Chef's Stir the Processing Pot

Walking into the Hot Cuisine America plant, it would not seem as though you are entering an environment geared around food production at all. Prior to entering the processing area, employees don rubber boots, lab coats, disposable gloves, hairnets and beard covers. They then walk through an automatic boot washer and hand sanitizer unit before entering the plant.

Hot Cuisine America's unique processing environment produces restaurant-quality foods in a pharmaceutical-like environment, taking culinary competence to an industrial level.

Walking into the Hot Cuisine America plant, it would not seem as though you are entering an environment geared around food production at all. Prior to entering the processing area, employees don rubber boots, lab coats, disposable gloves, hairnets and beard covers. They then walk through an automatic boot washer and hand sanitizer unit before entering the plant.

Hot Cuisine America, Inc., a division of the $3.5 billion Belgian Univeg Group, is the only U.S. plant in the food giant's "convenience" business unit. Construction on the Swedesboro, NJ facility started in the summer of 2007 and the plant was operational by January 2008. The plant focuses on convenience foods – high quality fresh prepared meals and meal components for retail and food service.

"Our U.S. plant takes advantage of 25 years of knowledge and experience from our overseas facilities, taking all the best attributes and combining them into one plant," says Chris Rosica, Operations Manager at the 90,000 sq. ft. Hot Cuisine America facility.

The products
The Swedesboro facility thrives on the growing U.S. demand for ready-to-eat meal solutions. The plant focuses on producing several premium private label products each day, with a total repertoire of over 30 different products, including some seasonal specials around the holidays. Products range from full meals such as chicken marsala and spaghetti and meatballs to sides such as green beans, baked apples and mashed potatoes.

The convenience foods business is strong, but product demand varies with the time of year, explains Rosica. "For example, from January to around April, many people have set goals to lose weight, and thus shift their buying habits towards products specifically labeled as lower calorie."

But Hot Cuisine is not phased by such trends, as their focus is on "naturally" produced products, with no added preservatives, artificial colors, stabilizers, sweeteners or flavors. The plant's unique production process makes this possible.

Sanitary production process
A popular filling method in the food industry is hot filling, where containers are filled at process temperature (hot) in order to insure the sterility of the container and product during and after the filling process. One disadvantage to such a process, however, is that hot filled products must have a higher sauce to particle ratio than Hot Cuisine would like in order to achieve the "homemade" look they strive for with their products.

In order to maintain product safety, Hot Cuisine has a pharmaceutical-like clean room in their processing plant. After containers are filled with products, they are manually placed on trays and racked, and then pushed through airlocked double doors into the clean room. The products and containers are then pasteurized together, sealed and cooled.

The clean room has sterile air and all employees wear disposable uniforms and must go through a separate boot wash station to enter. Uniforms are blue, whereas the rest of the plant wears white, in order to have visual proof that all workers in the clean room have changed their clothing prior to entering the area.

Quality assurance
One should not be deceived by the scientific precision of the clean room however, as Hot Cuisine's products are far from laboratory-created. The plant has several experienced, classically trained culinary chefs onsite, who not only develop the recipes, but actually make all of the food that comes out of the plant.

In the kitchen, the chefs create the meals in small runs – usually 1-4 batches per product. The process is done manually, rather than driven by computers with stored recipes, due to the batch-to-batch variability that comes with using natural ingredients.

"We depend on our chef's culinary experience with scientific measurement as a second check.A chef tastes each batch in a controlled small kitchen before it is released to production," says Rosica.

Ingredients are prepped, weighed and organized into bins by the chefs the day before they are processed. This "kitting" process, a function of Just-in-Time and Lean manufacturing, allows much of the calculating to be done ahead of time, in order to better plan out the process and eliminate wasted inventory.

Energy efficiency
The NJ-facility was also designed with high efficiency utilities in mind. Knowing that utilities – such as gas, electric, water - can represent more than ten percent of a plant's costs, choosing the right equipment for the job was important.

"When your electric bill is equivalent to that of 100 homes, you have to take utilities into consideration when building the plant," says Rosica.

The facility uses two Miura steam boilers to drive machinery, heat the building and generate hot water for sanitation within the plant. The boilers are able to produce full steam output within five minutes from a cold start, rather than taking hours to power up. In addition, the two boilers are wired together, enabling them to work in tandem, and turn on and off as necessary, rather than being powered on all day. This equates to a large savings in electric and natural gas for the plant, as well as reduced wear and tear on the boilers.

Clean cooking
Hot Cuisine America's unique approach to processing – a balance between sterile cleanliness and restaurant-style cooking – has helped them to be a reliable partner in the convenience foods market. Plans to expand their already diverse product line and continue to purchase highly efficient equipment, promises a continuing commitment to product quality and a loyal customer base.

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