With roots dating back to the 1960s in Switzerland, sous vide cooking technology has evolved as a foolproof food safety solution and an effective culinary shortcut. While not a recent technology development, sous vide cooking is on trend with foodies, at-home cooks and professional chefs. For years, sous vide (French for “under vacuum”) has been a technology used by many processors, but it has not been embraced universally. 

One of the growing number of processors that has made sous vide its primary source of delivering the highest quality cooked products to its customers, is family-owned Deli Star Corp., based in St. Louis. 

Justin Siegel, chief executive operator, said his family’s company began experimenting with sous vide about 20 years ago when his father, Dan Siegel, PhD, realized how product cooked using the method guaranteed the quality and food safety of diced chicken breasts in vacuum-packed pouches. After realizing the effectiveness of sous vide and its many benefits, the Deli Star R&D team expanded the applications and the company has never looked back. Justin Siegel discussed its journey into using the technology on a large scale and how it’s unlocked doors to the future for the company.   

MEAT+POULTRY: Sous vide is a well-known cooking technique nowadays (in-home systems are growing in popularity), but in the beginning is it safe to assume customers had to be sold on the attributes and applications? How did you navigate that?

Justin Siegel: It wasn’t as hard as you would imagine. When we began working on our R&D, the Safe Quality Food (SQF) program was just getting started, and food safety was on everyone’s minds. The industry product recalls were also at an all-time high. We started first with food safety, and the rest of the advantages, such as manufacturing and the convenience of Midwest distribution, soon fell into place.

What we were offering our customers was peace of mind. To tell someone that this is the absolute best way to protect your brand and minimize your food safety and quality risks, well again, it was easy from there. Once they tasted the product, customers quickly understood the superior quality in flavor and texture too.

M+PHow have your sous vide product offerings grown over the years and how much have production and sales of these products increased since first experimenting with it in 2014?

Siegel: Our sous vide product range grows substantially every year, so we’re designing our entire production around it. We are currently producing lobster and crab surimi, deli meats, plant-based proteins, eggs, vegetables, whole-muscle beef, pork, chicken, and turkey; anything that will work nicely in a soup, salad, or meal kit can be successfully cooked sous vide. It simply takes the guesswork out of cooking and meal prep.

M+P: How much of Deli Star’s business/production is dedicated to sous vide?

Siegel: At the moment, our business is split 50/50 with our traditional deli meats such as turkey, ham, European-style cured/dried meat, naturally smoked meats and rotisserie chicken breast, and 50% fresh sous vide. As the market for freshly prepared meals grows both in foodservice and retail, we anticipate demand will continue to grow.

M+P: Discuss investments in equipment, facilities and people as demand has increased and supplier partners in this technology.

Siegel: We are building a brand new state-of-the art sous vide facility in St. Louis, Mo. We are utilizing our 34 years of experience to capitalize on efficiencies, as well as what we know works best for our partners. We are investing in this multi-million dollar facility to be able to serve our customers radically better than ever. Deli Star has also invested significantly in our Food Discovery Center (FDC), our R&D facility and Culinary Innovation hub. The FDC is the first facility of its kind to have six elements under one roof: research and development, food manufacturing scaleup, food nutrition, food venture, foodservice, and food education. The FDC is just minutes away from the new production facility and allows for seamless scale-up from bench to production. Customers who have visited the FDC are already seeing the benefits of this perfect platform for scale-up as we prepare to open our new plant in early 2022.

M+P: At what points have you decided to expand sous vide operations and products and, discuss the R&D that goes into the decision-making process for adding a new product line, species, etc.

Siegel: We start by ensuring that we have a strong understanding of our customers, the market and consumer needs and requirements; removing the fuzzy front end at the beginning of the R&D process. It’s a team approach from concept to commercialization with input from chefs, food scientists, quality, operations, supply chain, and finance. Our customers appreciate the collaborative approach and the knowledge and expertise Deli Star provides at each step of the journey.

