EDINBURG — Seventy-seven year-old Dean Pence is a man who “works until the job is done.”
Standing in the truck garage at Wholesome Foods, Pence wipes the grease off his hands with a rag.
Pence said it all started back in 1946, when his family started cutting chickens by hand for Kentucky Fried Chicken in Charlottesville, in a building behind their house down the road from today’s facility. Not long after, the Pences began selling chicken breasts at a farmer’s market in Washington, D.C.
“We’d leave here on Friday morning at about 3 a.m. and we wouldn’t get back until midnight on Saturday,” Pence said. “I fixed trucks along the way going there.”
In 1964, Pence bought some land down the road and built a 20-foot by 60-foot facility to cut chickens for local grocery stores and restaurants. Fifty years later, family-owned Wholesome Foods is a local meat and poultry distributor, as well as the producer of Virginia’s Best Water, a shipping company, a truck repair shop and a bio-diesel producer.
Pence can proudly say he built the company from the ground up.
“You see people saying ‘I did this, I did that,’ and you’ll see other people doing the work,” Pence said. “Well, I can say, ‘I did.'”
Pence’s sons Wes and Nathan stepped into the business in 1984 and 1985, respectively. They have assumed more of the daily responsibilities over the years.
Wes Pence said although he and his brother manage operations, the family as a whole still makes the main business decisions.
“Over the last 15, 20 years, my dad has stepped back, but every day at 10 a.m., we have a meeting to decide what we’re going to do,” Wes Pence said. “My brother and I just oversee the implementation.”
He said in the early days, plants like Pilgrims Pride processed chickens for market but did not cut pieces, like breasts, for restaurants and supermarkets.
“In the ’80s, the chicken plants started cutting the pieces themselves, so we had to start moving towards doing beef, pork and cheese distribution,” Wes Pence said. “So in the early ’90s, we decided to open up a retail store, since we used to sell to people directly when they swung by the plant.”
Wholesome Foods does little processing today, but it distributes brands like Hatfield, Esskay, Smithfield and Kunzler to locally owned groceries. Wes Pence said over the years, distribution has declined.
“The meats [are] a bit of challenge because our biggest clientele are the local IGA stores and mom and pop stores, but they’re just so much around anymore,” he said.
Wes Pence said water bottling started in the 1990s.
“My mother’s dad in the 1930s had the King Cola Bottling Company where the old C.E. Thompson building was,” Pence said. “We were thinking about doing something to that effect, but the well water is so good in this area, we decided to start bottling that.”
For 20 years, Wholesome Foods has offered local charities its barbecue pits to cook chickens for fundraisers.
“We make our money in the community and we spend our money in the community, so we wanted to do more to give back a little to our community, so we figured this was a great way to do it,” Wes Pence said.
For a while, Wholesome Foods distributed chicken cuts to fast food restaurants in the region, but competition from larger businesses such as Cisco and U.S. Foods forced it out, he said.
“We had to step back on distribution a good bit, so we decided to expand our over the road trucking because we had the equipment,” Wes Pence said. “That seems to have started picking up.”
Wes Pence said the diversification of Wholesome Foods was a necessity.
“As a small business, it was pretty scary the last couple years,” he said. “You can’t make a lot of money doing one thing anymore. You got to do a little bit of this, a little bit of that and then you scoot it altogether and hopefully you make a profit.”
Being a “small business man,” Wes Pence said he wants to conduct his affairs fairly and honestly.
“If being a shrewd business means being dishonest, I don’t want any part of it,” he said. “I would rather be able to lay my head down at night and know I did good. If you don’t make it, you don’t make it.”
Wes Pence said looking forward, he hopes the company can do what it does best: take care of its more than 50 employees.
“They want to have a house and a car and be able to raise their families and put their kids through school,” Pence said. “We just want to try to make a living for everybody here and help out in the community more.”
Wholesome Foods is located 986 South Ox Road in Edinburg. The retail store is open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday to Friday and Saturday from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m.
Contact staff writer Henry Culvyhouse at 540-465-5137 ext. 184, or firstname.lastname@example.org