Pulling away from the flock

by Bryan Salvage
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Maple Leaf Farms is well known for its duck meat products, but the company also operates a strong chicken business with such brands as Sandra's and Milford Valley.

Per capita consumption of chicken in the United States has resembled a roller-coaster ride in recent years. In 2006, it peaked at 87.7 lbs. from the 33.7 lbs. first tallied in 1965 by the US Dept. of Agriculture, slipped to 81.3 lbs. in 2013, but it is predicted to rise again this year to 83.5 lbs. Insiders insist smaller chicken companies offering further value-added products are best able to achieve more sales and growth because they can move fastest to cash in on emerging opportunities. One such company is Leesburg, Ind.-based Maple Leaf Farms (MLF).

Perhaps better-known for its global duck-breeding and duck-meat business, it also operates a strong further value-added retail and foodservice chicken product business under its own and private-label brands for domestic and global customers.

“Our chicken sales are growing,” says Eric Essig, MLF vice president of sales and marketing, “representing about 15 percent of our gross dollar sales and one-third of the cases passing through our distribution center.”

Jeff Lohser, director of sales, and Carmen Darland, director of marketing, head MLF’s Chicken division, which offers three brands: Milford Valley is the base brand in both foodservice and retail; Sandra’s is its natural, higher-end line of products; while Wentzel Farms is the value line.

All MLF chicken products are raw, frozen and must be prepared via conventional oven and/or fryer. Milford Valley’s retail products include stuffed chicken entrées: Chicken Cordon Bleu, Chicken with Broccoli and Cheese, Chicken Kiev, Chicken with Country Gravy, Chicken and Homestyle Stuffing, Chicken Philly, Buffalo Chicken and Orange Chicken. The newest launch is Milford Valley Minis, available in Buffalo Minis, Jalapeño Minis and Cordon Swiss Minis. Chicken patties, chicken strips and chicken nuggets are also sold under the Milford Valley label.

Seventy percent of Maple Leaf Farms' chicken business is in retail, while 30 percent is in foodservice.

Foodservice products under the Milford Valley brand include stuffed chicken entrées in various sizes and flavors, an appetizer line plus a school lunch line. Appetizers include Chicken Chips, Buffalo Chicken Sticks, Jalapeño Chicken Sticks and Cordon Swiss Chicken Minis. Its school lunch line includes Whole Grain Chicken Chips, Whole Grain Jalapeño Sticks and its newest product – Whole Grain Chicken and Waffles Bites.

Sandra’s retail line is made with 100-percent natural ingredients, no nitrites, no preservatives, all-white meat plus a whole-grain coating. Flavors include Chicken Cordon Bleu, Chicken, Broccoli and Swiss and Chicken Florentine. Wentzel brand products include a 4-oz. item available in a $1 bunker program. Its three flavors are Chicken Cordon Bleu, Chicken with Broccoli and Cheese and Chicken Kiev. In Canada, Chicken division products are sold under Milford Valley Farms brand in both retail and foodservice.

“Our chicken product expertise is in developing innovative products and chicken processes,” Essig says. “We continue to launch new flavors and formats that are going to appeal to varying demographics.”

Seventy percent of the company’s Chicken division business is retail; 30 percent is foodservice. “Much of our most recent foodservice growth is due to entering new markets,” Darland says. “We’ve had stuffed chicken entrées in catering and higher-end venues for a long time, but breaking into new restaurant formats for different meal dayparts has also been critical for our continued growth.”

US retail store customers include 1,000-plus unit chains down to single units that may be part of a buying co-op. Products are sold throughout the US, Canada and Puerto Rico. In foodservice, traditional natural chicken entrées are primarily sold in catering, health care and employee feeding venues. School products are sold to kindergarten through 12th grade, day care, health care, college and university customers. Its appetizer line is sold in several quick-service restaurants, convenience stores and fast-casual markets. Approximately 20 percent of Chicken division sales are private-label on a national scale.

All Maple Leaf Farms chicken products are made at the company's Serenade Foods facility in Milford, Ind. The plant spans 17,000 sq. ft.

“We currently have a great emphasis in foodservice where much of our new product development is taking place,” Essig says. “We expect to see our foodservice percentage shift higher in the future.”

Cutting-edge processing

All MLF chicken products are produced at its 117,000-sq.-ft. Serenade Foods division processing plant in nearby Milford, Ind. Employing 145 employees, it produces more than 7 million lbs. of value-added products per year through a stuffed chicken entrée line, appetizer line and a line for patties, strips and nuggets. Approximately 60 SKUs are made in Milford.

Only USDA Category One chicken breast trim is purchased off the commodity market for its products. “Most trim we buy contains 15 percent or less fat,” says Rick Prins, plant manager, Serenade division. “We’re leaner, cleaner and we only use the highest quality chicken-breast trim.”

