Beyond bacon

by Lawrence Aylward
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John G. Richardson, CEO, SugarCreek
John Richardson has SugarCreek poised to succeed well into the future.
(Photo: Tom Uhlman)

John G. Richardson chuckles at the notion that he is able to see into the future. But employees of Cincinnati-based SugarCreek, where Richardson is chairman and CEO, say he has the uncanny ability to predict trends in the food industry.

“He is a visionary,” says Jeff Shutte, plant manager for SugarCreek’s bacon-processing facility in Dayton, Ohio.

“He is ahead of the game when it comes to where the food industry is going,” adds Josh Lewis, operations manager for SugarCreek’s new food-processing plant in Cambridge City, Ind., which opened in August.

Although Richardson appreciates the plaudits, he downplays them. If anything, Richardson’s vision is the result of his impassioned approach toward self-education. He is a voracious reader, which has helped him gain insight into new food concepts. He is also an intent listener to his customers and industry peers, who have given him ideas to build on. In addition, Richardson has visited food plants abroad to see firsthand the progression of food trends in other nations.

“Over time, you begin to assimilate what you have learned and put it all together,” Richardson says. “It’s not like I’m coming up with a lot of this on my own. There’s a lot of strategy and execution involved.”

Since taking over for his father, John S. Richardson, as CEO of SugarCreek in 1990, John G. has grown the family-owned company from $50 million to $650 million in annual sales. John S. began the company in 1966 as a manufacturer of raw bacon; John G. has transformed it into a company that garners 68 percent of its sales from fully cooked, ready-to-eat (RTE) products. SugarCreek is no longer just a bacon processor; it is a diversified food company. The non-branded company’s motto is “brandworthy food solutions,” which makes sense considering it co-processes for some of the biggest name brands in the country.

Employees marvel at Richardson’s proclivity to make timely business decisions that some have deemed risky. Shutte points to Richardson’s decision in 2000 to introduce pre-cooked bacon processing at the Dayton plant, which at the time processed only raw bacon. Some thought it was a roll of the dice because they considered it an already-crowded category. But Richardson envisioned an opportunity, believing demand would outstrip supply.

Today, SugarCreek’s pre-cooked bacon business is larger than its raw bacon business, comprising nearly 70 percent of its bacon sales. The Dayton plant began with two pre-cooked bacon lines and now has six. “We generate more than 21 million bacon strips per week and more than a billion strips a year,” says Shutte, noting that SugarCreek is the nation’s largest independent bacon processor.

Richardson also faced doubters when he decided to expand processing to meatballs and other protein items at SugarCreek’s plant in Washington Court House, Ohio, which was once solely devoted to raw bacon processing. Today, SugarCreek is one of the top three manufacturers of RTE meatballs.

SugarCreek has six plants: four in Ohio, one in Kansas and the new plant in Indiana. In addition to co-packing products for other processors, SugarCreek’s customers include retailers, foodservice operators, healthcare, schools, industrial businesses, military compounds and correctional facilities. As SugarCreek has expanded operations under Richardson, it has grown its business with existing customers and gained new ones – and earned Richardson the reputation as a visionary.

So when Richardson announced a few years ago that he wanted to invest $120 million to build a massive facility in Indiana centered around a large-scale sous-vide cooking operation, nobody doubted his decision. Even though sous vide is still somewhat uncharted in the US, employees knew Richardson had done his due diligence by learning everything he could about it, including visiting and touring sous-vide plants in Europe where the technology is more prevalent.

“My dad has been accused of being a risk taker, but I think they are all calculated risks,” says Michael Richardson, John’s son and SugarCreek’s chief operating officer.

A good bet

Armor Inox is the equipment supplier for SugarCreek's new sous-vide operation.
Armor Inox is the equipment supplier for SugarCreek's new sous-vide operation. (Photo: Tom Uhlman)

Sous vide, the French word for “under vacuum,” is a cooking method in which food is sealed in airtight plastic bags and then placed in a temperature-controlled water bath for longer-than-normal cooking times. Temperatures are much lower than normally used for cooking, typically around 131˚ to 140˚F for protein products.

With sous vide, meat products are cooked evenly and better retain moisture and texture. The process also ensures better yields, preservation of nutrients, and cleaner labels. Products cooked by sous vide never leave the package until they are ready to be reheated and served by the customer.

SugarCreek’s sous-vide operation is the centerpiece of the new plant in Cambridge City, which is four times the size of SugarCreek’s other plants. Totaling 418,000 sq. ft., the plant opened in August when the sous-vide operation officially went online.

Sous vide isn’t the only operation within the plant, which contains three large halls. There are also areas dedicated to cooking meatballs, flat-surface proteins, battering and breading product, and flavoring and tumbling raw meat. The new plant will allow SugarCreek to offer a variety of new fully cooked value-added products, from beef to poultry to pork to seafood.

Construction on the plant began in 2013, but it did not begin on an open field. A 78,000-sq.-ft. building was already in place that SugarCreek purchased from Really Cool Foods, which closed in 2011. SugarCreek refurbished that building, including installing new drainage, before work began on the new portion of the plant, which totals 340,000 sq. ft.

The sous-vide technology, engineered by Armor Inox, features 10 cooking tanks, each utilizing about 4,500 gallons of water. The cooking tanks are filled with water from four massive stock tanks, each containing different temperatures of water: very hot, hot, very cold and cold. Once the cooking temperature is set for the product in a cooking tank, water from the stock tanks flows to the cooking tank to achieve the desired temperature. Cooking times depend on type and size of product. Temperatures are based on the USDA Appendix A for Time and Temperature Guidelines for Cooking. About 10,000 lbs. of product can be cooked per tank per cooking cycle.

With its new sous-vide operation in Cambridge City, Ind., SugarCreek plans to produce several new value-added protein products.
With its new sous-vide operation in Cambridge City, Ind., SugarCreek plans to produce several new value-added protein products.
(Photo: Sugarcreek)

After the cooking step, the water used to cook product is quickly drained from the tank, and the tank is refilled with cold water (about 33˚F) to chill the product. When the water is drained, it goes back into the stock tanks.

The high-volume operation is also highly automated and can be run by only four people. Two large gantry cranes move product to trays and then move the trays to the loading tanks. The same cranes remove the trays after cooking. Miniature gantry cranes move the trays and sanitize them after they are used for cooking.

In early August, SugarCreek made its first saleable sous-vide product – a small batch of beef tenderloins for a commercial airline. In this case, the beef tenderloin arrived raw and pre-vacuum packaged. After it was cooked and chilled, it was packed and shipped to the airline. The plant can also receive unpackaged raw product and prep the meat in many different ways including searing, grill marking, tumbling, marinating, injecting, etc., before vacuum packing it on site and cooking it in the sous-vide tanks.

The plan is for the four halls in the plant to work in unison, so SugarCreek can create custom products for its customers. For example, various proteins can be marinated and tumbled in one hall of the plant before being sent to the sous-vide hall for cooking.

While John Richardson believes sous vide offers ample business opportunities, it’s vital that the process is done correctly, from achieving exact cooking temperatures to removing product precisely from the water tanks when it is finished cooking.

“It requires protocols and procedures and good management practices,” he says. “It’s a science as well as an art.”

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