November 16, 2018

Birds of a feather: Jews in the poultry business

The weeks before Thanksgiving, when our thoughts fly to fowl, are a fine time to discover that local Jewish families were and are major producers and innovators in the Southland’s poultry business.

Making a buck off of clucks and gobbles, Jewish families who came to the Los Angeles area built chicken ranches, egg empires, and raised and marketed turkeys. Most have closed because of urbanization, but a few families, like the Zackys, sellers of chickens and turkeys since the 1920s, are still in the business today.

Samuel Zacky, born to a Jewish family in Kiev, Russia, in 1897, immigrated to the U.S. in 1903 and entered the poultry business in 1928, when he opened Sam’s Poultry Market on the corner of Slauson and Western avenues. There, he sold chickens, turkeys and ducks to un-squeamish customers looking for very fresh birds. At that time, to prepare for Turkey Day, a customer didn’t poke through icy bins of frozen birds at Ralphs or Trader Joe’s, but instead would go to Sam’s, pick out a live bird and wait till it was dressed.

According to records, the Zacky family’s port of entry was Philadelphia, where the 1910 Census shows the  family living. Sam thought he wouldn’t be let in because he was sick at the time, said Lillian Zacky, wife of Robert Zacky, one of three sons of Sam and his wife, Esther.

By 1920, the Census shows him living in Los Angeles, downtown on Figueroa Street, and by 1940, in the City Terrace/Boyle Heights area.

“They belonged to the Breed Street Shul,” Lillian said.

Lillian Zacky, the CEO of Zacky Farms.  Photo courtesy of Zacky Farms

To stock his poultry market, he started by going out to what is now the San Fernando Valley, which was hardly inhabited then, yet “had a lot of chicken farms,” said Lillian, today the CEO of Zacky Farms, which now mostly sells turkeys.

During World War II, Sam and family moved out to a ranch in Sherman Oaks on Sherman Way and Haskell Avenue, where they raised chickens and sold eggs.

Lillian met her husband, known as Bob, at Fairfax High School, from which they both graduated. They married in 1956.

In the early 1950s, the business moved to Monterey Park. Around 1955, the year the business was incorporated, Bob expanded his father’s business by taking it into wholesale. He convinced his father to buy a truck, “and that was the beginning,” Lillian said. Soon, they purchased a poultry processing plant in South El Monte.

Lillian started working in the company’s business office part time, and then went full time. In a one-person office, she answered all calls. The business was so small that when callers asked for different accounting departments, “I started changing my voice, and I became accounts receivable, accounts payable, whatever they needed, so it would sound like a bigger business,” she said.

The business grew, distributing throughout California. But with Sam’s death in 1964, Bob and his brother Al took over management. In 1967, they built a chicken hatchery, and in 1971, with the acquisition of a feed mill, their other brother, Harry, along with Hank Frederick and Saul Brand, added expertise to the business.

Then, with Al’s death in 2001, they sold the chicken side of the business to Foster Farms, to help pay off inheritance taxes Al’s son Richard would owe, Lillian said. “It was a very tough decision,” Bob told the Los Angeles Times at the time.

In 2010, Bob Zacky died. In 2012, citing rising feed costs, the business entered Chapter 11 bankruptcy. But at auction in 2013, the Robert T. and Lillian D. Zacky Trust purchased the business, keeping it in the family.   

Today, Zacky Farms is one of the largest players in the turkey business. According to the Zacky Farms website, the company “is a completely integrated poultry grower, processor, distributor and wholesaler, with net sales in excess of $350 million annually.”

At Milken Community Schools, which Lillian’s grandchildren attended, a building bears the family name. One of those grandchildren, Leo Zacky, the fourth generation in the business, has been learning about sales and the turkey-ranching operation, now located largely in the San Joaquin Valley.

“I don’t call it a business. It’s a way of life,” Lillian said. Still passionate about her work, she gives out turkey-cooking tips and, for the last 15 years, has appeared on KTLA on Thanksgiving morning to help viewers with their turkey problems. The most common question: “What temperature to cook the turkey,” she said, adding, “Be sure to cook the turkey breast-side down.” 

Her grandfather had a poultry shop on Brooklyn Avenue in Boyle Heights, and she recalled that there “were a tremendous amount of Jews in the poultry business,” including two major players: Egg City, owned by Julius Goldman, and Norco Ranch, started by Harry Eisen.

Eisen, a Holocaust survivor, began with a backyard operation in Arcadia, then moved to Riverside County in the 1950s and built his business into one of the state’s leading egg producers. In 2000, when he sold the business, customers included Ralphs, Vons, Albertsons, Costco, Trader Joe’s and Jack-in-the-Box. Eisen, who was a contributor with his wife, Hilda, to the building of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, died in 2012 at 95.

In the 1970s and ’80s, Goldman’s Egg City, which was located in Ventura County, produced “2 million eggs a day, laid by 3.5 million hens,” according to an article in the Los Angeles Times. After the Nazis shot his father, Goldman, who was trained as a metallurgist, escaped Germany to Poland, then to Switzerland.

Goldman “pioneered a fully integrated egg production and processing plant that became a benchmark for the world’s egg industry,” the L.A. Times said. Once the “world’s largest egg farm,” Egg City ceased operations in 1993, leasing their production facilities to a competitor.

Not all egg ranches owned by Jews were so jumbo-sized.

Dennis Gura of Santa Monica recalled growing up on the family chicken ranch in Baldwin Park. “We had about 25,000 chickens. It was down the street from the original In-N-Out Burger,” he said.

His parents, Sol and Esther, having saved Sol’s service pay from the Korean War, and wanting to go into business, called on the Los Angeles Jewish Free Loan Society, Gura recalled. “They basically were offered two options for the loans: One would be a liquor store in an urban environment, and the other would be to purchase an egg ranch.” 

Esther Gura feeds the flock. Photo courtesy of Dennis Gura

At the time, the loan association had “Ben Shames, who had trained as an agronomist [and who, in the 1970s, would be executive vice president of Egg City], as a consultant,” said Gura, who works in property management.

They named the business Day-O’-Laid, and to help sell the eggs produced by their flock of 25,000 chickens, “Very early in the game, my uncle had an egg route with a truck with a cackling hen soundtrack,” Gura said.

Similar to the community of Jewish egg ranchers in Petaluma, Calif., in the 1930s, in Baldwin Park and surrounding areas, leftie politics was served up alongside the eggs. A substantial number of the Jewish ranchers were left-wingers, Gura said. Many egg ranchers were also Holocaust survivors, including the Guras’ neighbors, Bernard and Celine Volkas, who were survivors of Auschwitz.

As for Jewish life in the farming community, Gura recalled attending a Kindershule in West Covina, and joining Hashomer Hatzair, a secular Zionist youth group, when he was 9.

In the early 1960s, while holding onto the Baldwin Park ranch, the Guras opened a larger ranch in Norco with around 250,000 chickens. However, with urbanization closing in on the Baldwin Park ranch, the family closed it down in 1964. “Chickens are not good neighbors,” Gura said.

In 1965, with further consolidation in the business, like some of the other Jewish ranchers, the Guras sold the farm in Norco and moved to Los Angeles, where they invested in apartment buildings.

In addition to learning what it meant to be “economically productive,” Gura, who was 12 when his family moved, recalled, “We had eggs with some regularity, so much so that when we moved, I would not eat a cooked egg until I went to college.”