With a knack for details and precision, a natural sense of creativity and a love of meat processing, Rick Leiding has given invaluable assistance to companies around the world. However, most of them don’t know who he is.
As the owner of Leiding’s Meats and Catering, Leidig provides his Danville, Ill., community and surrounding area with a wide range of award-winning meat products, including bacon, sausages and burger patties. However, much of his work is done in relative anonymity, as Leiding also provides first-class research & development work to a number of large, international companies. If a meat processor or an supplier company needs help developing a product or solving a production problem, Leiding may get called on to help.
“We do a lot of flavor and color development, various physical meat processes, both liquid and wood smoke processes, and product development with plastics, barrier development and collagen casings,” he explains. “We work with various flavor and ingredient manufacturers to help them bring a new product to fruition for prospective customers.”
Since getting involved in R&D work more than 10 years ago, Leiding has worked on a number of products, including ham, deli beef, bacon, whole-muscle and ground turkey products, snack sticks, pepperoni and dried and semi-dried sausages. Due to proprietary contracts, Leiding cannot and does not discuss many of his other projects, nor can he disclose the companies that use his services.
“We’ve had to refuse work from other companies, because it would be a conflict of interest with a prior proprietary contract,” he explains. “I can’t do work for everybody, and I will not cross that line. We hang our hat on a high standard of integrity, and it’s a reputation that we’ve worked hard to maintain.”
Companies may turn to an outside R&D processor for several reasons. The company in question may not have a test kitchen or may not want to tax its resources on a project. A processor may have changed its procedure or ingredients, which would necessitate further changes to the processes or materials downstream. Other times, a flavor or ingredient manufacturer has a new product, and Leiding will help to choose a particular protein and flavor profile that would be most appealing to consumers. If the project involves another processor, Leiding often does not know the identity of that company, and they do not know him.
Doing R&D work and being successful at it requires strict attention to detail. Developing an item like jalapeño bacon requires producing multiple batches of varying flavor concentrations, and there is no room for guesses or estimations.
“It’s time consuming, and you’ve got to be accurate with your data,” he says. “I’m a data nut, so that’s what makes me good for this type of project.”
Leiding may not be a household name to the end users that have benefited from his work, but his talents have not gone unnoticed by those suppliers and other third-party companies that have worked with him. While his tests are usually done in the presence of the client, his work is trusted enough that he often works unsupervised.
“One customer told me that there are guys who want to be in R&D and there are guys who are in R&D, and he said that I wasn’t a wannabe,” he notes.
Continuous learning processes
Leiding developed his passion for meat processing after working as an apprentice in a processing plant during the mid-1970s. He ran a meat company for three years before selling it in 1978, and he re-started Leiding’s Meats in 1996, thanks to the encouragement of his wife, Carolyn. Originally, Leiding’s processed deer during hunting season, and one of the fliers he produced advertising his venison sausages ended up in the hands of a corporate R&D team.
“They said, ‘If this Leiding guy can make the sausages to a high-quality standard, maybe we should contact him about doing our sausage kitchen test work,’” he recalls.
After interviews with several officials from overseas, Leiding began doing R&D work out of his facility in Danville. He says that in addition to an attention to detail, he’s always been up front with his clients if they ask him to do something he’s never done before. He adds that he’s never had a job where he hasn’t learned something, which makes the R&D work especially rewarding.
Some projects have been particularly challenging, such as the one where he was asked to make a product with 51 pounds of meat and 49 pounds of water.
“The first time we did it, it looked like soup and dumplings, but after three runs, I was able to dial in on the time when you incorporate spices and binders in the water with the meat,” he says.
Some of the projects do end in failure, but Leiding says that’s the nature of R&D work. However, he has experienced many successes as well, and his clients have come away from the tests with revenue-generating products.
One of his favorite projects involved creating jalapeño bacon. Leiding sells it at his retail store, where it is extremely popular.
“Jalapeño bacon has been something that a lot of companies are struggling with, to get a good flavor profile and appearance of product, and we’ve got it nailed,” he says. Where some attempts he’s seen look almost green, Leiding’s jalapeño bacon has an orange tint, which is both eye-catching and appealing. He also solved the problem that processors often have – what to do with the trim – by creating a jalapeño bacon cheddar cheese chuck burger.
