Only a fool would buy a new car without going for a test drive, and food processors now find themselves adopting a similar approach when it comes to purchasing equipment for their facilities. No longer content to simply sign off on the delivery of large ovens and chillers at their docks before trying to adapt the machinery to their particular processes, plant managers have sought a means to ensure, in advance, that such equipment is optimally suited for their operations.
With equipment manufacturers now offering fully equipped kitchens that allow food producers to “kick the tires” on new equipment by visiting the manufacturers with their product in tow, better results in terms of yield and quality are now becoming the norm.
The most complete examples of these kitchens allow food processors to test various cooking and freezing options and to optimize both the equipment and the process before putting down a penny. Some manufacturers even go so far as to bring in design engineers to modify the equipment, further customizing it to improve the customer’s process.
In effect, this new direction allows processors to perfect their products—be they cooked or frozen, vegetable or meat—in the showroom so that no surprises pop up on the production floor.
From a Model T to a Lincoln
Henry Ford said, “You can have any color you want, as long as it’s black.” That’s not too much of a stretch from the old paradigm of purchasing food-processing machinery, when processors had to purchase off the shelf. In such instances, equipment capabilities often dictated the cooking and freezing processes, resulting in less than optimal taste and quality for the sake of the high volumes that only automated machinery can deliver.
But the food market is very competitive; processors who don’t offer the consumer the best gustatory experience eventually go out of business. Hence the need to get it right the first time.
Here is where the shift toward equipment-testing kitchens comes in.
“The future of food process machinery purchasing is going this way, where the customer can demand to go into a kitchen and actually try out their product on the machinery,” said David Howard, CEO of Unitherm Food Systems of Bristow, Okla. “Only then can they feel confident that the equipment best serves their operational parameters and expected results.”
Already recognized throughout the food processing industry for its unique heat transfer systems that maximize yields and reduce processing times, Unitherm recently joined the, as yet, small coterie of manufacturers that feature fully-equipped test kitchens.
As one of the newer, more modern iterations of manufacturer-owned test kitchens, Unitherm presents a textbook example of the type of environment that awaits the producers of cooked vegetables, meats, and frozen foods.
Upon arrival, guests are introduced to a $2.5 million, 25,000-square-foot kitchen dedicated to high-volume, high-speed food processing. Entry begins with a true cleanroom experience, with hygienic architectural products such as stainless steel curbing, hands-free sinks, and stainless steel floor drains.
“Test kitchens should be set up to resemble a high-quality food factory,” Howard said. “Here, you walk in, change into your smock and boots, and put on a hair net. Then proceed through a hand wash station. There’s also a sanitizer to scrub and wash your boots.”
The food processing area itself contains $8 million worth of fully operational production machines and product handling equipment that can continuously feed as many as 10 different cooking processes. Think: steaming, blanching, broiling, baking, searing, branding, grilling, and pasteurizing; convection impingement to infrared; with gas, electric, or thermal oil. Cooking temps range from below boiling point all the way up to 1,600°F.