Cargill's Innovation Center combines culinary expertise with customer service.
Staying competitive in the protein business today isn’t easy – the industry is constantly changing. The way livestock is raised is changing. The way food is processed is changing. And, of course, the way consumers purchase, eat and experience food is forever changing. Keeping up with these changes while maintaining profitability is the challenge of every company in the meat industry – and Cargill is no exception.

Cargill Protein, also known as Cargill Meat Solutions, includes all of Cargill’s North American beef, turkey, foodservice and food distribution businesses. Headquartered in the agricultural heartland in Wichita, Kansas, the business serves foodservice operators, retailers and food manufacturers around the country. Catering to customer needs, while trying to maintain a competitive edge in the marketplace, the company built the Cargill Innovation Center in 2011. The 75,000-sq.-ft. facility houses more than 70 culinary experts, food scientists, microbiologists, labeling professionals and marketing experts, all working together to enhance Cargill’s protein product line through innovation and collaboration.

“The Cargill Innovation Center brought new capabilities to Cargill’s protein business that we did not previously possess – dedicating spaces and technology specifically designed to enable and inspire innovative solutions and collaboration across the research and development and culinary spaces to service the needs of our customers,” says Mike Martin, director of communications for Cargill Protein.

“The CIC’s capabilities include full-service research and development, professional chefs and culinary team and the innovation center allows our team to test new processes, develop new products, packaging and enables innovation, which is a big focus of Cargill Protein,” Martin says.

The CIC includes an 11,000-sq.-ft. US Dept. of Agriculture-inspected pilot plant. The processing facility was created to test equipment and processes for commercial meat plant applications. Equipment includes slicers, grinders, a smoker, fryer, ready-to-eat production area and tenderness testing area.

In addition, the CIC contains several food safety labs including a fully equipped pathogen lab for development, testing and validation of food safety interventions. The product analytical lab contains a microbiology area and chemistry lab as well as labs for consumer research and sensory testing. Focus groups and tasting panels can also be conducted at the facility for in-house or customer purposes.

The ingredients and seasoning room was created for R&D purposes. Food scientists can develop seasonings and ingredients for rubs, marinades and flavorings for customers. The shelf life testing area contains both walk-in and retail refrigeration units to simulate shelf life of post-production products as they move from meat processing environments to consumer, retail and foodservice refrigeration.

On the culinary side, there is both a retail and foodservice presentation room. The foodservice presentation room is a space designed to simulate a restaurant dining environment. It features a full line of foodservice cooking and production equipment, a demonstration cooking island as well as outdoor grilling capabilities and an adjoining patio. The retail presentation area comes equipped with consumer kitchen and display areas like those in supermarkets and convenience stores or in deli environments.

“Everyone working at the CIC has the same goals – helping customers and growing our company,” says Chef Stephen Giunta, director of culinary for Cargill Protein. “We’re all collaborators – culinary, scientists, marketers. We’re all focused on growth for the company.”

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(From left) Chefs Pete Geoghegan, Janet Bourbon and Stephen Giunta use the Cargill Innovation Center's foodservice kitchen for in-house training as well as when working with customers.

Culinary expertise

As director of culinary, Giunta leads the nine-member culinary team at Cargill Protein. When he joined the company 15 years ago he was the first and only member of the culinary team.

“Many of our customers – most of the large retail and national chain accounts – were starting to add culinary departments. Cargill decided as a protein company, it would be valuable for us to have one as well,” Giunta says. “We started to look at what our capabilities were and what our customers were looking for. Then, we started to work with the customers to answer their questions to help them meet their goals.”

Not all members of the culinary team are based at the headquarters in Wichita – Giunta is based in Chicago – but all work on the same mission of providing customer support.

“Our culinary team collaborates with customers from all channels (retail, foodservice, food ingredients) to create protein offerings that delight consumers and grow our protein business,” Martin explains.

“As both customers and consumers become more interested in the development and story of their food, the role of the chef is growing,” Martin adds. “As experts in procuring, producing and enjoying food, our culinary team’s portfolio of knowledge and skill in global and local cooking has never been more in demand.”

Giunta’s portfolio of knowledge includes being one of 67 Certified Master Chefs in the US, previously serving as an associate professor at the Culinary Institute of America and even working as personal chef to former President Ronald Reagan during his years in the White House. Chef Janet Bourbon, senior strategic chef for foodservice, and Chef Pete Geoghegan, senior strategic chef for protein ingredients, both based in Wichita, also bring a wide array of culinary expertise to the Innovation Center.

