|DiLuigi Foods's plant has grown to include new technologies to expand production, enhance food safety and enable product innovation.
In 1950, Louis DiLuigi Sr. opened a butcher shop in a small East Boston storefront and taught his son, Louis Jr., the art of butchering and sausage-making. The business produced fresh cuts of meat and sausage for more than 30 years. Along the way, Louis Jr. took over the family business and converted the butcher shop into a sausage production facility for this business known as DiLuigi Sausage Co.
Outgrowing its facility after several expansions, the business moved into a new production complex in Danvers, Mass. in 2002. It has since expanded to more than 50,000 sq. ft. – half of this space is dedicated to production. More than 200 people work there.
The plant, which has its own in-house lab, plus is SQF 2000, organic, Halal and HACCP certified, is growing and evolving with the business. Organic products are primarily beef while Halal products are shipped to American restaurant chain customers in the Middle East. Although the plant also produces private-label products and does some co-packing, most products are made for the US retail market. “We believe focusing on our own brands is the way to go,” says Dean Souza, president and long-time friend of Louis DiLuigi Jr.
DiLuigi Foods is now the largest manufacturer of retail niche meat products on the East Coast, and it has evolved and diversified its product offerings decades after starting out as a private-label pork sausage processor. Today, it is a leading retail-branded, artisan processor of preservative-free, value-added, refrigerated chicken, turkey, pork and beef cook-and-eat products, as well as frozen variations, under several brand names.
The DiLuigi Foods product brand includes meatballs, marinated products and entrée products, such as Chicken Cordon Bleu and Stuffed Pork Chops. The DiLuigi Sausage product brand includes varieties of pork, chicken and turkey dinner sausage. The Aria Natural Foods brand of “high-natural” and organic products includes chicken-based breakfast and dinner sausage, ground chicken loaf and ground chicken patties. These products maintain the “never-ever standard,” which means no artificial ingredients, no colors added, no chemical preservatives and no antibiotics or growth hormones are administered. Its pork breakfast sausage, which utilizes all-natural ingredients and features clean labeling, is produced under its Loften County brand. While its Bridger Beef brand products include frozen beef burgers made from 100-percent whole-muscle beef, freshly ground at its plant plus franks, marinated beef and shaved steak. Products are distributed along the East Coast from Maine to Florida – and into Pennsylvania and New York State. One California retailer is also a major customer.
In light of its expanding product portfolio, the business changed its name from DiLuigi Sausage Co. to DiLuigi Foods four years ago. (Visit www.diluigifoods.com for more information.)
Business is good – and growing. Annual company sales are between $100 million and $150 million. “Our growth target on an annual basis is 20 percent and we’re on target to meet that growth this year,” Souza says.
A friend of Louis DiLuigi Jr. since age six, Souza worked for the company making sausage during high school and his first year in college. “I went off to college and earned my Bachelor’s in Business Administration from the Univ. of Massachusetts and an MBA from Babson College, Wellesley, Mass., and Lou Jr. took over the family business,” Souza says. “Five years ago, he asked if I’d come back and run the company for him.”
Impressive history and plant
When Bill Morris, vice president of operations, started at the Danvers plant in 2003, the plant had four production lines. “We now have 12,” he says, adding that the production is mostly focused on sausage and its line of entrée products, which utilize seven modified atmosphere processing lines and three overwrap lines including the Master Bag line. There are also two horizontal form/fill/seal lines for packaging marinated products. Production is divided into three areas: the sausage room and gourmet beef burgers area, the new freezer room that handles gourmet beef, chicken and turkey patties plus some marinated products; and the entrée room, which also handles the grind loaf program.
New technologies that enhance production include the recent addition of a new spiral-freezer room, a project that began two years ago. The European-made spiral freezer – the first in the US – can individually quick-freeze burgers to 20°F in 30 minutes, locking in freshness, flavor and color. Taking three months to install the freezer, work continues to integrate other components of this room.
“We’re looking at an inline conveyor that will feed a piece of paper to the patty and feed that patty onto a reciprocal conveyor that will feed it onto the conveyor of the spiral freezer,” Morris says. “Once product exits the freezer, it’s going to feed two packaging machines.”
A two-chambered intervention cabinet was built for DiLuigi Foods by a leading supplier to treat whole-muscle beef and turkey with a 360 degree antimicrobial cold- surface wash. Product enters one side and after a specific dwell time exits the other side. All grinds produced in-plant are made from whole-muscle products after treatment by this process.
“We’ve already seen great results from our intervention system in improved food safety and extended shelf-life,” Morris says. “It provides consumers with a safer product. I sleep better at night knowing products treated by that intervention are safe. Product leaving our intervention system is as clean as it can possibly be without being irradiated.”
