Unforeseen tragedies sometimes sow the seeds for a new beginning. Such is the case for Hayward, Calif.-based Columbus Foods – processor of premium salame and deli meats. Columbus celebrated the grand opening of its new $31 million slicing and packaging facility on July 21, after a fire destroyed the original South San Francisco slicing plant in July 2009. The company is owned in part by Endeavour Capital, which acquired a majority interest in the company through a recapitalization initiative in 2006.

“The damaged facility contained our slicing operations,” explains Ken Neishi, vice president of operations. “The cause of the fire was undetermined and the building was a total loss. Thankfully, no one was injured. Our original facility was 40,000 sq. ft. and employed 100 people at that time. Our new slicing and packaging facility is 60,000 sq. ft. and employs 70 employees.”

The demise of the former plant occurred in the middle of the night on July 23, 2009. Investigators estimated it started at about 2:00 a.m. By the time Neishi arrived on the scene, the plant was ablaze. “I was notified around 3:30 a.m. by the safety manager, and arrived within 30 minutes of the call,” he says. “As I approached from about two blocks away, I could see flames shooting over the top of the other buildings.”

Although the fire department prevented the fire from spreading to neighboring buildings, Neishi quickly realized the plant was a total loss. “The priority became finding a way to immediately replace production elsewhere,” he says, and a plan had to be made quickly to ensure about 13 million lbs. of sliced salame and deli meat could be produced somewhere else. Five million lbs. of production was absorbed by another Columbus plant. The remaining 8 million lbs. would be processed by four co-packers.

“All four co-packers reached out to us immediately after the fire offering their help, and we couldn’t be more appreciative,” Neishi says.

Neishi is pleased to see the new facility’s completion. “And I am proud of the team that worked so hard to design and build it,” he says. “The real resolve was with the employees, who are now working in the new plant. More than half came from the old plant and they understand the differences between the two. I see their focus and determination every day.”

New and improved

“The new plant, our first major project in decades, reflects Columbus’ potential for growth, as well as its unwavering commitment to quality, safety and production excellence,” says Tim Fallon, CEO. “This facility builds on 94 years of tradition in making great tasting salame and deli meats.” Columbus partnered with Stellar, a Jacksonville, Fla.-based design-build firm, in building its new facility.

“Columbus Foods is a venerable San Francisco Bay Area institution that brings its passion for food and Italian culinary traditions to life,” Neishi says. “Old World family recipes inspire the most extensive hand-crafted collection of Italian-style dry cured salame and a rich assortment of premium deli meats that are marketed under the Columbus brand. In addition to authentic, 100 percent pork salame, we manufacture premium-quality deli meats made with the finest whole cuts of turkey, ham, beef and chicken. All Columbus Foods products are gluten-free, have no MSG and 0 percent trans fat.”

Inside the new slicing facility, deli and salame slicing bats are received in corrugated totes on plastic pallets from the company’s two nearby processing plants. “Our processing plant in South San Francisco produces deli meat and salame, which will supply the WIP [work in progress] for the slice plant,” Neishi says. “All of our deli production originates with whole-muscle meat. Besides the WIP, the plant also produces bulk deli and salame that is packaged, labeled and distributed to our customers.”

The 55,000-sq.-ft. South San Francisco manufacturing plant handcrafts a wide variety of traditional and artisan salume and a suite of premium deli meats primarily for retail. It currently processes approximately 223 SKUs. The facility operates eight lines. More than 90 percent of its volume is under the Columbus brand.

“We process deli meat and salame, plus operate deli meat and salame packaging lines. We have between 125 and 160 employees at our peak production output,” Neishi says.

Columbus’ second processing plant in Hayward is dedicated to making salame. It also supplies some product to the slice plant and the remainder of the salame produced is packaged as bulk or sliced into a zipper package.

Inside the new slicing/packaging facility, the salame slicing bats are stored in a cooler at 38°F-40°F. Deli slicing bats are stored in a cooler at 28°F. “Our goal is to get the core temperature of the deli log to 28°F for optimum yield,” Neishi says.

