Dazzling diners

by Joel Crews
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WSFP Foods provides foodservice customers with a visual aid that highlights the process behind Chef's Craft products.

Once upon a time, two unsuspecting attendees of a business dinner in New York met for the first time. Elton Maddox and Chris Salm were strangers as the first course was served but became better acquainted during the evening, discovering they shared similar values and belief systems without sharing anything about their respective careers. Later, the two finally got around to discussing what each did for a living. As dessert was served, Salm revealed he was the president and CEO of Salm Partners, an innovative processing company specializing in manufacturing ready-to-eat sausage products.

This piqued the interest of Maddox, who, as chairman and CEO of Wayne Farms, realized his new colleague could one day be a valuable business partner. Neither had any idea that within one year the two would be partners in a joint venture, working together to support and expand on the explosive growth in the club and retail channels while bringing an innovative variety of sausage products to the menus of foodservice operations throughout the US. The serendipitous beginning of what is now known as WFSP Foods has all the makings of a joint venture where both parties and their customers live happily ever after.

John Flood, vice president and general manager of Wayne Farms’ further-processing business unit, is an industry veteran who recognizes when an innovative product can offer a solution beyond retail for foodservice customers to appeal to those consumers who are looking for similar, great-quality sausage products. After hearing about Maddox’s meeting with Salm and their shared vision, he, along with the rest of the executive team, were anxious to lead the Wayne Farms team in its next venture. As a business-to-business processor with annual sales of approximately $2.3 billion, Wayne Farms, a subsidiary of Continental Grain Co., bills itself as the sixth-largest fully integrated poultry company in the US. Manufacturing more than 2.5 billion lbs. of poultry products each year, Oakwood, Ga.-based Wayne Farms has grown accustomed to its behind-the-scene role, which includes operating 11 facilities, comprised of nine hatcheries; eight feed mills; nine slaughter processing plants; and two further-processing plants throughout six southeastern states.

“We’re not a traditional branded company, we’re a B2B company. We produce products for you, our customer,” Floods says, “and your brand becomes our brand.”

Wayne Farms’ success for many years has been based on maintaining relationships with customers across all segments of the industry. The company supplies chicken to quick-service restaurant chains as well as to fine dining and institutional customers in addition to providing broiler products for retail customers. It also supplies fully cooked and fresh raw material to industrial customers. About 10 percent of its production goes to the export market.

"Consumers want to have the visual and aromatic explosion," says John Flood, Wayne Farms vice president and general manager, as Scott Forsythe, operations manager (left), shows off the product at the Decatur Further Processing plant.

With a reputation as a respected partner to the foodservice segment, Maddox and his team saw a golden opportunity to fill a void on menus by creating an affordable, gourmet chicken sausage addressing fundamental needs of operators. After collaborating with his new colleague, Salm, who readily shared details of the proven technology his company was founded on, Wayne Farms announced in December 2013 its joint venture with Salm Partners LLC. Led by Maddox and Salm, the partnership included plans to produce gourmet chicken-sausage products from Wayne Farms’ further-processing facility in Decatur, Ala. They, included plans to mirror the high-volume, co-extrusion and cook-in-pack processing technology that is the foundation for the success of Salm’s B2B company, based in Denmark, Wis. The goal from the outset has been to implement that system at Wayne Farms with the goal of producing 50 million lbs. of collagen-casing chicken sausage from the Decatur plant within three years of start-up, which was targeted for spring of 2014.

Due diligence

Before the announcement, just weeks after Maddox and Salm met, a team from Wayne Farms visited Salm’s plant in Wisconsin to explore the logistical possibilities to make the pipedream partnership a reality. It became readily apparent to both parties that for the chicken-based sausage products, “It made the most sense to put the production line down in the southeast United States, where the source of the raw material was,” Flood says. “We can guarantee freshness by being located in Decatur and better service current customers in the Club/Retail channel.”

