That chicken on your flight? It could have taken off from Riverbank processing plant

A Riverbank chicken processor has grown six-fold since its 2012 founding through attention to the many ways the bird can be presented.

Compass Foods employs 91 people at a Roselle Avenue plant that is tiny by industry standards. They take whole chickens slaughtered elsewhere within the past day and carve and flavor them as requested by restaurants and other customers.

“Our job is to make the kitchen’s job easier,” founder Thomas Mathias said during a Thursday morning tour for The Modesto Bee. “If we can prep the food here, they don’t have to prep the food there.”

Compass buys its chickens from several larger poultry companies. Most come from Foster Farms, which employs more than 3,000 people at its massive plant in Livingston.

Mathias said his plant specializes in “portion control,” which helps chefs save money and time. One order, for example, might be for 5-ounce breast pieces with the skin on, another for 4-ounce skinless thighs.

Compass also produces “airline chicken breasts,” an in-flight staple with one wing joint still attached to the breast. And it supplies the small breast pieces that go into the nuggets at the local Chicken Barn chain.

The plant has buyers mostly in Northern California, Nevada and Oregon. It ships a chicken broth base to a company in Georgia. Some of the products are organic. Some are antibiotic-free.

Compass has its own retail brand, Campfire Meats, that so far is only at Cost Less Foods stores in Stanislaus County. Mathias hopes to expand to other grocers.

The Campfire name harks back to the founder’s unusual life story. He grew up in the English town of Glastonbury, the son of a local newspaper editor. He was intrigued by the cowboy lifestyle and moved in 1997 to California. A job running cattle in the southern Sierra Nevada led to work in pork and then the chicken industry.

Mathias worked as a broker for chicken from Foster Farms and other companies before starting Compass. It was briefly in Waterford before moving to the roughly 10,000-square-foot space in Riverbank.

The workforce was just 13 people back in 2012, handling about 7,000 pounds of chicken per day. Volume is now up to about 40,000 pounds per day. Removing an interior wall freed up space.

The employees work in two shifts five days a week, under the watch of a USDA inspector who drops in and out. The workers wash their hands thoroughly and don smocks, boots, hairnets and hardhats. They carve the chicken with knives and machinery, all of it sanitized daily.

It was a steady 38 degrees inside the plant on the 100-plus day that The Bee visited. The products go out very cold to prevent food-borne disease, but not frozen. Compass has not had a recall in its seven years.

The company’s working relationship with other chicken producers is typical of the state industry, said Bill Mattos, president of the California Poultry Federation in Modesto.

“(Mathias) understands the industry very well,” he said. “He also understands his customers’ needs.”

Foster Farms is not exactly a slowpoke on the value-added front. It turns out chicken and turkey in hundreds of forms and flavors, including fresh birds and parts, marinated meat, deli slices and frozen patties.

Mathias said he would like to reach perhaps 100 employees at his plant, rather than growing into another industry giant. He is well-positioned: Chicken was the county’s No. 3 farm product in 2018, according a report released Tuesday.

“It’s the cheapest protein you can get, and the most versatile,” Mathias said.

John Holland covers breaking news and has been with The Modesto Bee since 2000. He has covered agriculture for the Bee and at newspapers in Sonora and Visalia. He was born and raised in San Francisco and has a journalism degree from UC Berkeley.