Walk into just about any retail store freezer section today, and it’s virtually unavoidable — fully cooked, frozen products are everywhere. Most sectors of the food industry have grasped the concept, improved product quality and run with the consumer trends of convenience and speed.

Even the protein industry has taken notice, helping turn commodity cuts of protein into value-added propositions that delight consumers’ palates and cravings.

“With consumers eating at home more now because of the economy, they’re looking for a wider variety of products that match the restaurant quality they’re used to and can be kept in the freezer,” explains Billy McPherson, vice president, sales & marketing, for Edmond, Okla.-based Advance Brands LLC. Yet, not every protein segment or processor has experienced the skyrocketing success of fully cooked, with poultry dominating much of the fully cooked landscape.

“Poultry in the retail channel alone is a $1.5 billion to $1.6 billion business, versus about a $388 million business in the cooked meat side,” says Bill O’Neill, vice president, business development, for Advance Brands, which is almost single-handedly carrying the fully cooked beef crusade to the retail marketplace. “There’s a big gap, and part of that, I think, is that there are a lot of different products in poultry, whereas in red meat, it’s been focused pretty much on breakfast items, sausage and meatballs.”

With a tight focus on innovation and a commitment to pushing the boundaries and improving quality, Advance Brands has taken fully cooked beef and pork and given them a deserved place next to the fully cooked chicken patties and nuggets in retail freezer cases across the country. It’s a trend Advance Brands truly believes is the next big hit — and the timing, O’Neill says, appears right for a big push in this arena.

“The timing is perfect for this variety in beef because of the economy. People are ‘chickened out’ — they want something other than poultry,” O’Neill explains. “Retailers are looking for alternatives too, and it’s up to us to provide that variety.”

Advance Brands has been offering that beef-focused variety for years under the Fast Fixin’ and Fast Classics brand names, from the original Country Fried Steaks to steak fingers and meatballs to fully cooked burgers. By late summer this year, Advance Brands’ numbers were trending up nearly 30 percent in the fully cooked beef category alone, McPherson says, and the company expects more growth from the burger segment.

“We’re big believers in the fully cooked burger category, which has gotten better and better, and we’re seeing a lot more acceptance,” McPherson explains. “It’s kind of the microwave bacon of 15 years ago. Microwave bacon, 15 years ago, you couldn’t hardly give away when it first came out — but now look at it. In the fully cooked burger category, we’re past that stage because the category’s growing, but if they ever catch on big-time, it’s going to be a huge category.”

Brian Thompson, CFO for Advance Brands, agrees that consumers have begun to accept that product quality is fast becoming a non-issue.

“As frozen food has improved overall, people have become more willing to try new things,” Thompson says. “The fully cooked burgers, when they first came out years ago, were terrible, and if people tried them then, they’ve had to overcome that initial impression. As people eat better frozen foods, that will happen.”

The fully cooked burger category isn’t the only major advance the company is making, McPherson says. In 2010, several initiatives, including a first-of-its-kind Philly steak retail program, populate the “to-do list” for Advance Brands.

“Nobody has a great [Philly] program, and based on the success in restaurants, we’re planning for that to be a big hit for us next year,” he says. “We’re always looking at what’s happening at foodservice and also asking retailers what they see and want, … and that has led us to develop this Philly program.”

Advance Brands’ speedy process and concept turnaround give it a decided advantage in the marketplace as well — a strategy that McPherson says has been a part of the company since it was founded in 2001.

“Response time was a real niche that we believed in when we started the company, and we stuck with it,” he explains. “It’s like in football, if you’re facing the big guy, how do you get around him?

“We figured we had to be quick and do something different. We had to be the company that was willing to go further out on a limb than others.”

Tom Harpenau, president of Advance Brands, adds that the mindset starts with the customer and extends beyond simply being part of the company’s mission.

“We make sure we understand what the end result has to be for that customer, and we get more than just the R&D department involved to produce that excellent turnaround,” he says.

Flexibility and plant innovation

Advance Brands’ plant in Orange City, Iowa, stands as a prime example of the company’s commitment to growing the fully cooked beef category. Time and time again, Advance Brands has reinvested in the plant to improve process efficiency and output. During The National Provisioner’s visit, the plant was pumping out the company’s steak fingers products as well as several varieties of fully cooked burgers and other products.

