By Sam Gazdziak, Senior Editor
American Foodservice’s experience in fresh and frozen ground beef and hamburger processing, as well as food safety allows it to excel beyond the foodservice channel.
With company mottos of “The best in burgers,” and “The best in fresh ground beef,” it’s easy to figure out American Foodservice’s focus. Whether it’s frozen hamburger patties for foodservice operators or fresh ground beef for retail customers, the company has dedicated itself to being one of the country’s premier ground beef suppliers.
“It’s everything we can do to deliver that promise to our customers,” Jeff Sterling, corporate vice president of sales and marketing, says. “It’s the best in food safety, customer service, quality of products, or creative ideas that help them sell more product or product variety. It’s all those things that create value for our customers.”
With headquarters in King of Prussia, Pa., and facilities in the Dallas/Ft. Worth area and Thomasville, Ga., American Foodservice can deliver product within one day to about 75 percent of the country’s population, coast to coast. It was started as the manufacturing arm for Gino’s, a fast-food chain with about 600 stores at its peak. However, since being spun off as an independent company in 1972, the company has narrowed its focus, making ground beef its expertise.
“We know what the challenges are in ground beef, and we pay attention to it every single day,” says Barry Renninger, president and chief operating officer. “For every little nuance that can occur in ground beef, we have the experts [to deal with it].”
As evidence, he points to the company’s experienced employees; with his own tenure of about 15 years, Renninger is still considered one of the new guys in King of Prussia. One of American Foodservice’s strengths, borne of that experience, is its food-safety program.
“In the early ’90s, the ground beef industry changed, and E. coli became the main concern from a food-safety standpoint,” Renninger says. American Foodservice took a leading role in the food-safety initiatives that were developed to stop the pathogen from reaching the public.
The company became the first meat processor in the country to begin testing not only the raw ground beef that it received but also the finished product. Some of the systems used today by many processors to test for E. coli O157:H7 were developed and tested in American Foodservice’s facilities. Throughout the early 1990s we worked in conjunction with a customer to develop the first testing programs used anywhere in the world specifically targeted to discovering E. coli O157:H7 in raw ground product and removing that product from the food chain.”
Biela points out that American Foodservice had a fully developed hazard analysis critical control points (HACCP) program in 1994, about five years before the U.S. Agriculture Department made such programs mandatory for companies of that size.
“Our plants were used by the federal agencies and the USDA as model facilities,” Biela adds. “We were one of two model facilities selected in the United States for pre-HACCP publicity.”
Biela and American Foodservice’s food-safety programs have been featured on NBC’s The Today Show and the CBS Evening News.
“We feel we’ve developed the best food-safety program for ground beef that exists,” Renninger states. “We were doing testing before anyone [else] even knew what the tests were about.”
Fresh and frozen familiarity
American Foodservice itself is in the frozen hamburger business, supplying individually quick-frozen (IQF) patties to foodservice chains, primarily quick-service and casual-dining establishments. In 2000, the company began a joint venture with Fairbank Farms, an Ashville, N.Y.-based packer that was one of the pioneers of high-oxygen modified-atmosphere packaging known as MAP. The resulting venture, American Fresh Foods, has blossomed into a fast-growing success.
“When we looked to expand our business, we saw that case-ready was definitely the major wave of the future,” Renninger explains. Because of food safety concerns, retailers were less interested in receiving large chubs, opening them and re-packaging the ground beef. “From a food-safety standpoint and a presentation standpoint, it’s taking the risk out of the store and letting the manufacturers manage that role,” he adds.
American Foodservice and Fairbank Farms remain independent operators, but they do work together closely, sharing some support functions, including food-safety protocols. Using Fairbank Farms expertise in fresh ground beef processing and packaging and American Foodservice’s talents in customer service and food safety, American Fresh Foods seems to be on the right track.
American Foodservice opened a plant in Ft. Worth in 1984, operating as Texas American Foodservice, at the request of a foodservice customer. Although it began manufacturing frozen patties, it has expanded several times to include five additional lines for manufacturing case-ready MAP products for the retail sector. A separate facility handles chubs and overwrap patties.
The company’s newest plant is the Thomasville facility, which opened in 2005. It originally ran fresh ground beef products but has recently expanded to accommodate two frozen-patty lines as well. This facility also has room for the company to add more lines when needed. (For more on the Thomasville plant, see the accompanying story on page 36.)
Renninger says fresh products mostly go to retailers, though some chubs and fresh patties are manufactured for Foodservice chains customers.
Along with producing products to a customer’s specification, the company has the capability to work with a foodservice operator to fill a hole in its menu.
“We’re able to work with their culinary staff, their research and development staff, and help them develop a product that fits with what consumers think is a great burger,” Sterling says. “By working with those R&D folks and understanding what the perceptions are for what consumers think is the best burger, we’re able to, many times, improve the burger and allow the customer to increase sales and traffic.”
One of the company’s biggest assets in this arena is its Culinary Smart Center, opened in 2004. There, with the help of its executive chef and the rest of American Foodservice team, customers can learn about the latest burger trends, industry data and consumer trends, as well as gather information from focus-group research. Sterling says the company can use all that information to give customers recommendations on how they can improve their menu. For example, American Foodservice worked with a foodservice customer to add a couple of burger builds to its menu.
“What we found, looking at what the perception points were and what the trends were, that there were some holes in their burger offerings,” Sterling says. “We made some suggestions, and they’ve gone ahead and added some burger builds to their menu, and they’ve been pretty pleased with the results.”
One of the new items is a spicy burger build that includes jalapeno jack cheese. Another is a Philly Cheese steak burger, which takes the toppings normally found on a cheese steak sandwich and puts them on a burger.
The company takes a similar approach when working with retail customers, in that it offers a variety of products, packages and services to help a supermarkets increase their meat-case sales. Along with producing grinds to customer-specified fat content, it can provide ground beef from its all-natural, hormone-free and antibiotic-free Stone River Ranch brand or from Angus beef. All of its fresh meat plants are able to process beef from Certified Angus Beef, if the retailer wants to go with a recognized Angus brand name. Sterling also points out that the company is well-versed in providing help with category management, shelf planning and product assortment.
“We’ve also started working recently with cross-merchandising events with products outside of the ground-beef category,” he adds. Quick-order turnaround also is provided, helping a retailer manage its inventory levels better.
American Foodservice has been able to capitalize on the fact that hamburgers are doing very well in the marketplace, both on a foodservice and a retail level. Sterling points out that hamburgers fit in with the rising popularity of comfort foods.
“Along with that, one of the trends … is that people are looking to pamper themselves. They’re looking for gourmet on a budget,” he adds. Foodservice companies are responding to this by upscaling burgers — for example, introducing an Angus burger. That creates the perception that consumers are getting something better than what the restaurant had previously offered. American Foodservice, for its part, is also experimenting with different hamburger flavors, such as jalapeno cheddar or bacon and cheddar.
“There seems to be a trend as far as seasonings being added to patties, and that’s one of the things we’ve picked up on and are offering on a retail level now,” Renninger adds. Sterling points out that the company’s combination of processing abilities and other services makes it a terrific business partner.
“We really want to focus on being a great business partner. We’re here to help increase sales in the ground-beef category at retail and help sell more burgers in foodservice.”
“We’re very focused on ground beef and burgers,” he adds, “and what it takes to be successful is more than being a terrific processor. It’s really focusing on the value as well.”