In 1975, Tyler, Texas-based John Soules Foods was a small processor making hamburger patties in a 2,000-sq.-ft. plant and delivering them direct to area restaurants. The company has since evolved into the leading beef and chicken fajita meat processing and marketing company in the US Now selling product through leading distributors and retailers, the company is expected to achieve $150 million in sales this year.
John Soules Foods sells a wide range of fully cooked and ready-to-cook products to foodservice distributors, multi-unit national and regional restaurant groups, supermarket chains and institutional businesses. Its product portfolio includes raw, marinated beef and chicken products that are fresh, bulk-frozen or individually quick-frozen (IQF), as well as fully-cooked strips and portions of refrigerated and frozen beef and chicken products.
Product capabilities include diced chicken and beef; fully cooked, wholemuscle products; portioned, fullycooked chicken breast; fully cooked wings and other bone-in products; raw portioned beef and chicken; marinated whole-muscle products, as well as other beef and poultry products.
To keep up with growing product demand, the company now processes these products in an ever-expanding 225,000-sq.-ft. plant – which was only 83,000 sq. ft. when it opened in 1996. The facility employs more than 500 people and processes from 80 million lbs. to 100 million lbs. of product annually. It operates two shifts (plus one sanitation shift) daily, six days a week.
In reflecting on their company’s evolution, the co-CEOs, who are the fourth-generation of family meat men and sons of founder and chairman John Soules Sr., agree deciding to switch to processing fajita meat and other value-added products was the right move at the right time.
“In 2000, we resigned about $20 million worth of raw ground-beef business; we just stopped making it,” says John Soules Jr., co-CEO, who oversees operations, R&D and quality assurance.
“We just saw better opportunities from the solid-muscle side of the business and decided to make the move,” adds Mark Soules, co-CEO, who manages sales. “It was John Jr.’s idea and it was definitely the right move for us.”
Most recently, John Soules Foods was approved to begin offering raw, marinated Certified Angus Beef fajita products for foodservice. This relationship was born to fulfill CAB customer needs.
“Our licensed foodservice distributors in Texas shared their need for marinated fajita meat and Carne Asada,” says Brett Erickson, CAB director of value-added products. “Typically, products in this category are valuebased, but as we talked with them and John Soules Foods, we saw a tremendous opportunity for premium Certified Angus Beef products. Retailers have also expressed an interest due to the rising popularity of Hispanic cuisine nationwide.”
CAB sometimes receives requests from customers for a new processor, Erickson says. “We carefully evaluate each opportunity, choosing only those that complement our brand in a category where we don’t currently have business,” he adds. “Not only do we want to work with a qualityminded and safety-focused processor , but that company also needs to be able to promote and distribute the product on a national level.”
“It’s been a great relationship,” John Jr. says. “CAB holds a lot of the same core values we hold.”
“We worked on getting CAB approval for approximately one year,” Mark adds. “It’s going extremely well.”
John Soules Foods’ CAB products are carried by about 15 major CAB foodservice distributors in the U.S. “By the end of the year, we’ll be somewhere between 20 and 25 large CAB distributors from coastto-coast,” Mark says. “Right now we’re in Florida over to San Diego in the southern US Our CAB products are coming to the Northeast and the Midwest as well as the Northwest. By the end of the year, we’ll have a pretty good start on getting those distributors set up.”
Licensing John Soules Foods brings Certified Angus Beef product to a brand-new market, Erickson says. Several distributors previously made these products to customer specs, but they were not available on a national level, he adds.
Not all processors and products are a good fit (with CAB), Erickson says. “When we find one we are interested in, the licensing process can take six months to a year,” he says. “Since this is a marinated product, we worked closely with the staff at John Soules Foods to evaluate marinades and select the best cuts to develop our premium standard. In addition to product development, we make sure all the business essentials are in place for food safety, product segregation, product reporting, labeling and marketing.”
John Soules Foods’ spacious, well lit, plant is a stainless steel wall-to-ceiling showcase that is designed for food safety. “Our cooked and raw employees break separately, have different entrances and we control everything through key cards,” John Jr. says.
The raw side is the older part of the plant where all color codes are blue. “That’s where we prep product...we trim it before it goes to the cook lines, we marinade it and prepare it to be cooked or have it packaged for raw distribution,” he adds.
On two shifts, employees can typically trim 150,000 lbs. to 200,000 lbs. of product daily. Once product is verified and meets trim quality, product goes to one of four 6,000 lb. tumblers and is marinated for 30 to 45 minutes. Product then goes on to be packaged as a raw, marinated fresh or frozen product or conveys on to the cook lines.
Its chicken-portioning procedures end by yielding fixed-weight breasts. “We portion the product into a certain weight and then that product also goes to marination to be either packaged IQF or to be cooked,” John Jr. says.
Product for cooking moves by conveyor into the oven, through a wall and into the cook (green) room. “There are temperature-takers on each line
at that point,” John Jr. says. “If they get an unacceptable temperature, they hit a button, the conveyor retracts and that product goes into a bin unit. We stop the line, re-sanitize conveyors affected and then return product to cooking. Product is then sized through a slicer or dicer and goes into an all stainless-freezer that features a seamless floor, wall and ceiling. If we ever have micro issues, we can sanitize the entire freezer very effectively.”
Next, product conveys into radial scales and onto the form/fill/seal machines to be put into either retail or clear foodservice bags. At the end of the line is where real-time checks are done on weights, piece sizes and more.
