Just as most people would not buy a new car without going for a test drive, food processors now find themselves adopting a similar approach when it comes to purchasing equipment for their facilities. No longer content to simply sign-off on the delivery of large ovens and chillers at their docks, and then trying to adapt the machinery to their particular process, plant managers have long sought a means to ensure, in advance, that such equipment is optimally suited for their operation.
With the advent of equipment manufacturers offering fully equipped kitchens so that food producers can "kick the tires" on new equipment by visiting the manufacturers with their product in tow, better results in terms of yield and quality are now becoming the norm.
The most complete examples of these kitchens allow food processors to test varying cooking and freezing options and to optimize the equipment and the process before they put down a penny. Some manufacturers even go so far as to bring in design engineers to modify the equipment to further customize the equipment to actually improve the customer's process.
In effect, this new direction allows processors to perfect their product - be it cooked or frozen, vegetable or meat - in the "showroom" so that no surprises pop up on the production floor.
Trading up from a Model T to a new Lincoln
Henry Ford was quoted as saying, "You can have any color you want, as long as it's black." It's not too far a stretch to make a comparison with the old paradigm of purchasing food processing machinery, where processors had to purchase "off the shelf."
In such instances, the capabilities of the equipment often dictated the cooking and freezing processes, resulting in a less-than-optimal taste and quality of the final product for the sake of high volumes that only automated machinery can deliver.
But the competitive food market takes no prisoners, and processors that don't offer the best gustatory experience to the consumer will eventually go out of business. Hence, the need to get it right the first time.
This is where the shift toward equipment-testing kitchens comes in.
"The future of food process machinery purchasing is going this way, where the customer can demand to go into a kitchen and actually try out their product on the machinery," predicts David Howard, CEO of Unitherm Food Systems of Bristow, Oklahoma. "Only then can they feel confident that the equipment best serves their operational parameters and expected results."
Already recognized throughout the food processing industry for its unique heat transfer systems that maximize yields and reduce processing times, Unitherm recently joined the, as yet, small coterie of manufacturers that feature fully-equipped test kitchens.
As one of the newer, more modern, iterations of manufacturer-owned test kitchens, it presents a textbook example of what type of environment awaits the producers of cooked vegetables, meats, and frozen foods.
Upon arrival, guests get introduced to a 2.5 million-dollar, 25,000-square-foot kitchen dedicated to high-volume, high-speed, food processing. Entry begins with a true "clean room" experience, with hygienic architectural products such as stainless steel curbing, hands-free sinks, and stainless steel floor drains.
"Test kitchens should be set up to resemble a high-quality food factory," explains Howard. "Here, you walk in, change into your smock and boots, and put on a hair net. Then proceed through a hand wash station. There's also a sanitizer to scrub and wash your boots."
The food processing area itself contains $8 million worth of fully operational production machines and product handling equipment that can continuously feed as many as 10 different cooking processes. Think: steaming, blanching, broiling, baking, searing, branding, grilling, and pasteurizing; convection impingement to infrared; with gas, electric or thermal oil. Cooking temps range from below boiling point all the way to 1,600°F.
Specific pieces of equipment include a flame broiler/griller with a series of eight ribbon burners to speed the browning and searing of foods such as mushrooms. In the case of poultry, the searing process seals in the natural oils before entering an oven. The oven, itself, incorporates a 16" wide belt that spirals around the burners to the equivalent of 150' of belt, all within an 8' x 8' footprint.
No kitchen, test or otherwise, would be complete without a gas infrared oven, the most innovative of which utilize a stainless steel burner head for increased durability.
Likewise, quick cooling "crusters" have attained de rigueur status for any food-processing plant that produces meat or poultry logs. Round out the chilling side of the business with a spiral freezer and a continuous impingement freezer. With the inclusion of an infrared or aquaflow pasteurizer, almost every imaginable aspect of the food processing industry gets covered in today's modern kitchen.
Unitherm's kitchen comes staffed with design engineers willing to work hand-in-hand with food processors to modify any existing machinery into a customized cooking system. An on-site 3-D modeling system speeds the process.
Test drives yield success
Early feedback indicates that these kitchens are proving to be quite popular among food processors. Whether fire-roasting Portobello mushrooms, steaming potatoes, cooking vegetables and other ingredients for sauces and ravioli fillings or baking chicken tenders, experimenting with the equipment emboldens processors to proceed with confidence, knowing that the equipment will maximize yields, reduce processing times, increase food safety, and improve the taste of final product.
"One food processor based in Mexico flew directly from a trade show, where we met, to our plant near Tulsa," recalls Howard. "We supplied the green peppers that he uses in his plant and then ultimately stuffs with other ingredients. Passing them through a correctly set-up roaster blackens the outer skin, which then gets removed to leave a slim, roasted pepper. We ran the test, and they bought a machine on the spot."
Howard tells of another processor who needed to speed up the roasting of tomatoes.
"He came to our kitchen loaded with tomatoes just before Christmas," continues Howard. "We put the tomatoes in the roaster and the project was finished in 10 minutes. In-and-out; done. In this case, we could adapt the machine to fit his exact purpose, which is why it worked out so well. But we couldn't have done it unless he was in our kitchen with his product."
Such positive outcomes get repeated in these new kitchens throughout the country, with all manner of food products and purposes. Howard recounted stories of successfully achieving a roasting rate of 7,000 lbs. per hour of red bell peppers within four hours of having the client enter the kitchen. In the case of a producer of pre-cooked ready meals-such as lasagna, macaroni and cheese, and potato salad-the producer booked two-days of stay at the Unitherm location.
"By coming to our kitchen, we could solve the complex problem of browning some product within C-PET trays," explains Howard. "We achieved the objective within a half-dozen hours. He bought the machine while he was in the kitchen. Ordinarily, people go back to their plant, have a corporate meeting, and then purchase. But these kitchens help speed that process so processors can quickly retool their plants to optimize product throughput."
No wonder some equipment manufacturers can boast of a 100 percent percent rate of conversion from client-visit to sales-order. These kitchens are able to offer a service that develops the optimum thermal, chilling or sanitation process for the client.
"We're allowing food processors to first think about, 'How am I going to maximize the quality of my product,' as opposed to thinking about machinery," adds Howard.
For further information about Unitherm Food Systems, call (918) 367-0197 or visit the web site www.unithermfoodsystems.com