Once inside JTM Food Group’s processing complex in Harrison, Ohio, one quickly ascertains it’s a showpiece of cutting-edge, automated technology. For instance, two new “Alpha” forming systems; an automated, robot-assisted palletizing system; and a fully automated, 10,000-pallet storage freezer are among the advanced technologies in operation.

Totaling approximately 200,000 sq. ft., the complex consists of a processing facility (four operations and five lines); a dry-storage area; administrative offices; sales and marketing offices; a test kitchen; a product demonstration area; in addition to the automated pallet storage freezer and new automated/robotic palletizing system. JTM produces 100 million lbs. of product per year. Approximately 80 percent of the products made are meat products. Beef is the most prominent protein used to make products followed by pork, turkey and chicken. It also produces bakery products, such as Hoagie buns and Kaiser rolls.

Processing 620 SKUs of value-added meat products for the school, restaurant, military and retail grocery-store segments, on-trend products include barbecue pork and turkey, boneless ribs, Sloppy Joes, burgers and beef patties, sandwich kits, beef Hoagies, bakery products and Asian sauces, among other items. Meat brands are JTM while bakery brands are primarily Vito’s as well as some JTM brand products. The company also produces a growing number of private-label meat-based products. JTM employs 380 workers.

Evolving business

Founded in 1960 as Maas Brothers Meats, the company’s name changed to Jack Maas Meats in 1974 and to its current name in 1980. Joe Maas, vice president of operations, who by education is a registered pharmacist and is one son of the late Jack Maas Sr., founder of JTM Food Group, is responsible for buying all plant equipment and designing plant operations. Steve Chaney, 30-year company veteran and plant manager – and JTM’s first employee – manages daily production.

Jack Maas Jr., company co-founder, co-owner and former vice president of sales, was promoted to chairman of the board on Jan. 1. He and his three brothers – Tony, president and CEO; Joe; and Jerry, vice president of business development, manage this growing, evolving business.

JTM is primarily a grinder of fully cooked, further-processed, value-added frozen products. Many meat products are ready-to-serve, while many others are ready-to-finish. While JTM produces a great deal of pork sausage patties and other sausage products, including pork sausage links, split Italian sausage, beef sausage patties, and pork sausage gravy for a variety of market segments, sausage sales represent only about 5 percent of the company’s total 2012 sales of $116 million.

But 3 percent of $116 million “is a hell of a lot of product,” Joe Maas exclaims. “We grind and form all of our sausage products,” he continues. “The amount of pork-sausage patties we make per year is more than many sausage processors make annually.”

JTM’s core competencies are kettle-cooked foods, prepared meats, crumbles and bakery products. “Kettle-cooked foods [such as taco fillings, beef stew and macaroni and cheese, etc.] are our biggest sellers. Within that segment, taco filling is our No. 1 selling item,” Maas says. “Our largest market is the school lunch program in the US; we are in all 50 states.”

JTM’s low-fat, user-friendly, fully cooked IQF (individually quick-frozen) CrumbleCreations are made for chefs and foodservice operators and are primarily made from ground beef or turkey.

Growing at a rate of up to 15 percent per year, total company sales increased 14 percent in 2012 vs. 2011. “We’re expecting to do $138 million in sales this year,” Maas says.

Technology pioneer

The Maas brothers are carrying on in their father’s footsteps. “My father [who passed away in 1995] was quite an innovator and risk-taker,” Maas explains. “He taught us to be comfortable taking risks. Many companies fail to grow because they’re risk-averse. These companies claim they buy equipment only when they can pay cash for it, which is fine, but they’re probably not going to grow very big, very fast.”

To satisfy increasing production needs, JTM invests heavily in advanced technology at his facility. Much of its automated processes handle labor-intensive jobs difficult for employees to manually handle long-term. Three months ago, JTM began using two new Formax NovaMax500 forming systems. Deemed the Formax room, the area housing this technology also includes a mixer/grinder, pre-break grinder and conveyors. “These forming systems were the first developed – Alpha machines – in this facility,” Maas says.

The system’s rotary product pump protects product integrity, improves filling-cycle consistency and reduces leakage, he adds.

All JTM ground-and-formed meat products are made using this new technology. “I make some hamburgers on them, but approximately 50 percent of our production [through these systems] is meatballs – the other 50 percent includes hamburgers, sausage patties, sausage links, a rib-b-que knockoff and a steak Hoagie,” Maas explains.

Maas is pleased this technology runs quietly while operating. “Inside most patty rooms, you couldn’t have a conversation while the forming machines are running,” he says. Of the plant’s new machines, he says they’re faster and there are far less maintenance issues. “These machines are purring like kittens.”

JTM is no stranger to employing cutting-edge technology. In 2004, it installed a fully automated, 92-ft.-tall, multi-level, 10,000-pallet storage freezer kept at -10°F.

