Hicks-Chiks, John Hicks Jr. celebrating 70 years
NATCHEZ — When John Hicks Jr. says he’s spent his entire life around the family business, he isn’t joking.
Hicks — who will turn 70 April 12 — was born the same year his father John Hicks Sr. founded what is now J.E. Hicks Distributing Co.
And as the company celebrates its 70th anniversary, it’s looking at ways to keep going strong.
These days, when the company makes a delivery, a big truck with a chicken logo that says “Hicks-Chiks” on the side drops off the products. It is — in a way — a call back to the 1945 founding of the company, when John Sr. started out selling meat from his car.
“During the war, he would go meet the train that came in and get the meat coming on the train, and what he would get from there he would take to the stores to sell,” John Jr. said.
Before long, John Sr. decided to expand the business and bought an old dairy farm off of what is now Martin Luther King Jr. Road and started raising chickens and hogs.
He converted the dairy barn into a chicken processing plant and built a second building for hogs. Eventually, he started raising cattle with a partner, buying and re-selling some, slaughtering others.
“When I was little, I was into all sorts of mischief around the processing plants,” John Jr. said. “I pretty much stayed in trouble.”
Two brothers, Harold — who eventually left to get into the insurance business — and Carl, who worked there until his retirement, joined John Sr. in the venture.
When John Jr. wanted to get in on the venture, however, he was met with resistance from his father.
“I left the Navy in 1966, and came home to work,” John Jr. said. “I just started showing up. He didn’t want me to work. He wanted me to go to college, because I was eligible to go on the G.I Bill. For about three months I worked for nothing — I just showed up.”
John Sr. eventually folded and gave him an official job. John Jr. started out driving a truck for the company, and after two years became a salesman. He eventually took over the business.
The main customer base for the company when it was founded was neighborhood grocery stores, but when grocery syndicates began to form their own warehouses to supply stores, the business lost nearly 80 percent of its customer base overnight, said John Hicks III, vice president of J.E. Hicks Distributing.
The company responded by getting into the food service business, adding canned goods, produce, seafood and cleaning supplies to its offerings. In addition to seeking out restaurant business, the company started doing bids for school business and nursing homes as well.
Currently, its base is independent restaurants and convenience stations.
“We had to adapt and arrange for the times,” John Jr. said.
Other adjustments just made good business sense. After the company stopped processing chickens itself, it got them from a company in Jackson. John Jr. figured out one day he could save a half-cent-per-pound if he picked up the chickens himself.
“I did the math, and with the truck, fuel and driver, it all worked out,” he said. “A half-cent per pound doesn’t sound like much, but when you’re talking about 100,000 pounds of chicken, it adds up.”
They added a new warehouse in 1993, and in 2011, the company added a showroom to the front of its warehouse, where customers could come in and purchase items directly from the shelf like they would at a wholesale grocer. It also started to sell pre-made casseroles.
“We wanted to make it a more friendly, cash-and-carry atmosphere,” John Jr. said.
“We are usually very busy in the morning and in the afternoon, but we have a mid-day lull, and we started to do this to fill that mid-day lull.”
John III has taken over the management of operations, but John Jr. still checks in every day. He still cuts the grass on the property and bounces ideas off of John III.
And though it has grown, the company is still very much a family business, John III said.
“One minute I will be writing a check for $30,000 for some fish, the next I am on top of a truck working on a chiller or taking out some trash,” he said.
Now, the company is in the process of joining a new co-op to be more competitive and go on into its next 70 years, John III said.
“Our goal is to offer customers the best quality products we can but at the price they want,” he said.
“But what also keeps us in business is that we treat customers and employees like family.”
J.E. Hicks Distributing is located at 1 Hicks Ridge Road, which is near the 1380 area of Martin Luther King Jr. Road.
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