A Publication of WTVP

You would never guess that Jon Rocke, president of RMH Foods, is a grandfather of eight. His youthful appearance hides several decades of experience as the leader of a Morton company that employs over 100 people and sells to major grocery stores across the country. And when you meet his father, Wayne, you can see that good genes run in the family…along with a rich history tied to a business first known as Rocke’s Cold Storage.

“My grandfather, Jesse, opened Rocke’s Cold Storage in 1937 in Morton when he was 37 years old,” said Jon. “Before that, he was leasing and running a small meat department at the local grocery store. Retail was his real passion.” The custom butcher shop continued to support local livestock farmers during the war years, and then Jesse expanded the retail side in 1942 to sell specialty meat. “They were open seven days a week for long hours,” said Jon. “It was how life was lived back then. Everything was very fresh.”

Jesse had a heart attack and passed away in 1957, leaving the shop to his son, Wayne. Just 28 years old and recently back from the Navy, Wayne decided to expand the retail side of the business by adding a 7,000-square-foot full-line supermarket. He leased the space to Charlie Schwenk, who ran it as Schwenk’s Market for over a decade. “My grandfather started his career by leasing retail space, and now we came full circle,” said Jon. “My dad was leasing retail to someone else while continuing to butcher and sell premium Angus beef.”

As the ‘70s rolled in, Schwenk retired and Wayne needed a new strategy. Major grocery stores were coming to town, and a small supermarket could no longer compete. “My dad and mom brought in a consultant from Detroit, and he helped them reposition the store as Rocke’s Meating Haus, a gourmet foods store with hot deli meals prepared by a chef, and fresh seafood,” said Jon. “They were really on the cutting edge. Tons of people came from all over Peoria and the Bloomington area to buy their products.”

In the mid-‘80s, Rocke’s Meating Haus discontinued its butchering operation and began what would become a very successful mail order line. Small livestock farms were disappearing along with local butcher shops. Now, to find the quality meats they needed for customers, the Rocke’s team had to identify good meat instead of good animals. “It was a huge paradigm shift for us,” said Jon. “We knew what a good steer looked like, but we didn’t necessarily know how to find the meat from the best animals. We were also re-finding our way in terms of the processing.”

The third generation of Rocke leadership, Jon, took the business in a new direction in the ‘90s with the development of their current core business, the manufacturing of specialty food products for other mail order and food service companies. “Retail business was very holiday-focused,” said Jon. “We often said we spent three months making all our money and nine months trying not to lose it. When a customer asked us to develop a prime rib product for their catalog, we decided if we could create a high-quality cooked product, we could even out our production.”

Under Jon’s leadership, Rocke’s has become the powerhouse company it is today, with its products sold in most major grocery chains throughout the country. And while their state-of-the-art building and bustling workforce might look quite different from their original Rocke’s Cold Storage roots, the core values of the people and the company have never changed. “One of our core values at RMH is ‘possibilities,’ which was a value of my father and grandfather,” said Jon. “They were both willing to take risks and try new things. I’ll never forget when my dad started that hot deli. They were throwing away more food than they were selling because it was so new. It took a few years for people to catch on, and then it was successful, but my dad never gave up hope. He always taught me that you can’t be afraid to change and innovate.”

I asked Jon how a family business is different from any other business, and he was quick to explain both the blessings and the banes. “There are blessings in the sense that you get to work with people who you know intimately enough that you know what their commitments are,” said Jon. “But in order to preserve the family, you have to learn to separate your business and personal relationships. One small, but meaningful, symbol for us was that I always called my father ‘Wayne’ when we were in the business but then switched to ‘Dad’ or ‘Pops’ at home or away from the plant. That has carried over between me and my son, Jordan.”

Another cost of leading a multi-generational business is the burden of living up to the generation that came before you. “I look back and see that both my father and grandfather would be considered successful, and I want to live up to that,” said Jon. “Each leader has different strengths and weaknesses. I am very different from my father, and thankfully, he has given me the freedom to lead in my own way. I’ll have to face letting go and giving freedom to Jordan if he decides at some point that he wants to run the business. Hopefully, I will be as generous as my father was to me.” iBi