M+P: How is your customer base made up between foodservice and other segments and how does each segment benefit from sous vide attributes

Siegel: Our sous-vide volume is split between foodservice and our further processing partners. We offer a larger vacuum pack than anyone else in the industry to many of our meal-kit partners. This format provides ease and flexibility for meal assembly lines, reducing labor significantly and greatly reducing the need for higher-skilled staff. Sous vide provides the optimal solution to the considerable concerns around labor, skills and training in restaurants and processing plants. Cooking protein under vacuum in volume is best left to those with years of expertise in food science and culinary art. We undertake detailed sensory testing, yield analyses, have strict food safety requirements and have appropriate food scientists, chefs, quality, and manufacturing capabilities to support volume requirements.

M+P: We’re also seeing more sous vide meat and poultry products at retail under various brands. Does Deli Star co-pack for retail customers?

Siegel: We co-pack for some of the best and brightest brands in the country, and we see more and more requests for these products in retail. We are also looking at club stores with our Simple Promise Seared and Sous Vide products.

M+P: What did you look for in finding the right supplier partner(s) in setting up the operation and how has the investment and implementation of the technology grown over the years?

Siegel: Years and years of research and development and a strong philosophy of open innovation. Our model is based on a partnership approach with shared innovation and technologies from three companies. Combining these technologies has created a proprietary system. We landed on this best-in-industry method by deploying a team to research advancements in Europe and North America. We continue to secure Deli Star’s place at the forefront of sous vide cooking technology, ensuring our products are cooked more efficiently and sustainably than anyone else.

M+P: Describe the operational set up at your new dedicated facility, including square footage, employee numbers, processing capacity, number of production lines, etc.

Siegel: We are building a 110,000-square-foot sous vide facility that has the capacity of 1 million lbs per week (with the option to expand to a capacity of 2 million lbs per week), with four production lines. We can employ up to 500 people at one time.

M+P: Are there limitations to sous vide in terms of product type, equipment limitations, converting certain customers, etc.?

Siegel: We consider sous vide limitless. We have not found many products that cannot reap the advantages of sous vide and those that are not seared first. It does require significant capital and resources to manage. Converting customers has always been a challenge of communication and trial and error. It will take a customer six months to a year to realize the ROI, but after that, savings compound and are significant. We have seen many further processors turn a profit in just six months. The major obstacle discussed and studied the most by our team is the use of plastic. I believe this will be the next major advancement in this technology - biodegradable plastic. Our team is ready, but in the meantime, the cost of food waste and operational and supply chain challenges that come from not taking advantage of sous vide far outweigh the cost of the thin plastics used for sous vide.

M+P: How did the pandemic impact demand for products and did you have to pivot to appeal to new demands or to appeal to a new customer base?

Siegel: Though there are a lot of nuances to how the pandemic impacted our business, one of the most unmistakable shifts is that people changed the way they were eating. Because people were eating out less and eating around the dinner table at home, many of our customers, especially meal kit companies, saw an extreme increase in demand. We worked to assure an uninterrupted supply to our customers with the collective mission to feed America in a safe, delicious way. We do believe that our success with our sandwich maker, salad maker, and meal kit company partners has demonstrated to other sectors the safe, efficient, and delicious ways that we can provide protein. People are learning that the investment in our proteins reduces the need for extra labor, real estate, and time in their facilities. We have already begun conversations with those who have learned the value in this model from our successful work with existing customers.

In foodservice, the pandemic has the quick prep and speed scratch cooking with sous vide quickly gaining more momentum. Chains are popping up with smaller footprint stores that are catered to takeout and delivery. Sous vide provides consistency of the protein from the moment it is vacuum packaged, reheated, and served to the customer. Its benefits of quality and food safety stretch all the way to the consumers’ door. This allows for additional flexibility at store level, better yields, and makes up for the labor shortage that the pandemic has caused in foodservice.

To hear more about sous vide technology and applications, read the technology report, including input from processors and suppliers in the November issue of MEAT+POULTRY (Pages 36-47).