Food firm expands

Food firm expands

March 11th, 2010 by Ellis Smith in Businesstopstory

Staff photo by Matt Fields-Johnson/Chattanooga Times Free Press American Distributors is a food distribution company that is now in the old N&K Lawn and Garden Warehouse on Amnicola Highway.

Staff photo by Matt Fields-Johnson/Chattanooga Times Free Press...

Atlantic Distributors Inc. recently purchased and remodeled a 250,000-square-foot former plant through a $6 million investment in the facility on a 25-acre site on Amnicola Highway.

Atlantic Distributors' new facility adjacent to a BASF plant once served as the home to Roxbury carpet and later was an NK seed processing center.

"I saw an opportunity and I took it," said Ken Wilhoit, president of the family-owned business.

The small food distribution company prides itself on having a bit of character. Ken Wilhoit, who got into the food distribution business in 1969 as a salesman for Chattanooga Food Distributors, keeps a life-sized bear model in his office.

"That was a Christmas gift from my wife, for the man who has everything," Mr. Wilhoit said, as his son, who manages the company's operations, suppressed a laugh.

Mr. Wilhoit founded Atlantic Distributors in 1985 as a school lunch distributor, but over the years the company evolved into a full-line distribution hub for over 2,000 frozen, refrigerated and dry food products.

"We felt like this would be the time to strategically put our company in a position to take advantage when the economy turns around," he said. "We're in expansion mode, we want to offer our customers more."

One advantage he offers his customers is the option to participate in "opportunity buys," where he personally finds a good deal on a food item and offers it to customers at a low price.

"In these times, for a small business to survive, we think outside of the box," Mr. Wilhoit said.

His son, Justin Wilhoit, joined the team in 2000.

"My son has been interested in the business from day one," the elder Wilhoit said.

Justin Wilhoit said he worked at another food distributor in Florida for two years before deciding to return to his roots in Chattanooga.

"My interest was to get back here, and work with Dad," said the younger Wilhoit. "I was the kid who came with Dad to work every opportunity he can, so this is what I grew up in."

Justin Wilhoit started out working long hours in the freezer room, and worked his way up.

Five key things

* The business is homegrown, and locally owned

* Atlantic Distributors is small enough to quickly adjust to changing markets

* The company is located in the heart of Chattanooga on Amnicola Highway

* Able to deliver to three states within a 100-mile radius

* A woodland-era, ceremonial/burial mound estimated to be 2000 years old sits on the property next to the building.

Source: Atlantic Distributors Inc.

"I started from the bottom, so I've sympathy for those guys in the freezer, and I've got a good grasp of how the operations go," he said, and added, "We have very little turnover here."

The company has sales of $8 million to $10 million per year, 300 customers, and 20 "very dedicated" employees, he added, including three-decade industry veteran Johnny Gallion, sales manager for Atlantic Distributors.

"I think we differ quite a bit from the other places because we have more of a free hand, we have good communications, they let you do your thing," Mr. Gallion said. "It's not like working for a corporation. You don't have to wait a week or two weeks to get an answer, you can get it within a few minutes."

The company currently occupies 60,000 square feet of space in the building, leases space to two other companies, and has 80,000 square feet available for future expansions, according to Ken Wilhoit.

"I can't help but believe Chattanooga is on the verge of a big resurgence," he said.