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In the unassuming city of Frontenac, a rural town in southeastern Kansas that’s situated in a region flanked by railroad tracks and perhaps better-known in past decades for the prevalence of strip mining for coal, SugarCreek has quietly operated one of the Cincinnati, Ohio-based company’s most productive bacon processing plants since 1982.
Inside the plant, just west of Highway 69, about 120 miles south of Kansas City, the 112,000-sq.-ft. plant is a well-orchestrated processing operation that churns out millions of pounds of raw and pre-cooked bacon strips and mountains of bacon bits. Diversity and flexibility define the operations at the plant, where during a recent tour it quickly became evident that SugarCreek is happy to play the role of co-processing partner to most of the best known retail bacon brands in the industry and on the menus of household foodservice companies.
SugarCreek began operating in 1966, primarily as a raw, bacon-processing company, based in Washington Courthouse, Ohio, where a sister plant to the Frontenac facility still operates, producing not only pork bacon and bits but turkey bacon and meatballs as well. SugarCreek operates three additional production and processing plants in Ohio as well as a just-opened 418,000-sq.-ft. facility in Cambridge City, Ind., highlighted by large-scale sous vide, impingement and MPO operations.
The company is regarded as the country’s largest, independent bacon processor, founded by John S. Richardson Sr., and is still family owned with John G. Richardson Jr. serving as CEO and chairman.
Prior to the opening of the company’s Cambridge City, Ind., plant last month, the 112,000-sq.-ft. plant was the largest processing facility operated by SugarCreek, with 544 employees operating on two shifts per day. Nathan Murphy, plant manager, says one of the challenges of working in one of the firm’s older plants is maximizing production in a fixed amount of space. Common conversations center around, “OK, where can we squeeze this line in,” while keeping in mind the ergonomics and egress requirements.
Currently running with two production shifts, the plant produces 40 million lbs. of raw, sliced bacon per year. Meanwhile, about 35 million lbs. of ready-to-eat bacon strips are manufactured each year and 40 million lbs. of bacon bits. While every square foot of the processing floor is efficiently utilized, Murphy says the Richardson family has a proven track record to reinvesting in the company and he and his team are confident that expansion plans at the plant are always on the radar.
“There are a lot of possibilities and Mr. Richardson is a believer in reinvesting back into the business,” Murphy says. An 11,000-sq.-ft. addition on the south side of the current plant and renovating the employee parking lot are two of the more recent investments at the Frontenac plant.
There are five lines designated for ready-to-eat bacon strip production in addition to one bacon bit cook line for retail and institutional customers. Ready-to-eat processing began in the late 1990s. “It’s grown,” says Michael John Jr., a second-generation team member at SugarCreek of the customer demand that led to more production capacity.
“We used to just have one strip line,” he says, which was a hot oil cooking system only. A 2011 renovation added four more lines and a bacon bit line at the plant. An additional hot-oil system was added about one year later.
The company also uses microwave technology for the pre-cooked strips and a limited amount of bacon bits in addition to two hot oil systems dedicated to production of bacon bits.
Customers’ applications dictate the type of bacon bits produced at the plant. Customers using bacon on pizzas prefer higher water content in their bits to ensure they won’t dry out during the pizza-cooking process. For them, the oil-cooked products are better suited as they are more resistant to drying out. Likewise, some customers require hickory-smoked products while others prefer liquid-smoke-infused flavoring. Dice sizes are typically either .75-in. or 1-in. squares and are 3/16 of an inch thick.
In 2013, the company expanded production with the addition of its South Side operation to increase production. Part of the 11,000-sq.-ft. expansion included adding employee space (break room, bathrooms). The SugarCreek plant in Washington Courthouse and its facility in Frontenac are similar in design and set up. “So if they have issues or we have issues, one plant might tell the other: “Hey, you need to try this solution that worked for us,” based on its similar floorplan and production, John says.
At the Frontenac plant, raw strip production is achieved using four retail lines and one line designated for institutional customers. For retail customers, 12-oz. and 16-oz. packages are available in either vacuum pack or gas flushed packaging.
“The plant is flexible,” says John, which is critical for a company that has a growing and diverse customer base. From the injection formulas to the smoking process to belly pressing to slicing and packaging, SugarCreek is accustomed to running a variety of products on an even wider variety of equipment brands.
For example, on any given day, the plant is utilizing three different brands of bacon presses and slicers range from a high-speed thoroughbred for foodservice customers to a trio of tried-and-true workhorse slicers that have been a mainstay at the plant that are relegated for retail products. Likewise, SugarCreek uses three different slicer types at the plant, depending on the need of the customer and the raw material.
In terms of food safety, a recent push has been on X-ray detection, and the Richardson family has invested in new equipment at most of its facilities. The company has made significant investments in X-ray equipment over the past year, in addition to metal detection equipment and sorting systems. Its “industry-first” laser sorting system for bacon-bit production minimizes foreign material contamination and is a vital part of the company’s food-safety system.
When it comes to slicing, SugarCreek utilizes different equipment, depending on the customer’s needs and expectations. The company boasts that it operates the industry’s “first-and-only” four-lane, four-blade bacon slicer to ensure high-speed slicing for its foodservice customers.
Consistency in raw material and carcass sizes is always a challenge to processors of all kinds and bacon processors are no exception. “Everyone wants a 12- to 14-lb. belly,” says John, adding that consistency is easier to maintain with raw material that begins with uniform bellies. Fortunately, the ends and pieces of sliced products are utilized for the company’s bacon-bit production. The plant also makes a bacon dust product that can be used as an ingredient in some foods.
“A lot of today’s equipment is improving,” says John, which becomes evident when sliced products are produced. “A lot of it is focused on appearance; producing uniform, nice shingles.”