In discussing advanced plant technology, John Jr. points out, “Our tumbling/marinating system is extremely advanced and consistent as are our tumblers. We have a sophisticated brine system that feeds into it. On the cook side, we have a high-speed oven that allows us to finish 10,000 lbs. to 12,000 lbs. an hour just on that line. It’s a very sophisticated oven that can steam heat or dry heat at different fan speeds to control color.”
The plant’s R&D complex was built in 2006. Customers can visit the presentation room to view presentations on a big screen and taste product samples. Trimming, marinating and cooking of products are done on a smaller scale just as they are out on the floor.
When asked about R&D highlights, John Jr. answers: “It’s our people. We have a certified chef and a food scientist who handle all of our requests whether foodservice or a retail run-through. They might have 25 projects at one time in progress and they do a fantastic, awesome job.”
The plant is consistently online feeding real-time data on weights, piece sizes, color and more. “That has been a huge improvement for us to be able to catch potential problems before they can become full-blown out-of-spec size or weight problems ,” John Jr. says. “Our statistical process-control programs help us to be consistent and safe.”
Ensuring food safety comes down to blocking and tackling potential pathogens and harmful bacteria. “If you’re cooking solid-muscle product, it is about consistency of the thickness of raw material going through and probing and getting temperature readings on those thickest pieces and making sure you’re reaching the sought-after temperature,” John Jr. says. “If you’re doing that, we don’t have a lot of issues.
“It’s easy to see when we’ve had an issue and to go back and train to correct it,” he adds. “We have cameras throughout the plant. We can sometimes use certain footage to teach food safety.”
The company is conducting a food-safety test on a post-cook spray system. “The preliminary results from an organoleptic standpoint are great. We are in the middle of seeing, from a micro standpoint, what kind of benefit we get,” John Jr. says.
When products ship, they’re safe, John Jr. insists. “We test and hold everything,” he adds. “We have an extremely aggressive testing program that tests products and environmentals . Our philosophy is when you’re talking about certain pathogens and bacteria that can come in a product, more than likely your plant has them so go find and eradicate them.”
The plant conducts one test an hour on finished product. “We composite those and send them to a third-party lab in Dallas and we feel very comfortable that once the products are on the shelf that they’re safe,” John Jr. says. “You’d be surprised that’s a mindset not a lot of companies have.”
Retail vs. foodservice
Products processed are split roughly 50/50 retail and foodservice; with 50 percent being refrigerated and 50 percent frozen. No products are exported.
“There’s still a lot of business in the U.S. to go after; the U.S. is our focus without a doubt,” Mark says.
When the company made raw ground beef, it had up to 400 SKUs, Mark says. “We streamlined it down to 125 items [from 60 core products]; it makes a big difference on your throughput, profitability, and fewer mistakes made when you’re dealing with fewer items. You can be a lot more efficient when you get it down to 125 items.” John Soules Foods began its retail fajitas business making raw, marinated fresh product. “Today, fullycooked dwarfs what we do in raw, fresh marinated fajitas,” John Jr. says.
Three of the company’s newest fully-cooked retail products are testament to its continuing product diversification: Skinny Chix lean, seasoned, chicken tender chunks – never fried/oven roasted – with two sauce packs, Buffalo Style and Honey BBQ; Rotisserie Style Chicken Breast Fillets, seasoned and roasted golden brown; and Restaurant Quality Angus Beef Steak, seasoned and thinly sliced, were launched two weeks before Meat&Poultry visited the company. All company retail products are gluten-free.
Skinny Chix is a new, unbreaded, never-fried boneless wing item. Mothers are looking for healthier foods for their children, both co-CEOs say. No company products are breaded.
“All of our products are healthy; there’s not a lot of fat in any of our products,” John Jr. says. “And about a year ago, we reduced product sodium content by about 40 percent to 50 percent. We’re a little bit ahead of the industry curve.”
The company employs six vertical form/fill/seal packaging machines for retail products and prints on flat film to create gusseted zipper-bags. On the raw side, it’s mostly rollstock machines where product is placed into a formed pocket and sealed, either refrigerated or frozen.
Once the plant reaches full production capacity, only half the facility on the cooked side is in operation. “We just have to finish it out,” John Jr. says of the un-used area. “We have another probably 60 to 70 million lbs. of capacity we could put through there.” Addressing future opportunities, Mark says, “I think hand-held foods, or ‘the fourth meal’, will be the next segment we’ll investigate.” John Jr. adds further-processed items using company products as ingredients is another opportunity.
John Soules Foods is in a good competitive position. “Being privatelyowned, we have four things to focus on: food safety, our customers, employees and annual results,” Mark says.
“We’re able to respond quicker to our customers – they all have our cell phone numbers,” John Jr. adds. “We’re going to succeed no matter what the challenges are because of our basic principles of responding to the consumer and creating good products people really like.”
Another opportunity Mark sees is for the John Soules Foods brand to strengthen and expand its partnership with CAB. “There is an opportunity for John Soules Foods and CAB to make the No 1, top-of-the-line cooked beef items in the country – and that’s our focus,” Mark says.
Mark says he and his brother owe their father a lot of gratitude. “Neither one of us would be here today if it hadn’t been for him starting this business,” he adds. “Dad’s a visionary.”
“We wouldn’t be where we are today if it wasn’t for Dad buying out his partners [sons of John Sr.’s grandfather, Thuston Thompson – the first family member in the meat business] and sticking his neck out to evolve into what the company is today,” John Jr. adds. “We all also give the Lord a lot of credit.”