Halperns' plates up growth through acquisitions

A man whose company serves Atlanta's top steakhouses is on an acquisition spree to grow across the country.

Howard Halpern, founder and former owner of Buckhead Beef, is revving up the engines for his latest family venture, Halperns' Purveyors of Steak and Seafood. The Atlanta-based company - a leading meat and seafood vendor for restaurants such as Aria, Chops Lobster Bar and Kevin Rathbun Steak - is one of the city's fastest-growing private companies. So much so, it's surpassing the sales Buckhead Beef had when it sold in 1999.

"I'm never going to retire," Halpern, 72, said in a Dec. 11 interview. Founded by his son, Kirk, in 2005, Halperns' has grown to an estimated $250 million in sales in 2012. The company this year has completed three acquisitions and expanded to about 500 employees.

Most recently, the company bought Gary's Seafood & Specialties in Orlando, Fla., in early December for an undisclosed amount.

In October, Halperns' acquired Maryland Quality Meats in Baltimore. And, in January, it acquired K&G Brothers Wholesale Meats in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

"It's amazing what Howard has done with Halperns'," said Pano Karatassos, founder and owner of Buckhead Life Restaurant Group Inc., a customer for the past 30 years.

"He has probably doubled and tripled the size of his company.

"I think his quality exceeds what he has done in the past."

The recent acquisitions are part of a plan to grow Halperns' in new markets. The owners of all three companies have stayed on as operating partners.

"We now can take care of the local restaurateurs that really crave the kinds of service, availability and products that we offer," Halpern said.

Plans are to continue to grow with more acquisitions or roll-outs in about 20 cities such as New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago, Houston, Seattle and Las Vegas, Halpern said.

"He had the advantage of starting from scratch," Karatassos said. Whereas older companies have had to update along the way, Halperns' started with state-of-the-art, automated facilities.

"I personally admire him," Karatassos said. "I think he is an amazing, hardworking, smart executive. With all the growth, he's able to maintain and exceed the quality." But, the climb to the top hasn't been easy.

Raised in South Florida, Halpern grew up working in the restaurant and hotel business. He landed in Atlanta in 1966. At the time, he was in the produce industry. His major client was Burger King.

"Howard was a boxer when he was a younger man," said Harold Shumacher, president of The Shumacher Group Inc. in Atlanta, a restaurant brokerage and consulting firm. He's known Halpern for 30 years. "He's aggressive. He's a successful businessman."

Halpern switched to meat with the invention of Cryovac, a type of fresh food packaging that allowed for cuts of meats to be wrapped and shipped.

At the time, "there was no gastronomy in Atlanta to speak of," Halpern said. "I was really privileged to be part of this whole wave that came along."

In 1979, he started Halperns' The Gourmet Grocer, located in Lenox Square.

In 1983, Halpern founded Buckhead Beef with five butchers. It grew to become one of the largest privately owned meat purveyors in the United States. The company gained international recognition when it was selected as the official supplier of meat and seafood products for the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta.

In 1999, Halpern sold Buckhead Beef to Sysco Corp. It had grown to $200 million in annual sales and had about 300 employees, according to previous reports.

Halpern stayed on with Sysco for about five years, running the East Coast meat division and helping Sysco acquire 11 meat companies.

Halpern retired from Sysco in 2005. But he couldn't stay away, joining his son in a new business venture: Halperns' Purveyors of Steak and Seafood.

"We saw a void in the industry," Halpern said. "Where you had centralization, one call gets it all ... You had young culinarian chefs that didn't want to buy standard anything."

Today, Halperns' offers around 1,200 "center-of-the-plate" products. Its bread and butter is specialty orders for chefs. The company is headquartered in a 110,000- square-foot facility near Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport.

Over the years, Halpern has racked up the accolades, including an honorary doctorate from Johnson & Wales University. His office is filled with photos of celebrities he's met and images from his 25 consecutive years of running the Peachtree Road Race.

Halpern and his wife, Lynne, today reside at the luxe St. Regis Atlanta. They travel extensively and just returned from a voyage to Antarctica.

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