Foodservice operators spent much of 2013 in search of a better burger eating experience and for good reason – demand for burgers is high among consumers, especially in the United States. In its “The Burger Consumer Trend Report”, Chicago-based Technomic Inc. reports that 68 percent of consumers said they eat burgers weekly or more often with cravings driving these frequent purchases. More foodservice operators are emphasizing better burgers on their menus because the item is a good lower-price alternative to other meat products, Technomic notes.

So, while demand for burgers isn’t about to subside any time soon, foodservice operators are looking to differentiate themselves with offerings such as all-natural minimally processed meat products. It’s the maverick foodservice operators willing to take risks that Cardinal Meat Specialists Ltd. hopes to attract to its latest innovation in ground beef production.

Finding the right grind

Cardinal Meat, a family owned processor based in Mississauga, Ontario, has been a key player in Canada’s meat industry for 80 years. It began producing fully cooked meat products and hamburgers for the Canadian market in 1966. Since its inception, the company has evolved from a local butchering operation to an innovator in ground beef production through research and development that has produced leading-edge grinding and forming technology. Now, Cardinal Meat is working to crack the United States foodservice market using the products of that R&D effort: natural texture forming and the Revolution Burger.

“When we were looking to enter the American market, we thought the best entry was with the natural texture forming. It brings attributes that restaurateurs have been asking for: minimally processed, faster cooking for quicker table turns, very easy to adapt, yet innovative,” says Brent Cator, Cardinal Meat’s CEO.

Ground beef is the top-selling beef item at retail and foodservice in the US, according to the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association. NCBA says 7.5 billion tons of ground beef were sold in the past year in the US for retail and foodservice segments. Industry purchases of ground beef in 2012 accounted for 64 percent of dollar sales and 37 percent of pound sales, NCBA notes. Within the beef category last year, ground beef accounted for 40 percent of dollar sales and 49 percent of pound sales.

Through its partnership with Sysco and Certified Angus Beef, Cardinal’s strategy is to earn market share by courting independent restaurants to expand distribution of the Revolution Burger and other Cardinal Meat products.

“Sysco, having the broadest range in the US of independents, we have a strong partnership with them in Canada,” Cator says. “We combined that with Certified Angus Beef, which brings along the brand loyalty and the comfort that people have with the inputs and launched a product.”

Equipment evolution

The search for product innovation from equipment suppliers began five years ago, Cator says. Developing the technology to create the Revolution Burger took at least two years. Cardinal Meat launched the natural texture forming technology in Canada three years ago.

“We did a lot of work internationally to see if there were any other ideas out there; combined some technologies out of Europe along with a lot of in-house technologies that were used for products, such as steak tartare, to be ground, small-run products and found a way to take the technologies to a spot where they could be commercialized for the North American market,” Cator says.

“Marel has been a key innovation partner in a lot of the technology Cardinal Meat does; they certainly have a part to play in this,” he adds.

What the company created was a better-burger experience from the back of the restaurant to the consumer eating the burger. Restaurants are able to turn tables faster because of the shorter time it takes to cook the burger to a safe temperature. The burger also cooks evenly with no cold spots, and the meat retains most of its natural flavor because less of it is burned off during the shorter cook time, according to Cator.

The technology innovations allow Cardinal Meat to make a burger with virtually zero pressure, which maintains the integrity of the meat. Natural texture forming creates a loose and pebbly grind that maintains its texture even in a high-speed forming operation. Additionally, the weave of the burger stays together nicely because of the way Cardinal Meat is able to stream the meat out of the grinder. But one of the biggest selling points of the Revolution Burger is that it cooks in half the time of a traditional burger.

Cator says that cooking a half-lb. premium burger in a restaurant, depending on the type of grill and heat source, may take 12 minutes or more to reach a safe temperature. Cook time for a Revolution Burger can be around six minutes.

Food safety facet

The food industry faces many challenges to ensure consumers and restaurants cook burgers to a safe temperature, Cator says.

“The reality is, it’s one more step in the food-safety chain,” he says. “There have been efforts made throughout the whole meat industry to make meat safe, but cooking is part of it.” However, cooking ground beef to a safe temperature can result in a dry burger. The Revolution Burger allows cooks to reach the proper internal temperature and still maintain a moist and juicy burger.

“If you ask people to cook a burger to a temperature where they don’t like the end result, they’re not going to do it,” Cator says. “It just allows people to serve a burger proudly, cooked to a safe temperature.”

Food-safety benefits extend to the processing plant because the forming technology eliminates squeeze points in the equipment, which can occur when juices and fats are squeezed into different parts of the equipment, making it harder to clean. Cator says the natural texture forming equipment, because it’s under zero pressure, is easy to clean and that adds another food-safety element at the plant.

Beyond beef

In the Canadian market, Cardinal has applied its innovative forming technology to turkey, chicken and some game products. The company also has been able to combine what engineers have learned from the natural texture forming technology and apply it to stuffing capabilities. “In burgers, when you want to stuff a burger, put anything in the way of a cheese or sauce in the center, you have a very dangerous product because it heats up to a temperature in the middle, somebody bites into it and it squirts out,” Cator says. “So, the technologies that are available today, as much as people make them, have a high risk that way. In this case, by using the natural texture forming capability, we’ve eliminated that risk. How exactly, I’ll leave that to our trade secret.”

Taking into account additions and subtractions from the company’s product line-up, Cardinal Meat currently produces roughly 160-170 different burger products for its customers. Restaurateurs are making more money with the Revolution Burger across the board, Cator says. For Cardinal Meat, it accounts for half of sales in the grind business. It’s also cannibalized most of the company’s businesses that previously existed. “Right now, it’s in its infancy in the US, but it’s coming,” he says.

The core piece of Cardinal’s business has been earning its position with independent restaurants with innovative chefs who will take risks. In three to five years, Cator says he’d like to see the Revolution Burger in major chain restaurants and applying the technology to other species.

“I don’t see limiting it in any manner to beef,” he says. “It’s proven to be very successful in poultry, and in a ground form, it can be any of the species that we do.” That means bison, turkey, chicken and beef today – and pork in the future.

Cardinal Meat has created a new division called Advance Protein Portioning. It’s what Cardinal Meat’s CEO Brent Cator calls “the new app in town”. The new division will incorporate the natural texture forming technology and other technologies for sealed environment, individually portioned, fully cooked fresh product. It is a combination of technologies that is a $10 million operation installed over the past year capable of 50 million lbs. of production annually.