem, was a radical one. Consumers were not used to putting meat into a bag that already had spices and flavorings in it when that’s not the way it had always been done. “Changing behavior habit is one of the most costly thing an organization can do,” Chris says.
He still thinks that the idea was a good one, adding that he might make another go at it sometime, albeit with a new strategy. “Innovation,” he notes, “is never a straight line.”