Both deli and salame slicing bats are sliced on Weber 905 slicers and packaged on Multivac 535s. Salame is sliced and packaged into either modified atmosphere or zipper packages. Non high-pressure processing (HPP) product is packaged into cases and palletized. All pallets are given a pallet tag (or license plate) for inventory accuracy. HPP product is offloaded and loaded into carriers and staged for when it runs the off-line HPP machine.

HPP showcase

“Our new slicing and packaging facility highlights the company’s commitment to the highest quality and food-safety standards for its packaged deli meats and salumi products,” Neishi says. “The plant is one of the most technologically advanced slicing facilities in the US, including utilizing HPP technology provided by NC Hyperbaric.

“The HPP process employs ultra-high water pressure [87,000 PSI] to destroy vegetative microbes without the application of heat, which can damage taste, texture and nutritional value of food,” he adds. “The facility also includes specialized rooms and restricted process flows for hygienic zoning, as well as separate slicing rooms for deli and cured meats.”

The destroyed South San Francisco location did not have HPP capability because the space needed was not available. “Since we lost the other slicing facility, we received inquiries from our major customers as to whether we would have the capability to incorporate HPP on our sliced deli meats [in our new plant],” Neishi explains. “Since we were building a new facility, we decided to make the HPP investment. At this time, the HPP process is used on a portion of our deli meats sliced and packaged at this facility. The throughput of the HPP machine is based on our package and sliced product. Its capacity, based on three shifts, seven days a week, 48 weeks out of the year, is approximately 20 million lbs. per year.”

Columbus Foods slices products during two shifts, five days a week, Neishi says. Clean-up takes place on the third shift. The sixth and seventh days are available production days when demand spikes. With increased consumer concern about food safety, the new facility creates some of the safest product available, while extending shelf-life without use of traditional chemical antimicrobial ingredients, Neishi says. “We took best practices from Europe to design a facility that had food safety as the No. 1 priority,” he adds. “We used Stellar to help us design and build a facility that had its focus on food safety and productivity. We also took learnings from our old facility to design a worker-safe environment.”

The new Hayward facility was also designed to increase line efficiencies and implement some of the highest product safety and handling standards in food manufacturing. The new facility has an annual processing capacity of 17 to 20 million lbs. across three slice lines.

“Initially, the new plant will match capacity needs, but we’ve built in room for growth for salame and deli meats along with additional HPP capacity,” Neishi says. “The Hayward facility can slice 65,000 to 75,000 lbs. of deli and salame meat per day.”

All three slicing lines employ Weber model number 905 slicers and Multivac 535 packaging machines. Two of the lines are for MAP packaging, which features easy open/re-sealable configurations, and the third line is for zipper packages.

Active in product development

Columbus Foods is active in new product development. “Our most recent successful new product offerings include no-nitrate, all-natural Italian dry salame; low-sodium salame; wine salame; and the new HPP Reduced Sodium Herb Roasted Turkey Breast twin-pack,” Neishi says.

Neishi says consumer demand for premium products is strong despite the economy. “There’s a growing culinary appreciation for authentic, higher-end and artisan dry-cured meats, such as our Italian dry salame and our traditional line,” he adds. “As [more people take interest in the foods they eat], they are also starting to get more interested in Italian-style meats. We are playing the role of educator; we’re helping to connect people with pairing options and traditional and innovative usage suggestions. We believe we are the leading artisan dry-cured meat manufacturer in the US.”

Products produced by Columbus are primarily for national distribution. “We also currently export to Mexico Costco and are looking to enter Canada,” Neishi says. “We are always looking for profitable ways to grow our business.

Looking to the future Neishi says based on the company’s projected growth, its executives continue to develop expansion plans.

“We can double our slicing capacity within the existing floor plan,” he confides. “We are one of the top producers of deli meat and salame, and we are committed to maintaining our handcrafted, Old World Traditions while continually producing the best products in our core line.”