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.
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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.
Specific equipment pieces include a flame broiler/griller with a series of eight ribbon burners to speed the browning and searing of foods such as mushrooms. For poultry, the searing process seals in the natural oils before the product enters the oven. The oven itself incorporates a 16”-wide belt that spirals around the burners to the equivalent of 150’ of belt, all within an 8’ x 8’ footprint.
No kitchen, test or otherwise, would be complete without a gas infrared oven, the most innovative of which utilize a stainless steel burner head for increased durability.
Likewise, quick cooling crusters have attained de rigueur status for any food-processing plant that produces meat or poultry logs. Round out the chilling side of the business with a spiral freezer and a continuous impingement freezer. With the inclusion of an infrared or aquaflow pasteurizer, almost every imaginable aspect of the food processing industry is covered in today’s modern test kitchen.
If that’s not enough, Unitherm’s kitchen, for one, comes staffed with design engineers willing to work hand in hand with food processors to modify any existing machinery into a customized cooking system. An on-site 3-D modeling system accelerates the process.
Early feedback indicates that these kitchens are quite popular among food processors. Whether fire-roasting Portobello mushrooms, steaming potatoes, cooking vegetables and other ingredients for sauces and ravioli fillings, or baking chicken tenders, experimenting with the equipment emboldens processors to proceed with confidence, knowing that the equipment will maximize yields, reduce processing times, increase food safety, and improve the final product’s taste.
Agroin (www.agroin.com.mx), which was founded in 2003, operates as a division of La Huerta, one of the largest frozen produce exporters in Mexico and a supplier of frozen vegetables to Wal-Mart. Agroin processes the frozen poblano chili pepper line for La Huerta, but its output was limited by its hand-built griller.
“We have very limited production at our plant here in Mexico, but our clients were asking for more and more of our chili pepper products,” said Leonardo Randolph, production manager for Agroindustria de Aguascalientes S.A. de C.V.
While attending a trade show in Chicago, Randolph and La Huerta’s Ricardo Arteaga Barba were introduced to Unitherm Food Systems.
“Because our pepper-roasting process is unique, we were not sure that any standard griller could do the job correctly and preserve the special taste of our product,” Randolph said.
“Unitherm agreed to work with us, and they invited us to their test kitchen in Oklahoma to design a flame griller that would meet our specific needs. We flew straight from Chicago to their plant because we wanted to ensure we could get something that would fit our process exactly.”
“We grow and harvest our own peppers, wash them, and then roast them,” Randolph said. “Afterwards, we peel off the blackened outer skin and then immediately freeze and package the product in different presentations. But our old griller that roasts the peppers was a bottleneck in the whole process. We had enough demand to more than triple our output, but we realized that we would need three more of our old roasters to meet the throughput that our new freezer was capable of handling. We needed to process one metric ton per hour, but our existing griller could only roast 250 kilograms per hour.”
Aside from insufficient capacity, the construction of the old griller invited inconsistencies in roasting, as the distance between the gas burners and the product handling equipment could vary, making it difficult to quickly and thoroughly peel off the unevenly blackened skin. At the output end of the griller, some of the peppers would fail to separate from the springs that carried them, and a person would have to pull out the stuck peppers by hand.
“Unitherm brought in the same type of green poblano chili peppers we use, roasted them in their griller, and made adjustments until they came out the way we wanted. We tasted them and they were really good. We could see that this was going to work for us and provide the production volumes we were seeking,” Randolph said.
The flame grill system like the one selected by the principals at Agroin allows a wide range of customization, with belt widths ranging from 20 inches to 60 inches, eight to 50 ribbon burners, adjustable bar markers with variable grilling patterns, and belt speeds from five minutes to 180 minutes.
Through collaborative efforts, a final design was selected for a single flame griller that could meet Agroin’s goal of one metric ton of product per hour. Preservation, if not improvement, in product quality was achieved by the grilling system’s ability to roast each pepper on all sides, providing the sought-after consistency.
“The griller was so efficient that we only needed one unit to do the job of three or four of our old grillers,” Randolph said. “As such, we expect our energy consumption to shrink tremendously. But the best part is that we expect the quality to improve, because with the new equipment we can control the speed of the griller bed, the amount of burners that can be turned on, and the quantity of heat going out of the griller.”
An unexpected gain from this design comes in the form of increased yield. “By weight, the product shrinks by about 20% to 25%, and this is normal during the roasting process,” Randolph said. “However, the new griller can limit that loss to 15% to 20%.”
Such positive outcomes are repeated— with all manner of food products and purposes—in new test kitchens throughout the country. Howard recounted a success story of achieving a roasting rate of 7,000 pounds per hour of red bell peppers within four hours of the client’s entering the kitchen. In another successful case, a producer of pre-cooked ready meals—such as lasagna, macaroni and cheese, and potato salad—booked a two-day stay at the Unitherm location.
“By coming to our kitchen, we could solve the complex problem of browning some product within CPET trays,” Howard said. “We achieved the objective within a half-dozen hours. He bought the machine while he was in the kitchen. Ordinarily, people go back to their plant, have a corporate meeting, and then purchase. But these kitchens help speed that process so processors can quickly retool their plants to optimize product throughput.”
With a test kitchen, some equipment manufacturers boast a 100% rate of conversion from client visit to sales order. These kitchens are able to offer a service that develops the optimum thermal, chilling, or sanitation process for the client.
“We’re allowing food processors to first think about, ‘How am I going to maximize the quality of my product,’ as opposed to thinking about machinery,” Howard said.