Reducing logistics costs and utilizing the freshest and highest-quality raw material were the two most obvious benefits for setting up and operating the line in Decatur. An additional co-extrusion line was already in final construction in The Netherlands by engineers at Marel Townsend, with plans of adding a new line to Salm’s plant. After the partnership between Salm and Wayne Farms was forged, the shipment of that new line was diverted from Wisconsin to Alabama.

Crossing paths

This wasn’t the first time John Flood and Chris Salm had worked together. Earlier in his career, Flood worked at Oscar Mayer (as did Salm) before spending several years in the Sara Lee Meat Group. He also spent part of his career working at what was then Swift-Eckrich, where he crossed paths with Salm. He’s glad to be working with Chris again. “Culturally there’s a good fit,” he says, “which is why this joint venture is so good. We know it’s all about the customer.” Salm agrees, saying the meeting with Maddox and ultimately the opportunity to work with his old friend from Swift, was more than coincidental, based on a “random” meeting.

“Our random dinner meeting ended with a thought that we should find time to meet again,” Salm says. “A few months passed and we found ourselves walking the Wayne Farms Decatur further-processing plant.”

He adds that the first time the two met, each was struck by the similarities the other shared with regard to faith, family and values. During their meeting at the Wayne Farms facility, Salm was struck by something else.

“The important part of this visit was something very simple,” Salm recalls. “Elton parked his car in the back row so that others could park more conveniently. Elton is a servant to his people. I knew then that this was a partner.”

Making room

When the Decatur West further-processing facility was built about eight years ago, it was designed for growth. Flood and his team admit they never knew how that growth would manifest itself, but it became clear once the vision for the joint venture was realized.

The Chef's Craft sausages offer foodservice operators 180 days of shelf-life to along with the clean label.

Don Dubnik, senior director of business operations with the company’s further-processing division, was in charge of rearranging the existing plant to accommodate the new sausage line.

“There was a lot of interaction with all three parties [Marel Townsend, Salm Partners and Wayne Farms] to determine the best way to put the line in,” says Dubnik, recalling a meeting of about 20 people at the Decatur plant. Nobody denies the layout configuration plans included plenty of logistical gyrations and challenges. Once the blueprint was sketched, a timeline was developed. And then it was off to the races. The teams at Salm Partners and Wayne Farms had to be in lockstep to pull off recreating the technology Salm Partners utilized in Wisconsin at the poultry company’s further-processing plant in Alabama. But everyone was on board. And with such a sophisticated line dedicated to this new product and the joint venture, hand picking the right workers for the high-tech, highly automated line was essential. “We knew we needed to get people with great skill on this line,” Flood says.

Working closely with their unionized partner representatives of the Decatur facility, Wayne Farms officials conducted interviews with workers to get the best people, regardless of tenure, to staff the new line. Another essential part of the start-up was giving key workers a preview of how the product would be produced by taking them to Salm Partners’ plant in Wisconsin. “The people we took to Salm Partners are operators so they are more technical,” Dubnik says, noting that fine-tuning and maintaining consistency on the co-extrusion equipment is somewhat of an art form.

After the agreement was made between the two companies in November of 2013, activity in the ensuing months was dizzying, according to Flood. In terms of getting the entire system up and running, “from start to finish, this has to go down in the record books as one of the fastest installations, implementations and start-ups I’ve ever seen,” with the project completed in less than one year.

Technology-rich

Looking back at the scope of the project, Dubnik now scans the processing floor with pride, and in a little awe of what he says is “the world’s fastest, co-extrusion sausage line, with about double the capacity of any other system that Marel Townsend has on the market.” The system also required WFSP to utilize the expertise of other supplier partners, including FPEC, Marlen International and RapidPak.

WFSP’s capital cost in the system was tempered, thanks to existing brick and mortar that was ready to accommodate the system. Still, with an investment of about $25 million, the venture is bold and indicates the commitment of the companies.

Quality ingredients, careful formulation and precision-based technology all come together to ensure the product has a satisfying flavor.

