When Sierra Meat and Seafood recently went looking for new grinding equipment, the company needed it to be easy to operate and very reliable.

“It has to do the same exact thing day in and day out, so we need to be able to get consistent results from it,” says Tom Ryan, Sierra Meat and Seafood’s senior vice president of sales and marketing. 

The Reno, Nev.-based company’s two new grind lines now include an initial particle reduction in a bowl chopper for their first step followed by a final inline grind through a very large stuffer.

“What that gives us is the ability to run smaller batches very quickly, because previously we were relying on older technology, which was just a very big gear-driven grinder,” Ryan explains. “You had to run a pretty large batch just for everything to work out, because you are going to lose like 30 to 40 pounds of meat just in the screw.”

While the bowl chopper permits the company to run quicker, it also allows it to be gentler with the meat because it slices rather than crushes and cuts.

Sierra Meat and Seafood’s final step now includes going into a very large sausage stuffer with an inline grinder attached to the final output for its chilled ground meat products, Ryan explains. The stuffer takes the first reduced meat, and it feeds into a final inline grind and fiber alignment is achieved.

“What that gives us is a product that’s been touched the absolute least amount that you can and still come out with a well-blended product,” he says.

From there, the product is portioned and formed into a patty, a brick, a chub, etc.

Grinding flexibility

While consistency is key when it comes to grinding, shelf life of its products would be another top concern of Sierra Meat and Seafood. To add to the challenges, the company also must consider all the varieties and the different ways to finish the products.

Sierra Meat and Seafood is very grind intensive because it offers several wild game species, including bison, elk, venison and wild boar, in addition to Angus and Wagyu beef and specialty species and blends. Ground products make up about 30 to 35 percent of the company’s topline sales with specialty items, such as bison, Wagyu, elk and venison, making about 60 percent of those products.

“Grinds have become popular with the recent burger craze,” Ryan says.

With its new bowl chopper, the company can now comfortably run a 300-pound batch. Prior to the bowl chopper, Sierra Meat would have to run 600- to 700-pound batches. “It’s a larger batch size, and you are less flexible,” Ryan says of the old line.

With the new inline grind, the company also finds it is getting a product with less air due to the fiber alignment.

“The less air you have the more shelf life you get,” Ryan explains. “We are getting a product with less air, and we are also getting a product that is handled less. Any time you handle the product less, you are adding less heat to it, and, therefore, you are going to get better bloom, shelf life and the bite is going to be better. The last thing that you want is for the product to be overworked and have the fat melt on you.”

Another way to combat the shelf life problem is the industry has gotten a lot better at selling and marketing product that’s frozen as opposed to chilled. Shipping chilled product to all four corners of the country can get really challenging, Ryan explains. “At best you’ve got 28 days of shelf life, and you are going to burn up seven days in transit,” he says. “Then the end user needs to get into it really fast, or you get hit with a lot of shrink.”

Sierra Meat and Seafood also does not over sell or try to be everything to everyone on the sales side where many times the company is producing custom batches to order. “We dial it in, so it’s a 300, 600, 900 pound batch,” Ryan explains. “It’s produced, and it leaves immediately. That’s a really favorable way to do it especially when we are grinding and packaging chilled product for retailers as we don’t want to hold it on our shelves.”

Another area that gets complicated for Sierra Meat and Seafood is its hotels, restaurants and institutions market.

“We have to take an educated guess as to what the demand for our chilled grinds is going to be for all different sizes, shapes and varietals, and it’s really Kentucky windage,” Ryan explains. “We use our sales history to do a regression analysis and predict what we will sell. We rely on highly trained sales reps that can balance the sales mix.”

For instance if the company is close to out on 8-ounce patties, sales reps are going to show the bulk grind and see if customers are willing to make their own patties.

“We are almost always a moving target, and, in that instance, we find that having more customers actually helps us,” Ryan says. He explains on the micro level, it can be very noisy. With Sierra Meat and Seafood serving 150 customers locally on a chilled grind program that offers five SKUs, it feels really noisy in the thick of it while taking orders. But when the company looks on the macro level, it becomes clearer, and the processor can see it is going to go through 3,000 to 4,000 pounds of Certified Angus Beef 8-ounce chuck patties. “If one customer doesn’t order that week, then you could almost bet that another customer is going to order heavy, and it all works out in the end,” Ryan explains.  NP

Popular grinds

Sierra Meat and Seafood, in Reno, Nev., sees the popularity of ground meat growing due to large growth in the quick-service restaurant segment.

“Restaurants want to use better ingredients that are more unique,” says Tom Ryan, Sierra Meat and Seafood’s senior vice president of sales and marketing. “Burgers are popular because they are not extremely expensive. You get a ton of flavor with them, and it’s the American dish that people are used to eating.”

Currently, Ryan sees chefs are trying to one up each other with a higher quality, better burger.

“It’s great for the customers, and it’s great for the business,” he says.

The other point that has helped ground meat is that beef prices were at historic highs a few years ago. While steaks were unaffordable for many families during that time, they would turn to ground beef.

“That actually helped to increase the popularity of grinds, and it seems like the trend has held,” Ryan says.

Sierra Meat and Seafood is seeing faster growth for grinds on its specialty side, with ground bison growing tremendously and elk and venison following. “We are seeing record growth of our in-house grinds as well as sales of grinding materials to other manufacturers like us has really taken off,” Ryan says.

The company is seeing a lot of growth for elk and venison primarily in upscale foodservice and niche independent upscale retail. Elk and venison, being seen as very clean proteins, are taking off on the natural side, Ryan says.

“It’s got everything the natural consumer really looks for,” he adds.

On the beef side, Sierra Meat and Seafood welcomes unique blends, and whole-muscle blends are very popular. “We receive many requests for grinds specifying ratios of different whole-muscle cuts and even kidney fat,” Ryan says. “There is also a growing demand for dry age ground beef. Our in-house lab gives us the ability to test every batch quickly, so we can offer a truly unique product that is, most importantly, food safe.”