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TOOLIN’ AROUND TOWN: When Petaluma’s Brody Birds stood for freshness and quality

Long before we had Rocky and Rosie free-range chickens — and many years before chicken nuggets, chicken tenders and boneless wings were created — discriminating poultry shoppers chose Brody Birds, the exceptionally fresh and locally raised chicken processed and packaged at Reif & Brody, in Petaluma. Sought after for their high quality and freshness, the fryers, roasters and stew hens known as Brody Birds, were widely available throughout Northern California, Nevada and Oregon and in more than a half dozen foreign countries, and often were in stores and meat markets the day they were processed.

This strict adherence to quality began with Bill Brody, regarded as a pioneer in the poultry business and developer of the famed “Brody Bird,” who established the Reif & Brody processing plant in 1954, but got his start years earlier working in the poultry hauling business with his step-father Harry Reif.

Allan Brody, 74, the son of Bill and Sylvia Brody, grew up on the family’s Corona Road property along with his two sisters, Babs and Sharon. Immersed in the poultry industry as a child and having been taught every nuance of the business, he recently shared his memories, and the history of Reif & Brody, from its modest beginning to its widespread success.

It all began in 1938, when Harry Reif, starting with a single truck, went into the poultry hauling business, transporting live meat birds from the Petaluma area to Bay Area processing plants. He had a warehouse at 715 Main St., which adjoined his residential property on Cherry Street. His stepson, Bill Brody, had worked as a plumber, but after getting married he partnered with his step-father in the late 1940s to form Reif & Brody. In 1946, Bill and Sylvia Brody purchased a 32-acre parcel on Corona Road, the former Ward’s Duck Ranch, where the business expanded to nine trucks.

That piece of property was recently sold and is being planned as a residential development.

Bill Brody had long wanted to build a local chicken processing plant, and in 1954, after buying out Reif and purchasing property at the corner of Hopper (now Lakeville) and Madison streets, he finally realized his dream. Retaining the name Reif & Brody, he consulted with Petaluma artist and sign maker Lew Barber to create a new logo for its signature brand.

The “Brody Bird” moniker was coined by Allan Brody’s godmother, Stephanie Korettu.

Adhering to a business policy pledging “to do everything locally that we can,” Reif & Brody’s initial goal was to package 20,000 birds a week. The business enjoyed phenomenal growth, reaching 5,000 birds a week during its first year, and by its peak in 1968 they were packaging 40,000 birds a day. For years, all the birds processed at the plant came from within a 50-mile radius, with 100,000 birds a week supplied by Barlas Co. Later on, Brody allowed birds from Sacramento area and Central Valley to be brought in.

When it first opened, the plant employed between 100-150 workers, but quickly grew into one of Sonoma County’s largest employers, with about 220 employees. Reif & Brody shipped fresh chicken packed in ice to many destinations, including refrigerated freight cars to Omaha, Nebraska, where it went into Campbell’s Soup products. The plant also shipped huge quantities of chicken feet to Hong Kong where its preparation is a delicacy.

An innovator, Brody was one of the first to package cut-up chicken in tray packs, which eliminated buying whole birds and cutting them up at home. Known for his generosity and community involvement, he donated holiday turkeys to Hanna Boy’s Center, and along with hatchery owner Herb Bundesen originated the fondly remembered Chicken-N-Cue at the Sonoma-Marin Fair.

Among Allan Brody’s most cherished goals was to work alongside his father, whom he enjoyed being around and had always respected. His first job, when he was 10 years old, was cleaning out chicken coops, for five cents each. When he was about 16 years old, Allan learned every aspect of the processing business by spending one week in training in each phase of the business. He was a horseman with the Petaluma Junior Riding Club and at Petaluma High School, he was a member of Future Farmers of America, and played on the Trojan football team, graduating in 1961.

In 1969, Bill Brody accepted an offer from Valley Fresh to take over the entire operation, with Brody retaining ownership of the property. The plant kept going for a while, but it spelled the end of an era for the Brody Bird. When Valley Fresh was sold, Brody leased the plant to an institutional manufacturer of prepared airline meals. Not long after that, Bill Brody struck a deal with Clover Stornetta, which has operated from the site ever since.

Allan Brody met his wife of 50 years, Marge, on a blind date and the couple was married four months later. They are the parents of four children Melissa, Diane, Amy and Billy. In 1976, Brody started a trucking business hauling frozen foods, before expanding into lumber and general commodities. His trucking business, Expressway Transport, is currently operated by his daughter and son-in-law, Diane and Frank Souza.

(Harlan Osborne’s column, ‘Toolin’ Around Town,’ runs every two weeks. Contact Harlan at harlan@sonic.net.)