In many regards, the initial stages of sausage production at Wayne Farms is similar to many other sausage plants. Much like those operations, raw material is course ground, blended and ingredients are added and mixed before moving to dumpers. Scott Forsythe, operations manager at the further-processing plant, and Flood are quick to point out, though, that even these otherwise basic steps involve extra attention as part of the Wayne Farms process, starting with the raw material. Fresh, whole-muscle, dark chicken meat is added to a dumper at temperatures that must be below 40˚ F. The raw meat is as fresh as possible, considering it is supplied by another North Alabama Wayne Farms plant. And the extra steps taken to carefully blend the chicken and the ingredients reflect the artisanship used during the R&D stage in Wayne Farm’s test kitchen. The results were product attributes that the product engineers strived to maintain in a mass production environment.

The dark leg meat is dumped into a grinder and after metal detection it is moved into one of two, 6,000-lb. blenders where spices and inclusions are added.

“It’s all about how we build the product,” Flood says. “We start with whole-muscle leg meat, coarsely ground, and then we fold in the inclusions. When you look at the product, you can see whole pieces of ingredients.” This emphasis on the product’s appearance is a point of pride throughout the manufacturing process. At several points during the walk-through of the plant, an operations manager snatches a link from the production line and snaps it open to reveal easily discernible cubes of vegetables, cheese and fresh, dark chicken meat. “Consumers want to have the visual and aromatic explosion. That only comes from the freshest meat and ingredients,” Flood says, breaking yet another uncooked sausage to make his point. “That’s exciting to the consumer. It screams ‘quality’ and it screams ‘value,’” he adds.

Vegetables come in diced and frozen while the cheeses come in diced and stay refrigerated. Currently, batches range from 4,000 to 6,000 lbs. each and the non-meat inclusions are “folded” into what will ultimately be formed into a meat “rope.” The next steps, says the operations-focused Forsythe, are anything but straightforward or typical of other sausage-processing operations.

It’s a far cry from the emulsions that are used in hot-dog processing, he and Flood point out. “Everything is still intact and not just a mess,” adds Forsythe, using a gloved handful of the blend to demonstrate his point.

“This is where the technology really takes off, right here,” he says, motioning to the room that houses the four co-extrusion units, which feed an adjoining room where drying, packaging and the immersion cooking take place. He explains the key to manufacturing this type of sausage, which utilizes cook-in vacuum packaging, is removing all of the air from the meat blend before the “meat ropes” are produced. “The vacuum levels that we achieve in blending are crucial and the vacuum levels we achieve in stuffing [using a dual-piston Marlen pump] are crucial,” Forsythe says.

The quality ingredients, careful formulation and the precision-based technology all come together where a single pump feeds four QX co-extrusion units with meat, each of which is also fed by a collagen pump. At blinding speed, the collagen spins around the rope of meat to ensure consistency all the way around the meat.

A saltwater brine is applied to the collagen-wrapped meat to stiffen the collagen after the sausage is formed. The product is then cut to a specified length. With all four systems operating and producing a standard-sized sausage for foodservice, approximately 11,000 lbs. of product can be produced per hour. Currently, the plant doesn’t need to run all four lines, but “We are ramping up volume,” says Forsythe, and as soon as several new pending deals from customers are signed, the capacity will increase.

The amount of collagen applied is based on the flow of the meat rope and the speed of the rope is consistent as is the rotation speed of the head applying the collagen. Diameter of the product being produced is another factor. At its current capacity, between 1,500 to 2,000 lbs. of collagen is used per day as the hopper pumping it is refilled throughout each shift. After the co-extrusion process, product is moved into the pre and post-drying towers. The product is next conveyed to packaging where links are placed in pouches, both by hand and using robotics. That mix is currently 50/50, says Forsythe. “It’s all the same product. We are just using the robot to help minimize labor,” as the Marel Townsend-designed robotics are still in the testing phase. Dow Harris, director of R&D, points out that as the robotics are adopted and implemented as part of the process, each packaging machine will be staffed by a single operator, cutting labor needs considerably. Eventually, there will be two robots per packaging machine.