“And we also installed new, fully automated blast freezers – one each in 2005 and 2010 [-35°F],” Maas says. “Boxes are indexed into the blast freezers, automatically timed for the freezing process – and once frozen, they’re automatically discharged.”

The company was in the final stages of installing a fully automated palletizing system in early January; it was scheduled to begin operating within weeks. “Finished-and-boxed products from all five processing lines will be conveyed from processing across the street through an enclosed overhead tunnel to our central, automated palletizing system and freezer,” he says.

Two articulating-arm robots palletize boxes, which then move and index pallets into the final storage freezer prior to shipping. Automated cranes transport pallet loads of boxed product up and down the lanes of the plant’s multi-level freezer.

JTM’s plant operates two kettle-cooking lines – one cooks 3,000 lbs. per hr., the other cooks 15,000 lbs. per hr. This advanced technology incorporates computerization, improved agitation and steam pressure. As a result, it provides increased productivity, consistency and improved product quality, Maas says.

During processing, JTM drains most of the fat from the ground beef, while maintaining the products’ full flavor. “We cook the ground beef before finishing it and make taco filling, Sloppy Joes or spaghetti toppings,” Maas explains. “I can make very low-fat, low-calorie products, which is very desirable to the school lunch program and health-care fields.”

Product is packaged in 5-lb. boilable/steamable pouches, which allows convenient storing and reheating. Product can be shipped frozen and stored up to 14 days refrigerated to save freezer space and rethermalization time.

Meat-product packaging is done on vertical form-fill-seal machines. Committed to reducing packaging as part of its initiative toward environmental sustainability, JTM has already switched packages containing kettle-cooked products from an 80-gram polyethylene tub to a 17-g. bag. These products are now packaged in die-cut boxes reducing packaging by 20 percent. Corrugated containers used are made from 30 percent recycled content. And the retail division changed its packaging from a 196-g. corrugated box to a 27-g. bag.

JTM’s fully cooked, prepared-meats line has a production capacity of 6,000 lbs. per hour in a steam-injected, fully-automated oven that retains the juiciness of the product. “In our grind-and-form operation, one point of difference is product is steam-cooked,” Maas says. “We produce a ready-to-finish product that is moister. I’m cooking it at a lower temperature, 190°F. Our customers then char-broil it to give it color.”

JTM’s energy reduction successes include that it has converted metal halide lights to new T5 lights; uses geothermal refrigeration, which uses 30 percent less electricity; its automated storage retrieval system in its storage freezer cuts refrigeration energy requirements by 30 percent; and it also uses waste heat from freezers to heat the building and domestic hot water.

JTM is very active in new product development. “On average, we produce about 150 new items per year – roughly three a week,” Maas says.

The company’s R&D/culinary team consists of food scientists, market researchers and chefs who are on-trend to offer a team approach to deliver recipe development through menu presentation. JTM’s product demonstration room allows the team to present newly developed products in a variety of ways.

“Our major new-product effort our R&D team been spending the most time on is our ‘Assault on Sodium’ program,” Maas says.

Assault on Sodium products address the dietary needs for reducing and/or eliminating sodium in the company’s entrées. JTM launched this program in 2010 and recently began its Level 2 initiative, which has targeted reducing sodium in its US school lunch product lineup by an average of 45 percent by 2013. This goal far exceeds the goals and current standards in many industry programs.

“These reformulated products are well-accepted in the marketplace and have increased our sales,” Maas says. “We don’t hit very many home runs, but we hit a lot of singles. Addressing dietary fads have a lot to do with the products we develop. We produce products customers want to buy.”

Food-safety champion

Two huge food-safety steps JTM incorporates are all products are fully cooked and frozen. “I also utilize oxidative technologies. I use ultra-violet lighting and ozone generators throughout my plant in various ways.”

JTM wasn’t always a 100-percent, fully cooked operation. In 2004, the plant stopped producing raw ground beef to focus entirely on further value-added foods. “JTM was a $35 million-a-year business at that time,” Maas explains. “To give up $9 million in business was a horrific hit to us.”

JTM’s best opportunities for future growth are with its current customers. “We’ll continue working with them to try and get them to buy more JTM products,” Maas says. “We want to make what they want to buy.”

Addressing maximum production throughput capabilities, Maas says JTM is in good shape through 2016. “But somewhere around then, we’re going to have to start talking about building another plant,” he admits.

JTM recently acquired a building across the street from its processing plant with five acres in front of the building plus another 15 acres of land alongside it. “I have no idea where I’m going with it,” Maas confesses. “We now have the capability of [building another plant] in the area, which would be my preference. But we’re having a little difficulty competing on the West Coast because of freight rates. So, that might be a reason to build a new plant more remotely.”

In the meantime, Maas continues to constantly work on integrating in-plant technologies and searching the marketplace for what’s available in new technology for his operations. “I will have to get more out of the square feet I have in processing and eventually I must add square feet to the processing area,” he concludes.