“I used to work in chain restaurants as well as retail, foodservice, corporate dining, fine dining and catering,” Bourbon says. “We all bring in a lot of experience with our various backgrounds.”

“Corporate chefs have moved out of development kitchens and are now spokespeople for brands and companies, industry educators and food ambassadors and storytellers,” Martin says. “As customer and consumer desires and needs evolve, the role of the culinary professional also involves a learning component – where team members function as students in order to ensure their knowledge is on pace with a rapidly evolving food landscape. We’ve simply added new capabilities to our ongoing commitment to the development of gold standard protein products.”

These new capabilities at Cargill include working directly with retail and foodservice customers. New and existing customers come to the CIC to come up with new product ideas, further develop existing products and fine tune marketing, communication and branding messages.

“We have to be ready for any requests from the customer,” Geoghegan says. “It’s really important to look closely at their businesses. To find out who their customer is, to look closely at the trends and see how those trends will affect their business.

“We don’t only show them meat and poultry products. We tell them, ‘We’re here for you. We’re a resource for you.’”

Cargill’s culinary team members divide their time and expertise into three areas, according to Martin:

• “Developing protein products that drive growth and innovation for Cargill and our customers, working alongside the technical team and marketing and innovation team to bring new ideas to life while demonstrating industry leadership.

• “Working with customers to learn their needs, as well as showcasing new products in development that would provide solutions for their needs or the needs of their customers (the consumers).

• “Exploring consumer desires, trends and experiences in the marketplace. The culinary team participates in activities such as dine arounds, trend hunting and food treks to do this exploration work, which is a critical piece of the value they bring to Cargill and its customers.”

Chef Stephen Giunta has worked in the Cargill culinary department for 15 years.

Above and beyond

One of Giunta’s most important roles involves training. He spearheads training for the entire culinary team, which goes far beyond further developing their culinary skills. Part of the necessary training of all culinary members involves spending time in a meat plant.

“It’s crucial to understand what’s going on in the plant environment in order to understand the products the company is developing,” Giunta says. “We also need to think about and understand supply and sustainability. We have to have the ability to think broadly in this role.”

In addition to time in meat plants, the chefs spend time off-site in restaurants and retail locations. “It’s all about knowing your customers and understanding their needs,” Geoghegan says.

While the chefs spend the majority of their time in the Cargill test kitchens working on customer projects, they will travel off-site to customer locations to get a better feel for the customer’s needs.

“For our QSR customers, we will go in and do restaurant training if needed,” Giunta says. “We can’t recommend to them something that they can’t replicate in their own environments – that doesn’t do them any good.”

Part of replicating the customer’s experience and environment comes from working with similar equipment. The Wichita kitchen features a TurboChef oven like many convenience stores utilize in addition to other comparable backroom kitchen equipment that can be found in most QSRs.

With retail culinary centers becoming more prevalent and “closer to restaurant looking and quality these days,” Giunta says it’s important that the CIC can replicate the environment for its retail customers. This includes featuring similar in-house supermarket kitchen equipment and comparable display cases to those seen in supermarkets. “Major retailers today all have their own culinary centers,” Giunta explains. “We work directly with them on creating products that work well with the culinary programs they have at their locations.”

Internally, the culinary team also hosts company-wide sales meetings, product training and new product tastings at the foodservice kitchen at the CIC.

Food scientists and technicians work out of the CIC as part of the R&D Innovation team.

Renovation and relocation

Cargill Protein’s North American headquarters is soon to move into a new expanded location in the Old Town section of downtown Wichita. The $60 million, 190,000-sq.-ft. new office building is scheduled for completion in October 2018. The new facility will accommodate 950 employees – however that number does not include those working at the CIC. With the Cargill Innovation Center being a reasonably new facility – only six years old – it will remain at its current location and will not be absorbed into the new headquarters.

Features of the new headquarters include four stories of office space, an immersive technology center, presentation kitchen, sensory center kitchen, employee café space and testing booths on the first floor and third floor balcony. Cargill’s history will be celebrated in the lobby through graphics and technology exhibits. The project also includes an 800-car parking garage for Cargill’s employees during work hours and for public use for events in Old Town and the nearby arena.

“Our new Wichita protein group headquarters will be world class and foster the type of collaboration, innovation and diversity of thought that will make us the protein provider of choice for our domestic and international customers while helping them grow their business, and ours,” Brian Sikes, corporate vice president for the Cargill Protein group, said in a statement. “The outstanding support and collaboration we experienced at the city and state level, and our desire to project the best possible image for our business, the community, our customers and employees, compelled us to create a dynamic 21st century office environment reflective of an industry leader that is growing.”