At several points in the production process, products are spot-checked and broken in half by QA staffers to ensure the quality of the casing and the inclusions inside the products are up to spec. After pre-dry, products are checked for temperature, texture and eye appeal. “It gives us a good indication of what we are going to see at the end of the line,” Forsythe says.  

 

Wayne Farm's Executive Chef,
Frank Jack, played an integral part
in developing the flavor profiles of
the Chef's Craft line of sausages.

The products are transferred to stainless-steel baskets where it is showered in a waterfall-like cascade of liquid smoke, which imparts flavor and enhances color. At this point, the product is a little warmer and a little harder to break open than before. Keeping the collagen hydrated throughout the process ensures the casing doesn’t split during the packaging or cooking process.

After the drying tower the sausage is vacuum packaged at 125˚ F followed by a cooking bath that lasts between 15 and 18 minutes at 183˚ F. Chilling comes next, which includes immersion in cooler water, between 35˚ and 38˚ F.

Quality in, quality out

Dow Harris assumed his position at Wayne Farms after working for years with Sara Lee. He understands sausage. Through the years he’s learned the art of balancing product development with being a good listener, which in this case meant lending an open ear to foodservice operators. “We initially started with flavors we thought would play with the foodservice customers. We also wanted to have high quality inclusions,” he says.

The Chef’s Craft Gourmet line of gourmet chicken sausage includes five flavor profiles that were meticulously conceived and formulated by Harris along with Frank Jock, who has served as Wayne Farms’ executive chef since 2010. The profiles include: Tomato Basil Mozzarella; Jamaican Jerk; Italian Mozzarella; Maple Cinnamon Apple and Buffalo Blue Cheese.

Despite the absence of gluten, nitrates, nitrites, MSG, artificial ingredients and preservatives, the Chef’s Craft sausages offer foodservice operators six months of shelf-life to go along with the clean label, addressing two hot-button challenges for foodservice operators in all segments. “With 180 days of refrigerated shelf-life, we know we can move it all the way through the supply chain and help our partners reduce the risk of spoiled products they would have,” Flood says, while ensuring the eating attributes from Day One. The product is rich and indulgent, he adds. And at 600 mg. per link, salt content is half of that of a normal pork sausage, which appeals to consumers at all foodservice segments.

Because it arrives fully cooked in the package, preparation options allow for fast, reheating and holding to address the needs of serving hundreds of people in a cafeteria or buffet setting.

“In addition to being a great fit for restaurant operators, I believe there is a huge opportunity for this product in the resort, hotel and convention space where you have high-volume feeding,” says Flood, noting that perhaps the most successful channel for the product thus far has been among colleges and university foodservice outlets. The same products can be used in preparing chef-inspired dishes where a few minutes on the grill deliver a charred appearance and cutting the product on the bias can create a center-of-the plate masterpiece.

Chef's Craft Italian, mozzarella chicken sausage.

Distribution for foodservice customers is established throughout the country, and the team is poised to ramp up volume.

An important channel that is a good fit for the new products includes QSRs where some chains are seeing growing demand for biscuit length, shorter sausages, jokingly known as ‘stubbies’.

Understanding that the preferred presentation is splitting the sausage to put on the biscuit, Wayne Farms collaborated on developing a patented sausage-splitter that simplifies the process and eliminates the possibility of injury to workers in the food preparation areas-another example of delivering solutions.

“We have to do more than just supply product,” says Flood. “If someone were looking at serving the sausage product split, they’re concerned about how people in back of the house are working with the product. They don’t want knives,” Flood says.

The success of the JV moving forward requires continued diligence and commitment. Teams from Wayne Farms and Salm Partners hold weekly conference calls to address challenges and opportunities moving forward. “We’re all in this together,” Flood says.

The vision of Elton Maddox and Chris Salm is becoming a reality and the success will be evident on a menu near you, according to Flood. “If there was a blueprint of what a joint venture should look like, this is it,” he says.

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