Like a fine wine, the production of premium, dry-cured meats requires premium ingredients, predictable climates, time and patience. Additionally, the quality of both end-products depends on following proven techniques and the oversight of experts who are masters of their respective crafts. Automating the time and labor-intensive production of charcuterie and dry-cured meats is a bold endeavor many processors in the segment have likely considered. One pioneering company in this segment, Daniele Inc., has taken the multi-million-dollar plunge by implementing automation and robotics at its new prosciutto processing and salame facility in Pascoag, Rhode Island.
Having cut the ribbon on the salame facility about six months ago, the scale of production and use of automation on the raw side of the family-owned operation is unlike any other dry-cured processing plant doing business today, representing a futuristic leap forward from the company’s European roots. Those roots date back to post-World War II Yugoslavia, when a young Vlado Dukcevich fled the communist country with his older brother and their parents, Carolina and Stefano, seeking refuge in northeastern Italy. When the family arrived in Trieste, Italy, they were free and safe but penniless. Out of necessity, Vlado’s parents started a business, selling Carolina’s hand-crafted salame to area restaurants from a bicycle ridden by Stefano. The business flourished and eventually the couple operated a thriving sausage, prosciutto and cooked-ham factory in Italy. Vlado inherited his parents entrepreneurial spirit and studied the art of dry-cured meat production while working in the family business.
Coming to America
In 1976, Vlado brought the family and its business to Rhode Island at a time when the gourmet foods movement was catching on in the US, and deli meat was part of that trend. As demand grew, Vlado added products and processing facilities and ultimately, hundreds of employees. His youngest son, Stefano, named after his father, followed in his father’s footsteps, joining the company in the late 1990s after attending college and earning a master’s degree. Stefano’s younger brother, Davide, joined the family business after college too, but first ventured out on his own, working for several years as a journalist with Forbes magazine. He eventually realized that none of the business stories he wrote could top the story behind his family’s business, where he now leads the sales efforts. That story is based on a modest beginning, forged out of necessity. It has evolved as a success story of a tradition-rich, family business that has thrived to become a retail and foodservice juggernaut and an early-adopter of cutting-edge automation technology.
“Here in the sleepy corner of Rhode Island, is the most technologically advanced company in the world, period,” says Stefano, whose official title is president of Daniele Inc. “There isn’t another company like it anywhere – in Italy, Spain, France or anywhere that makes dry-cured products – this is the one.”
From outside, the expansive plant looks enormous, spanning nearly 900,000 sq. ft., but, Davide points out, as much as 90 percent of that square footage is utilized for the time and space-intensive aging and drying of prosciutto and salame.
Maximizing square footage to allow for the drying and aging process was designed into the new facility, Davide says. “A lot of the space is taken up by product; product that is dry curing, product that is aging,” Davide says. “Prosciutto takes a year, 14 months or 16 months to produce so you have to have a massive, physical space.” Within the new space, Daniele has consolidated its production of prosciutto hams, including curing and aging of about 600,000 hams and production of about 12,000 legs per week. It also serves as the production facility for Daniele’s array of dry-cured salames. Italian-engineered automation technology and robotics facilitate the time-dependent process of crafting the Old-World products, preserving the artisanal elements using minimal labor.
“You won’t see any humans for acres,” Davide says. “You only hear the sound of the robots.” Most of the company’s 600 employees work on the finished product side of the operations, working two shifts, six days per week.
“Time is the most important component,” Stefano echoes, especially in the production of prosciutto. “My dad always says, ‘this isn’t like making a hot dog.’ The prosciutto tells you when it’s ready. You’re at the mercy of the product.”
Davide compares the size and scope of the facility to the seasonally based wine-making process. “It’s like if you were to take a vineyard and encase it all under one roof,” he says. Walking through the many resting and drying rooms packed floor to ceiling with hams and salames, Stefano echoes his brother’s vineyard comparison. “These are our grapevines,” he says.
Daniele has owned the property the new plant occupies in Pascoag for about 15 years. The company’s original plant is located about five miles from the new facility and is where the company started in 1976. At that time, the company was only making prosciutto in the facility, which was about 70,000 sq. ft. Vlado soon learned that to maximize his sales efforts he needed to diversify by adding more products, which required more space. After customers began asking what else he had to offer, Vlado began making salame, fresh sausage and cooked products to fill his truck. As product lines were added and volume increased, so too did the size of the plant. After multiple renovations, that facility grew to nearly 275,000 sq. ft. by about 2003. It soon became apparent that this plant was maxed out and Vlado and Stefano, who had by that time joined the company, decided to build an additional, free-standing facility. It was to be dedicated to the producing the most popular products at that time: salame. This was the first phase of construction at the Pascoag property, spanning about 175,000 sq. ft. Fast forward to 2015, and demand for prosciutto was impossible to ignore, so another construction project designed for prosciutto production was planned that would ultimately span upwards of 850,000 sq. ft. with a capacity of 10,000 hams per week.
All prosciutto production, including Daniele’s Del Duca line and a variety of private label products, is now performed at the new plant as well as the whole muscle-derived salame products. High-speed slicing, meanwhile, is spread throughout the company’s operations. Exports account for about 25 percent of Daniele’s sales each year. Mexico, Canada and Japan are among the bigger markets for the company along with Latin America.