Chicken products produced are flaked, not ground, in a larger substrate that is formed and frozen in a raw state, explains August Konie, director of quality assurance. Incorporating frozen trim provides better quality control from a microbial perspective. Trim arrives in frozen blocks, is tempered enough to separate and flaked, Prins adds.

Stuffed chicken entrées

During M&P’s recent visit, stuffed chicken entrées were being made. The plant does many things above and beyond industry standards, Prins says.

The Serenade facility produces more than 7 million lbs. of value-added products annually.

Fillings are produced in the plant’s kitchen. A proprietary antimicrobial spray treatment is used for all raw chicken trim during blending, which yields, on average, about a half-log reduction in aerobic plate counts. After the antimicrobial disperses, the remaining ingredients and seasonings are added. This mixture then goes to the chiller where CO2 is added to lower it to a temperature that maintains all quality parameters required on the back end of the line.

Fillings are then pumped into the meat shell. “The shell encapsulates the filling in the middle and is closed off on each end,” Prins says. “Our machines talk to each other to complete this process.”

Formed portions then enter an automatic batter control system, breading is applied and product is par fried to set the coating. Finished products spend 35 minutes inside a spiral freezer at -40°F and emerge frozen solid prior to packaging and turn to the holding freezer once packaged.

A multi-hurdle approach maintains and enhances food safety. The first step is acquiring raw, frozen chicken blocks from the best suppliers. Most product is created at 29°F and products are quick-frozen after processing. The plant’s traceback capabilities are exceptional. “We can generally trace and find product within four minutes,” Konie says.

Almost any packaging format can be incorporated, including individually wrapped flexible packaging, standup bags and foodservice bulk pack, to mention a few.

Ahead of the curve

“We’re on the bubble; some big things are going to be happening,” Prins predicts regarding upcoming product launches. “We’re excited about the new foodservice distribution we’re doing with public school offerings and school nutrition programs. We’re also excited about Jalapeño [Stuffed Chicken Sticks], Whole Grain Chicken Chips and our new Whole Grain Chicken and Waffle nuggets – customers are starting to take hold of them.”

The company's line of school-lunch products includes Whole Grain Chicken and Waffle Bites.

To stay ahead of anticipated production increases, the plant has acquired a new high-speed flow wrapping machine, new coextrusion equipment, a new fryer, a new automated batter control system, plus it doubled its line width during the past five years. “We can quickly double our output if needed,” Prins says. “Our high-speed flow wrapper and fryer can handle twice their current capacity levels.”

Sustainability plays heavily into equipment purchases. “Our new fryer uses less oil and less BTUs to heat the oil and maintain it,” Prins says. “Our new flow wrapper has options to minimize plastic film waste and use less film than previously used. We’ve decreased packaging sizes and [increased pallet sizes], which improves shipping efficiencies.”

Recycling plastic and cardboard is common. New lighting fixtures were installed three years ago that use less electricity while providing brighter lighting. Refrigeration controls automatically ramp compressors up and down based on demand. And new systems requiring water for cooling use closed-loop recirculated water so water is not dumped down the drain after its first use.

The future

MLF market research in recent years uncovered that most consumers buying its chicken products were approximately 50 years old and purchasing traditional Cordon Bleu, Kiev or Broccoli and Cheese-type products.

Maple Leaf Farms developed more hand-held items and products made for dipping to balance the company's product line and appeal to a broader demographic of consumers.

“[As a result], we have been developing seasoned, hand-held products that fit younger demographics plus dipable, fun items with graphics appealing to younger folks to balance and define our line,” Darland says. “Product development is the core of our Chicken division growth. By developing new products that increase who we can sell to, the dayparts we can sell to and the types of restaurants we can sell to have been immensely important to our growth.”

Milford Valley chicken products were once sold under the Maple Leaf Farms brand. Two years ago, the company re-launched its retail Milford Valley line, which incorporated a new logo, packaging and graphics. “We’ve been working to make our chicken brand its own entity in the marketplace,” she adds.

MLF’s Chicken division uses social media and works to attract new people into what has been a mature category. The company offers downloadable coupon programs that run in coordination with ads in certain stores where the products are available.

Last year, the Milford Valley brand launched a Facebook page. “Our Facebook followers currently are at 7,500,” Darland says. “We have been growing during the month of September. We’re running a consumer contest on Facebook called ‘The Art of Chicken’ contest. In essence, you take the package, make something ‘artsy’ out of it and upload it to Facebook. We’re asking people to interact with the brand in new ways and make it a part of their everyday experience.”

Maple Leaf Farms’ strength is in the strength and value of its products vs. the competition. “We’re in a very competitive industry,” Essig says, “and we’re not the largest chicken processor. We have to stay on our toes and continue to evolve product and processes. Because of our size and flexibility, we can accept project sizes that are smaller than some competitors can accept. This allows us to take advantage of many marketplace opportunities.”

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