“We’ve just got to come up with a name that isn’t so long!” he says, laughing. “You can eat it faster than you can say it.”
In order to provide a comprehensive list of services, Leiding has added several pieces of equipment to the shop specifically for R&D work. Early on, he bought a smokehouse with a microprocessor in order to get more exact data, as well as a macerator for working with whole-muscle products. His most recent acquisition is a double-end clipper, which will allow him to test casings in higher-speed applications. The beauty of purchasing the equipment for R&D work is that he’s also able to use the equipment for his retail and catering operations as well. With the smokehouse, he points out, he can produce all his cured meats as well as some delicious chocolate-chip cookies as a dessert for catered parties.
Along with the equipment, Leiding has also used his R&D experience to benefit his business.
“A lot of the flavor profiles, spice and meat blocks that we’ve been exposed to have widened my education and understanding of various meat processes – thermal processing, mixing, blending, emulsifying, bowl chopping,” he says. He’s also learned about the types of ingredients and binders that should be used with those protein types. That knowledge has led to the development of many unique products. Leiding has won numerous awards from national and state-wide cured meat competitions. At last year’s American Association of Meat Processors convention in Kansas City, Mo., he was the grand champion for Andouille sausage at the American Cured Meat Championships. Unlike other sausage processors who buy an Andouille spice blend, Leiding made his sausage completely from scratch. As it was his first time making Andouille sausage, he asked for some divine guidance beforehand.
“I went through different flavor profiles until I zeroed in on what I wanted to run with,” he says. “I opened the oven door when it was done, and the color was just awesome. It had a wonderful golden-orange color to it. When I cut into it and ate it, I was overwhelmed. I said, ‘Lord, thank you,we got it.’”
In addition to the Grand Champion award in Andouille sausage, Leiding’s Meats was one of four champions in six other categories.
Leiding says that his R&D experiences have led to other successful products for his business, including the jalapeño bacon and bacon-cheddar chuck burgers, a chorizo sausage and a chorizo snack stick. His sense of creativity also has led him to take some product development risks that have paid off more often than not – such as his turkey sausage with cheddar cheese and peanut butter.
“We were doing some ground turkey products for a customer for the AMI show in Chicago many years back,” he recalls. “I thought it would be cool if we put some cheddar cheese in it. Then, our senior minister at my church loves peanut butter, so I thought we could make some peanut butter and cheddar cheese cured and smoked turkey sausage, stuffed in a pepperoni-style casing, and see what happens. And it was a hit!” He adds that several international customers who sampled that sausage still tell him that he needs to get it on the market.
On another occasion, he created a boneless ham that tasted alternately like honey and orange marmalade or honey and red raspberry, depending on which end of the ham is being sliced.
“All we did was change the recipe up for the cure that we injected into the muscle,” he explains.
The downside to R&D projects, Leiding notes, is that while they are his priority, they only come on an as-needed basis. Fortunately, the other areas of Leiding’s meats have continued to grow as well. Winter months bring a steady demand for deer processing, and the summer months bring catering. As the Danville community has struggled in the recent economy, the catering business has expanded to include the nearby Champaign–Urbana metropolitan area. Doing so has helped keep the catering business dollar intake steady, and he’s taking on more and more larger jobs, feeding anywhere from 500 to 700 guests.
The recent addition of the facility’s retail area has brought enough success that he’s considered moving into a larger building, preferably located on a main road.
“[The retail success] proves to me that people want good quality,” he says, “and it also proves to me that if we were to move onto the main road, the retail would really go through the roof.”
The drawback to that growth would be that it might take interfere with his R&D work. If he gets hammered with many R&D projects in a short time span, it might interfere with his ability to keep a larger retail space stocked.
The retail success he’s enjoyed and the number of awards he’s won for his products stand as a testament to his abilities. However, much of his R&D work will have to remain a secret, as it would violate the confidentiality agreements he has signed. He points out that integrity means everything in that business, and revealing any confidential information even once would bring his R&D business to an abrupt end.
“There’s a new product right now that’s going out in the marketplace, and it’s cool,” he says. “Can’t say a word about it, and I don’t make any money off the future sale of the product. But the beauty of it is, I was allowed to be involved in it, and no one can take that away from me.”