The plant also operates a fully automated line for ground beef, pork and turkey products at various lean points. Product first enters a stuffer, a checkweigher removes any out-of-spec product, and an automatic loader then transfers product to the MAP machine. Metal detectors safeguard products throughout the line.
“This automated line does 25-30 percent of the total weight going through this building. I wish I had two of them,” Morris confides.
Separate beef, pork and chicken grinding rooms incorporate a bone removal system. “Cartilage or bone fragments caught are discarded as waste. They do a fantastic job,” Morris says.
Great team and products
Souza’s management team includes Morris; Shannon Magee, controller; John Cremens, head of retail sales; John Carroll III, quality assurance manager; and Kristi Cunningham, marketing manager. “We have people who’ve been in this business a long time who understand the meat products we produce,” Souza says.
Cremens was meat director of Foodmasters Supermarkets in the greater-Boston area for 27 years before joining the company a year-and-a-half ago. “DiLuigi Foods cuts whole-muscle steaks, makes sausages and entrées and grinds burgers, but what we do different is customize our operation to make what the customer wants,” Cremens says. “We can do extraordinary packaging or cut meat a certain way to accomplish a certain tenderness.”
Smaller supermarket chain customers are just as important as the largest customers. And DiLuigi Foods can tailor any of its branded products to a customer’s specifications.
Approximately 300 SKUs of products are produced at the Danvers plant. “We do a lot of hand-crafting,” Cremens says. “About 30 percent of our products are hand-crafted and 70 percent are made via automation.”
|Beef pinwheel Florentine is just one Certified Angus Beef products processed at DiLuigi Foods.
DiLuigi Foods began processing Certified Angus Beef (CAB) retail products in July 2013, thanks largely to Cremens’ past experience with CAB. Fourteen CAB items are being produced including gourmet and plain CAB burgers, beef sliders, meatballs, shaved steak, Beef Pinwheel Florentine and marinated kabobs.
“[DiLuigi Foods] has a strong presence in one of our top retail markets and a product line that appeals to a growing customer base,” says Brett Erickson, director of value-added products with Certified Angus Beef LLC, based in Wooster, Ohio.
Although the company’s retail products are used as ingredients by some further processors for the foodservice market, its primary focus will remain on its own retail branded products. “We expanded into foodservice over the years but backed off in January 2014,” Souza says. “Foodservice is a much different business and not where we want to focus our efforts.”
Innovative new products coupled with speed to market are driving company success. “A retailer visited us four weeks ago and reviewed a dozen new products,” Souza says. “They were interested in about half of them and asked if we could provide samples the following week. We did and they were thrilled. Now, we’ll start the process to ensure these products are ready for them in the fall.”
Each year, DiLuigi Foods creates a spring and fall product program featuring all company products, highlighting best-sellers and new items for current and prospective customers to review. Recent new product successes include a specialty burger that tastes like a Steak Bomb Burger (hot submarine sandwich). “It’s one of our big sellers,” Souza says.
Another successful item just launched is its Steak and Cheese Sausage. “If you want a nice, clean, high-quality product, that’s what we produce. We focus on the artisan side of the business,” he adds.
New product development team members include Souza; Morris; product developers Jenna DiLuigi, trained cook and Lou Jr.’s daughter, and Mike Delande, a long-time butcher and spice purchaser, among others.
| Roughly 30 percent of DiLuigi's
products are handcrafted.
“New product development is a passion,” Souza insists. “This is the fun part of our business. We have spice guys, meat guys and two in-plant food scientists with bachelor’s degrees, one with a Ph.D. and one outside university Ph.D. on retainer who help us in product development and on the QC side of product development.”
Maintaining and enhancing food safety and product quality is a must. In addition to employing a crack QC team under QC Manager John Carroll, Souza championed creating the in-house lab because the company wasn’t getting the shelf-life it wanted on some products, which resulted in product returns. At the time, DiLuigi Foods was using a third-party lab to sample incoming raw product, but it took three weeks to get analyses back.
“We invested in hiring people with a food science and lab background and the lab equipment that allows them to do the testing,” Souza says. “We put rules in place including what the standard plate counts and lean counts should be on raw material and finished product. We test incoming raw material. If it doesn’t meet our standards, we tell the supplier, ‘You need to clean this up or we can’t buy products from you anymore.’”
This tremendously improved shelf-life and product quality – and has virtually eliminated product returns.
Souza says both raw/refrigerated and frozen products are becoming more popular. “Consumers are substituting raw, refrigerated products with good, solid frozen product so they can put it in their freezer until they’re ready – and reduce the shrink at home,” Souza adds. “That’s why we moved into the frozen business. It makes sense to also make high-quality frozen products without preservatives.”
When asked if the company aspired to go national, Souza replies yes, but it’s not the right time yet. “[The desire to go national] also led us to getting into frozen lines because we can distribute them [safely] throughout the entire US,” he concludes.