Putting together a new case-ready beef program would typically take a processor six to eight months from concept to implementation. There are countless details to iron out including selecting the product, choosing the appropriate packaging, purchasing and setting up new equipment, training personnel and designing labels and marketing material. For Arkansas City, Kan.-based Creekstone Farms, it only took 60 days.
In early February, Creekstone Farms Premium Beef announced the launch of its new case-ready program for both Premium Black Angus Beef and All-Natural Duroc Pork. The products Creekstone is known for – beef and pork raised with the standards of no antibiotics, no added hormones and no artificial ingredients – haven’t changed, however, now customers have the option of purchasing them pre-packaged and ready for display at retail.
“We kept getting requests from our current customers and potential new customers for a case-ready retail program,” says Jim Rogers, vice president of sales and marketing. “At Creekstone, we’re focused on customer service – our customers dictate the direction we go in. If they’re looking for a particular program, such as case-ready, then that’s the direction we’re going to go.”
After the decision was made to make the move to case-ready, it took less than two months to put the program together. “From concept to putting product in a box, it didn’t take that long to get the program going – 60 days or less,” Rogers says.
How was this possible? “We had the equipment already in place,” says Steve Endres, director of plant operations. “We had the equipment in-house that we had used for other programs in the past. It would have been a six-month timeline without the equipment.”
The company chose to use the GEA Tiromat PowerPak rollstock machine it already had in-house for the new case-ready packaging.
Under one roof
Creekstone’s beef operation all takes place at one location – its Arkansas City, Kan., facility. “We harvest, fabricate, grind trim for ground beef, cut whole-muscle cuts, and now package for case-ready all in the same place,” Rogers says. “Nothing leaves and nothing comes in from the outside – it’s all a closed loop.”
Having the complete operation under one roof made the transition to case-ready as seamless as possible. “We already had the beef here,” Endres says. “It was a matter of developing the yields, training our personnel and developing a product list.”
The company offers 15 different whole-muscle cuts of beef steaks and roasts, including strip, ribeye and top sirloin steaks, chuck roasts and London Broil. Each cut is individually packaged. There are also around 10 to 12 different ground beef SKUs – some in modified-atmosphere packaging (MAP) and others are brick-packaged.
The brick-pack style of case-ready packaging is nothing new in the retail meat arena. “Consumers were already seeing it in other proteins or from other beef processors,” Rogers says. “The customer acceptance of this type of packaging has grown considerably over the years – we weren’t worried about it being accepted with our meat customers.” And having the equipment already in-house made sense financially, as well.
“Having the equipment in-house already was a big part of the financial decision about which direction we went down with the packaging,” Endres says. “Early on in Creekstone’s existence, we had a case-ready program for offal products and a marinade program. Never gained much traction with either, but we kept the equipment.”
It was necessary to invest in some basic tooling for the existing equipment in order to accommodate the differences in product sizes that would be packaged. In addition, three employees were added to that side of the plant to cut product and operate the line. Previously, all product was sent to retail and foodservice customers as boxed, wholesale primals – all further cutting was handled by the end-customer at retail or foodservice. Now, meat cutters are needed in the plant to break the primals down into steaks and roasts.
A recent plant expansion allowed for the case-ready production to streamline into the existing operations. In October 2014, Creekstone built a 73,000-sq.-ft. addition to its now 550,000-sq.-ft. Arkansas City plant. The new building, which is attached to the existing facility through a tunnel-like corridor, houses fabrication, pack off, human resources, employee locker rooms and support staff. The case-ready operations are done in the original plant.
Though it’s not a part of the Arkansas City plant operations, Creekstone also offers its All-Natural Duroc Pork in case-ready packaging. Creekstone works with regional processors when case-ready pork is requested by customers. “We send our boxed pork to regional processors to cut and package for us as needed,” Rogers says.
The advantages of case-ready meat are readily known – and topping the list is shelf-life. Creekstone promises 28 days of shelf-life for its whole-muscle cuts and brick-pack ground beef from date of production, and 21 days for its MAP ground beef. After delivery, retailers and foodservice customers still can count on 21 to 24 days of shelf-life for their product.
Retailers can also benefit from reduced labor and less product waste. The easy-to-stock small pack sizes can be ordered in packages of six to 12 pieces per case.
“The biggest advantage from a retailer standpoint, speaking specifically to our case-ready, natural-beef program, is that they can get into an antibiotic-free, hormone-free, Black Angus beef program with very little investment and risk,” Rogers explains. “With a 28-day shelf-life product, they have weeks to sell the product. Retailers are losing meat cutters, so this program fills the void with reduced labor in their departments.”
Retailers are supported by marketing materials including recipe cards, brochures, case dividers, posters, signs and even hats and aprons for meat-department personnel. Creekstone is available in various markets all over the country in foodservice and retail, as well as in 76 countries around the world. Currently, there are 20 retail outlets using the case-ready program. “We expect in the next 30 days for that to double or triple,” Rogers says.
The company is confident, however, that it can handle any potential increase in demand for the case-ready product. The 73,000-sq.-ft. expansion last October was built with the idea in mind to streamline the systems in the current facility, both for current production and any increased production in the future, Rogers explains. “There’s plenty of room to grow within our current facility,” he concludes.