By Barbara YounG, Editor-In-Chief
A new underground product slicing facility puts MO-based Willow Brook Foods on the road to glory.
Every day thousands of people report for work at meat and poultry processing plants primarily operating in America’s less populated regions. Assignments involving various aspects of processing await them, usually in a space below ground or the basement.
This is tradition.
Tradition, however, makes way for the future on the northeast side of Springfield, MO, where Willow Brook Foods, a meat and poultry business with a vertically integrated turkey component, operates its new slicing operation in an underground industrial real estate development. The multi-phase process takes place in individual rooms, with product traveling by conveyor through scaled down wall openings about the size of passenger windows on automobiles.
Willow Brooks’ Precision Slicing business — still in the early stages of implementation given its March 2005 production startup — is a cut above traditional new-processing facilities. Walls completely separate processes from each other.
“Physical barriers along with good manufacturing practices are critical for food safety,” Andrew Cobb, project manager for slicing, explains. “Physical barriers allow us to separate and isolate each room, which goes hand in hand with good manufacturing procedures.”
Picture it: A former limestone quarry with 75 million cubic feet devoted to underground buildings built in caverns 100 feet beneath the surface. The setting is ideal for sensitive products and equipment including infant formula and data storage — and meat processing.
“Technology is a key driver of our corporate growth,” asserts Mike Briggs, president. “The challenges of product safety and worker safety are immense. We have high expectations and, in some cases, high turnover. The only way to meet these expectations given the reality of our environment is to have strong programs and strong managers to uphold these directives.”
To that end, Willow Brook selected the underground site for its new Precision Slicing operation incorporating the latest technology in food safety, slicing, and product quality.
The modular cell system of independent buildings with two slicing lines each feature separate drains, air-handling procedures, employees, and equipment. Positive airflow, filtered to remove impurities, prevents entry of external air. An air-cooling system removes airborne pathogens while maintaining proper humidity. Associates follow strict sanitation protocols before entering processing areas. A dedicated changing room is designed to segregate associates accessing the slicing area.
“We reached capacity in our available warehousing facilities and we needed more production capabilities,” Briggs explains. “We looked at a number of options, but the underground facility was most ideal.”
Features and benefits include low heating and cooling costs; enhanced bio-security; protection from storms, flooding, and other natural disasters; and easy access to major highways and rail lines.
“The most attractive features of the slicing facility are the food-safety benefits gained from the underground location and the state-of-the-art technologies incorporated into the operations,” Robert Brooks, director of technical services, summarizes.
A committee picked production associates from other Willow Brook facilities in Springfield — one for harvesting and the other further processing — putting them through a rigorous interview process to determine not only potential skills, but also attitudes concerning food safety and customer satisfaction.
Watching Bill Parker, slicing line superintendent, overseeing the line is like watching a coach calling game plays from the sidelines. He knows strengths and weaknesses of each member of the product slicing team, and is comforted in the knowledge that, although each person handles a regular assignment, they all are trained to handle multiple tasks.
“It’s hard to stay back and let them do their jobs because I’m a hands-on person,” Parker says. “It is not that I don’t think they can do it, my inclination is to physically show them.”
The slicing facility is designed to manufacture packaged turkey, chicken, ham, and roast beef slices in stacked, shingled, or fluffed configurations. The formulated product — logs in plastic casings — begins in a tempering room and freezer to achieve the optimal temperature for efficient slicing. Logs are treated with pre- and post-sanitizing washes during the process. Once in the dedicated slicing room, production workers covered top-to-bottom except for the top half of their faces — in personal protective equipment treated with an anti-microbial agent — take over. Slicing takes place on a hygienically designed integrated slicing and roll stock packaging machine featuring a slider zipper. Standard features of the slicing system include statistical process control to assure consistent shape and thickness and metal detection.
The Willow Brook slicing initiative is its latest processing venture. However, the company also operates three other processing facilities — two in Springfield and one in Albert Lea, MN, to supply its retail and foodservice customers.
“The two locations work closely together,” Briggs notes. “We believe our future is dependent upon our success in foodservice, and we are committed to growing that segment of our business. As this happens, Albert Lea and Springfield will become more integrated as the production capability matches up to the sales and distribution capabilities.”
Briggs has intimate knowledge of the Albert Lea facility. As vice president and general manager of Willow Brook before becoming part owner in a 2002 buyout, Briggs was also responsible for the Albert Lea operation and its multiple product lines. Besides sausage distributed under the company’s venerable Schweigert regional brand, Albert Lea products include fully cooked sauced chicken wings, breaded products, sliced meats and gravy, and skinless hot dogs. Approximately 40 percent of Albert Lea products are shipped to the Willow Brook underground distribution center in Springfield for distribution to foodservice and supermarket service deli customers.
At its locations in Springfield, Willow Brook operates a primary processing facility at one, which is dedicated to slaughter and cut-up, raw further-processed product totaling 150 million pounds a year from 90,000 turkeys per week. The other site, also housing administrative offices in a building that once served as the Springfield Post office, handles 52 million pounds annually of raw turkey and pork sausage as well as fully cooked further processed turkey, ham, and chicken products.
Meanwhile, the company’s hot dog, sausage, and breaded chicken products are produced in Albert Lea including fully cooked chicken wings.
“Flavored fully cooked chicken wings in the deli has become a good business for us,” Briggs says. “We were among the first companies to successfully market these products about seven years ago.”
Fully cooked hams also represent a growing product line along with fully cooked chicken tenders.
Notably, Willow Brook does not offer par-fried product.
“We made the decision early on to not market those products, because we felt the convenience aspect of fully cooked would drive the market,” Briggs explains. “We made the right decision.” NP