Mexican food processor quadruples output, increases yield by 15% and slashes energy costs with specially-modified flame griller.
There is a universal challenge that faces almost every small to medium-sized food processor throughout the world. That is: how to grow big and meet the increased demand that success brings, without sacrificing the original taste and quality that attracted the demand in the first place. But in the rush to expand, simply ordering a standard piece of equipment, like a high-speed roasting oven, and expecting it to duplicate a homemade process of making prepared food is unrealistic.
Instead, today’s emerging food processors are becoming market leaders by looking for equipment manufacturers who are willing to customize high-volume equipment to meet the exact needs of the process, so that the original quality and taste can be preserved. In such manner, food processors can feel secure in the knowledge that existing and new customers will continue to purchase their product well into the future.
As a bonus, processing equipment that is customized to meet a food producer’s unique processes can also improve yield, while also providing energy savings by reducing gas and electric costs, thus further improving the revenue stream and helping companies to grow.
Most every small to medium-sized food processor dreams of getting discovered by a buyer from world supermarket leaders like Wal-Mart, Costco, Tesco, Gigante, Gruppo PAM or Caprabo. However, an invitation to supply product to these giants requires a huge increase in production volumes. The fear is that the processor may not be able to maintain the same level of quality if new high-speed equipment is purchased. Yet keeping existing, low-volume equipment risks losing the contract with the large stores.
“We have very limited production at our plant here in Mexico, but our clients were asking for more and more of our chili pepper products,” says Leonardo Randolph, production manager for Agroindustria de Aguascalientes S.A. de C.V.
Founded in 2003, Agroin (www.agroin.com.mx) operates as a division of La Huerta, one the largest frozen produce exporters in Mexico and a supplier of frozen vegetables to Wal-Mart. Agroin processes the frozen poblano chili pepper line for La Huerta, but its output was limited by its hand-built griller.
“We grow and harvest our own peppers, wash them, and then roast them,” explains Randolf. “Afterwards, we peel off the blackened outer skin and then immediately freeze and package the product in different presentations. But our old griller that roasts the peppers was a bottleneck in the whole process. We had enough demand to more than triple our output, but we realized that we would need three more of our old roasters to meet the throughput that our new freezer was capable of handling. We needed to process one metric ton per hour, but our existing griller could only roast 250 kg. per hour.”
Aside from insufficient capacity, the construction of the old griller invited inconsistencies in roasting, as the distance between the gas burners and the product handling equipment could vary, making it difficult to quickly and thoroughly peel off the unevenly-blackened skin. At the output end of the griller, some of peppers would fail to be separated from the springs that carried them, which required a person to pull out the stuck peppers by hand.
While attending a trade show in Chicago, Randolph and La Hueta’s Ricardo Arteaga Barba was introduced to an equipment manufacturer who offered to work on a solution to their output problem.
“Because our pepper-roasting process is unique, we were not sure that any standard griller could do the job correctly and preserve the special taste of our product,” recalls Randolf. “But Unitherm agreed to work with us, and they invited us to their test kitchen in Oklahoma to design a flame griller that would meet our specific needs.”
Unitherm Food Systems (Bristow, OK) is recognized throughout the food processing industry for its unique heat transfer systems that maximize yields and reduce processing times. The company’s plant offers a fully equipped test kitchen and a 3-D modeling program so that every aspect of a new system can be reviewed and, if necessary, modified to ensure it meets the needs of the processor.
“We flew straight from Chicago to their plant because we wanted to ensure we could get something that would fit our process exactly,” continues Randolf. “They brought in the same type of green poblano chili peppers we use, roasted them in their griller, and made adjustments until they came out the way we wanted. We tasted them and they were really good. We could see that this was going to work for us and provide the production volumes we were seeking.”
The flame grill system like the one selected by the principals at Agroin allows a wide range of customization with belt widths from 20-60 inches, 8-50 ribbon burners, adjustable bar markers with variable grilling patterns and belt speeds from 5-180 minutes.
Through collaborative efforts, a final design was selected for a single flame griller that could meet Agroin’s goal of one metric ton of product per hour. Preservation, if not improvement, in product quality was achieved by the grilling system’s ability to roast each pepper on all sides, providing the sought-after consistency.
“Unitherm’s griller was so efficient, that we only needed one unit to do the job of three or four of our old griller,” says Randolph. “As such, we expect our energy consumption, to shrink tremendously. But the best part is that we expect the quality to improve because with the new equipment we can control the speed of the griller bed, the amount of burners that can be turned on, and the quantity of heat going out of the griller.”
An unexpected gain from this design comes in form of increased yield.
“By weight, the product shrinks by about 20-25%, and this is normal during the roasting process,” comments Randolph. “However, the new griller can limit that loss to 15-20%.”
With the advent of equipment manufacturers willing to modify their machines, food processors wishing to expand their market share can enjoy the best of both worlds: increased production volumes and the same great taste and quality that made them a success in the first place.