While Advance Brands offers its customers the tools to create the products they need, the company also offers its employees top-line tools to succeed and drive the company’s initiatives forward.

“We have a lot automation in our facility, but we also have very technical people that understand how it all fits together,” explains James Hall, plant manager at Orange City. “Also, three years ago, we started down a lean journey that is mature now and showing results. That strategy tells our people out on the floor that they make a difference, we’re going to talk to them as if they are contributors and their voices will be heard.”

Process automation runs rampant through Orange City, a sign of the company’s success, explains Carrie Johnston, brand manager.

“We have grown so quickly that as we reached thresholds, we have automated further,” Johnston adds. “So, some of the automation in our plants is definitely fruit of that success, where we’ve reached a threshold where a need was identified and enough proof was supplied to take the next step forward.”

Flexibility in the process was designed in to support the company’s strategies, which has boosted the success of Advance Brands’ fully cooked beef initiatives.

“Versatility, operationally speaking, has been the key on the red meat side for us,” she explains. “When you line up our beef line against the items our competitors have, our versatility and diversity of the product line is what makes us unique. We have more breadth of line than other companies, and within that cooked category, we drive it and own it. Not many operations are set up to be as nimble as we are.”

Without the proper guidelines, however, a strategy of versatility could lead to an unclear, disorganized set of core principles. But Hall says that Orange City’s automation, coupled with a lean-management focus, helps deter that possibility and keep employees on track.

“Our automation forces us to stay truly process-oriented,” he says. “It teaches us how to set up a logical path on how to set up our lines, and it also teaches us how to establish our strategy on how to use that equipment well.”

Hall remarks that lean-management forces the company to take care of its people and give them the knowledge they need to be successful. In fact, within the last year, Orange City has promoted four of its operators to supervisors because of this approach.

“In our plant, we want folks who are at a world-class level running that equipment, asking tough questions, figuring out how things function in our design, understanding workflow and all that,” he says. “That’s what we’re all about; our mission forces us to have to do that — to think and then grow.”

All the while, employees know that Advance Brands is committed to growing along with them. Hall, Johnston and others interviewed during The National Provisioner’s visit agree that, as the company reaches growth ceilings, employees fully expect it to reinvest in its technology and people to break through to the next level, based on Advance Brands’ track record.

“I can tell you that when we get to a point where our customers tell us, ‘Guys, you’re not giving me enough options,’ we’re going to change and further automate or redesign the layout of our lines,” Hall says.

Johnston adds: “We’re definitely the type of company where we really need to be butting our heads against the ceiling to step up to that next level — we’re not automating first and then trying to fill it — but we’re definitely visionary in that we’re always looking to the next threshold.”

Quality, defined

Aside from a tight focus on process efficiency and speed to market, Advance Brands makes it clear that product quality is of utmost importance, particularly in a category such as fully cooked, whether in the poultry or beef segment. What follows is a brief discussion between Andy Hanacek, editor-in-chief ofThe National Provisioner, Carrie Johnston, brand manager for Advance Brands, and Joel Berry, director-R&D/Technical Services, for Advance Brands, that offers a look at the standards the company uses to define quality in the products it develops and produces.

Hanacek: Where does product quality fit into the equation on your end of the spectrum, down in the trenches, as it were?

Johnston: We really do focus on the makeup of things, and one of the discussions we have is, within our poultry line we do breast-only products, and most of our competitors are going to blends of white and dark meats. We’ve chosen to stay that path for now. On burgers, we’ve really stayed on the high end of that to make sure we’re putting out the most premium product. The big debate in our category right now is “burger” versus “patty,” and I want to clarify that we’re not interested in simply shooting volume out the door [by producing patties].

Berry: “Burger” has a standard of identity, so you have to meet that standard to call your product a “burger.” And it’s basically the pure form of hamburger, unadulterated. So if you start adding things in that extend it, such as soy or starches that absorb water, or phosphates, then it can’t be called a “burger.” In our eyes, that would be something inferior to a burger, and it should be called a “patty.” You can dress it up and say part of it is a premium product, but if you add something to the meat itself, it’s a “patty.”