Self sufficient

by Joeld Crews
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Just as important as the brick and mortar comprising Roundy’s Supermarkets Inc. food-production facility in Kenosha, Wis., is the guy who hatched the idea of building a central commissary to supply the chain’s 150-plus stores. Mario Jedwabnik, whose official title is vice president of manufactured foods at the versatile plant, unofficially played the role of real-estate agent, architect, project manager and foreman back when the plant was first conceived and ultimately built about six years ago. With decades of experience working in the supermarket supply chain, Jedwabnik’s diverse expertise soon earned him the title of “Jack of all trades.” Once erected, his ability to develop and manage the production of a growing number and broad scope of products – from dairy, to ice cream, to bagged ice to meat offerings – was put to the test. Not surprisingly, under his leadership and a team of committed food-processing professionals, Roundy’s commissary has not only survived since 2005, but thrived.

Today, the facility runs more like nine or 10 plants under one roof, including a significant meat-processing operation. So, while sausage is stuffed in one part of the plant, in another area yogurt is being made, and in another, from-scratch potato salad is mixed in bathtub sized batches, and still another part of the plant is dedicated to filtering and bottling water. Production also includes ham salad, sour cream, 16 varieties of soup, butter cream, meatloaf, chili, bagged ice, ice cream and much more. And all the products are manufactured exclusively for Roundy’s stores. The Roundy’s Supermarkets’ chain includes Copps, Metro Market, Mariano’s, Pick’n Save and Rainbow banners, located in Wisconsin, Chicago and Minnesota’s Twin Cities.

Because of the diverse production at the plant, Roundy’s commissary is one of the few food-processing facilities in the country operated under both FDA and USDA inspection. Spanning 116,000 sq. ft. and employing about 170 workers, the facility serves as an order fulfillment center for products Jedwabnik’s team formerly outsourced and eventually discovered a way to manufacture in-house. Located in close proximity to a major highway, most products can be ordered, manufactured and shipped to one of the company’s two distribution centers one day, and delivered to the appropriate store the next.

The commissary business model was something Jedwabnik fell in love with during his days working with Bob Mariano, who now is Roundy’s CEO, when both men worked with the Dominick’s chain in the 1990’s, before it was acquired by Safeway.

“I love the commissary concept,” he says. “I operate as a profit center; we are a stand-alone business that needs to compete with other potential suppliers.” As such, he says, margins are more insulated from the ebb and flow of the economy.

Even today, “I don’t mean to sound cavalier, but I don’t feel [the economic pressure] like the national brands do. We provide a quality product with good value, without the need to spend as much for advertising. Instead, we spend more effort on production.”

Meat-focused

Walking through the meat-processing area of the facility, Jedwabnik points out that no co-packing for other companies is done at the plant and that the amount of cold-storage space is limited, and that is not at all by accident. Operators of the meat-processing area of the plant, which occupies about one-fourth of the facility, pride themselves on their ability to ship to order.

“We’re like the back room of a supermarket meat department,” he says, noting that this “back room” churns out more than 6.5 million lbs. of products per year with demand that has increased by as much as 5 percent per week. Considering that for the first couple of years of the 5-yr.-old plant’s life that water and ice were the only products, the growth of the meat operation is significant. This year, frozen sausage production will top 1.3 million lbs.; fresh sausage, 2.3 million lbs.; poultry breasts, 2 million lbs.; and approximately 1 million lbs. of fresh hamburger patties. “We’re running, we’re not walking, here,” Jedwabnik says.

Manufacturing 1 million lbs. of ground beef meat patties is achieved without any grinding being done at the plant. Instead, chubs of beef are delivered to the commissary where they are mixed together and then dumped in hoppers of forming equipment to make eight-pack trays that carry the Roundy’s brand. The operation benefits from its parent company’s buying power when it comes to sourcing beef. “For example, I don’t negotiate pricing,” he says. However, when the buyer for the entire Roundy’s retail chain calls, the big processors listen. And Jedwabnik’s commissary is the beneficiary of Roundy’s buying muscle.

Sausage-centric

Headquartered in Wisconsin, it is hardly surprising that demand for bratwurst at Roundy’s stores is always high, which is why the decision was made several years ago to offer customers the store’s brand of brats and sausage products among its varieties in the meat case. Production of brats is especially brisk during the summer months when weather lends itself to cookouts and outdoor activities. Waning demand for brats in the cooler months is offset by an uptick in breakfast sausage, which the plant also makes in 12-oz. links and packages in 14-count trays.

Production of quarter-pound frozen and fresh sausage, in natural casings, goes on at the plant year-round as the supermarket chain does its part to deliver products that intentionally resemble national brands like Johnsonville in their shape, size and packaging. Pork for sausage production is delivered in 1,500-lb. bins from pork processors in the region. “We get that product in 1-inch pieces and grind it down to get it ready for the stuffer,” says Catherine Brissette, meat production supervisor at the commissary.

The production of fresh vs. frozen sausage depends on the season of the year, she says, but on average, the plant produces about 18,000 lbs. per week with a weekly capacity that is upwards of 30,000 lbs. To efficiently freeze products, a wide conveying system using nitrogen-based freezing technology is used. Polish sausage, processed mostly during the holidays, is never frozen. Like the other products made at the commissary, responding quickly to demand is key to the meat-processing operation’s success. For example, sausage shelf-life is only 10 days, therefore, processing on an in-and-out basis is especially critical. “We don’t make them until after they’re ordered,” Brissette says, and each meat-department manager is regarded as an individual customer. Looking to the future, Brissette is anxious to have more products added to the meat-production mix. Fortunately for her, Jedwabnik is keeping his options open and is considering adding bulk sausage or possibly a chicken sausage product line in the future.

Most recently, the commissary began manufacturing marinated boneless, skinless chicken breasts. Batches of 2,000 lbs. of chicken are tumbled in marinade to incorporate one of five flavors, including Teriyaki, lemon pepper, barbecue and others. As much as 12,000 lbs. of chicken, all of which comes from local suppliers, is processed on busy days. Marinated chicken is packed in two-packs and 3-lb. boxes of the product are shipped to stores each day. The possibilities for growing the variety of poultry offerings is also something Jedwabnik ponders consistently. “We have lots of ideas,” he says.

Building an identity

Jedwabnik is obviously aware of the national brands and the competition they represent to the products produced at his facility. But there is no ‘keeping up with the Joneses’ mentality, as he says the Roundy’s branded products stand on their own. “We don’t necessarily want to be like national brands,” he says, “we want to be better. We want to be fresh and manufacture our products in a state-of-the-art facility using the best ingredients possible. I should be better.”

It’s no secret that the Roundy’s packaging, including its meat products, looks similar to the national brands’ labels and packaging. But with the success and popularity of the Roundy’s brands, copy-cat efforts will soon be unnecessary. “Our look is changing soon,” says Jedwabnik of the brands’ labels and packaging.

Unlike many plant operators, Jedwabnik is able to take a short drive to one of the Roundy’s stores to see the products his facility made just a day or two before. And he admits being his own worst critic. “I get to go right to the store and see my products.” And while big companies have to wait for months to get feedback on a new product, Roundy’s new meat products are quickly given approval or disapproval. “Bob Mariano is our panel,” and his feedback is almost immediate.

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