Frying has future in consumer markets

by Bob Sims
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 Fried breading
Breaded, fried and par-fried foods have always been a comfort food on the menu of American diners.
 
West Liberty, Iowa-based West Liberty Foods LLC began its frying operations in 2000. In 2014, after the purchase of all assets of Quantum Foods in Bolingbrook, Illinois, it began its par-fry operations. “This was done to expand the company sales portfolio while taking advantage of assets secured during the purchase of the Bolingbrook operation,” says Joe Swanson, vice president of operations.

West Liberty Foods was formed in 1996 by the Iowa Turkey Growers Cooperative. The grower/owners have worked to maintain Iowa’s farming tradition with a commitment to delivering high-quality turkeys and committing to animal welfare.

The addition of assets and operations after the acquisition of the Bolingbrook operation gave West Liberty Foods the expansion of products and utilization of assets it desired, but at the same time it put them into a solid position to grow with a preparation process seeing steadily increasing numbers.

Still growing strong

Fried foods remain a staple of American diners’ love of comfort foods. These offerings have been part of the American menu for decades and not only remain as go-to options, but see a steady rise in popularity.

“Fritter-labeled offerings have seen a 7.9 percent growth on menus, according to Technomic’s Preparations Lifecycle. Breaded chicken breast, wings, strips/tenders, remain on the top of the list as far as popularity goes,” says Vince Metzcar, product development manager at West Liberty. In addition to the preparation method itself continuing to steadily grow, it gives production options in terms of additional value, as well. “The trends truly come in as you discuss flavor profiles – hot and spicy, barbecue, Korean flavors – as well as offerings and applications – small plates, kabobs, ethnic-inspired applications, etc.,” Metzcar adds.

The most popular of West Liberty’s fried products, Cajun Turkey, provides a prime example of the flavor profile trend working in tandem with the cooking method, while the most popular par-fried SKU, chicken tenders, remains a concrete example of the classic comfort food. With 10 SKUs overall in fried and par-fried products, including chicken, turkey, beef and pork, the company is optimistic there will be more in the future. “This is a growing area of our business so we expect this number to rise,” Swanson says.

West Liberty’s desire to provide service also adds to the expectation of more SKUs and greater production in fried and par-fried offerings in the future. At present these options represent 5 percent of its overall business. “The fried and par-fried business at West Liberty Foods is seeing a growth trend due to the needs of the marketplace and partnership with our customers,” Swanson says.

The fact that the American lifestyle shows no sign of relenting anytime soon is not lost on West Liberty Foods, or the development of new fry and par-fry products. “From both a marketplace and product development perspective we’ve seen a rise in popularity on both handheld items and on-the-go meal and snack items,” Metzcar says. “Lifestyle and on-the-go schedules of today’s consumers are the driving force of this increase.”
 West Liberty Foods
West Liberty Foods sees a growth trend in fried and par-fried and expects that growth to continue.
 

Sustainable service, satisfaction


For its current 10 SKUs, West Liberty maintains two batter breading lines for par fry and fully cooked products. The company surface fries for color and flavor for both slicing logs and shredded products. Whole muscle or formed, single- or double-pass items ranging from chicken tenders and chicken-fried steak to specialty enrobed items make up the par and fully cooked fried lines.

Relative to its processes, West Liberty stays keen on technology and the things it must do to stay relevant and competitive in the fried and par-fried food production arena. From developing new products, to streamlining production, the company focuses on what’s happening and how it can better its overall operation.

“Current trends and technology that West Liberty Foods has identified directly relate to sustainability such as minimizing waste for both frying materials and energy consumption,” Swanson says. West Liberty incorporates six high pressure processing (HPP) units at its four facilities for food safety. These machines are environmentally friendly and use only recycled water and electricity. Also, West Liberty offers retail packaging options made from 100 percent recycled materials.

The environment represents one facet of sustainability, but the sustainability of the business also comes into play. The drive to give customers and consumers what they want gives West Liberty the tools to achieve growth goals in the fried and par fried meat and poultry segment.

In an effort to provide its customers value, the company looks to its raw par-fried line. “The raw par-fried products provide convenience to the customer to quickly prepare with little mess, and at the same time give the end user a freshly prepared product without the warmed over flavor of reheated fully cooked products,” Metzcar says. “From an ingredient standpoint you also see a cleaner label and lower sodium.” HPP takes that concept further by reducing or avoiding the need for food preservatives.

“West Liberty Foods provides an innovative twist on par-fried items. We look to provide the familiar comfort foods with a crispy coating in a convenient hand-held format. We also work closely with our customers to provide items specific to their needs that are both innovative and customized,” Metzcar adds.

West Liberty Foods timeline

1996 - Iowa Turkey Growers Cooperative purchases former Louis Rich facility in West Liberty, Iowa

1997 - First turkeys are processed by West Liberty Foods

2002 - Research and development center opens in West Liberty

2003 - Mount Pleasant, Iowa, facility opens with Clean Room Food Processing Systems in place – first in the nation 2005 State-of-the-art quality assurance laboratory opens in West Liberty

2007 - New greenfield facility in Tremonton, Utah – built around sustainability and setting new standards in food safety

2007 - First US manufacturer to use 10-ft. logs in everyday slicing operations

2008 - Hearts & Hands Children’s Academy opens, providing child care for West Liberty Foods team members

2010 - Clean Room Food Processing Systems, Methods and Structures patented

2012 - First US manufacturer of its size to be verified landfill free by NSF International Strategic Registrations

2013 - Mount Pleasant and Tremonton facilities install High Pressure Processing (HPP) systems

2014 - Bolingbrook, Illinois, manufacturing facility opens

2016 - Bolingbrook ISO certification and landfill-free verification achieved

2016 - Ribbon cutting for Liberty Cold, state-of-the-art 175,000-sq.-ft. cold storage and distribution facility

Landfill free

In 2012, the National Sanitation Foundation (NSF) International Strategic Registrations verified West Liberty Foods landfill free. West Liberty was the first US manufacturer of its size to receive this verification. This means that more than 99 percent of West Liberty’s waste is diverted from landfills.

Core teams at each facility work to reduce the usage of water, electricity, natural gas, paper, cardboard and plastic.

96% of waste is recycled (55,427 TONS)

1% of waste is composted (196 TONS)

3% of waste that cannot be recycled, reused or composted goes to waste-to-energy incinerators that generate steam and electricity (1,811 TONS)
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