At Cardinal Meat Specialists, “innovation” is much more than a buzzword that’s thrown around in marketing materials and sales calls. It’s at the core of the company’s philosophy and has been since it was started by the Cator family in 1966.

“We have found innovative ways to use global technologies and apply them differently in North America, and that led us to grow to that next step,” says Brent Cator, CEO. “One technology has led to the next, which has led to the next.”

As an example, Cardinal Meats was the first HACCP-recognized beef processor in Canada and the first to use infrared light analysis for fat, moisture & proteins.  Cardinal was also the first to utilize DNA lab technology for advanced microbiology for meat products testing and to utilize Tenderform fill technology in the mid1980s. The latter advancement, Cator notes, was the last major innovation in burger making technology — until recently.

Last year, Cardinal Meats moved its headquarters from Mississauga, Ontario, to nearby Brampton. The new plant, with a wide open manufacturing space, allowed the company to install five lines of cutting edge burger processing equipment, as well as the latest in freezing and packaging equipment. The technology came from a worldwide search for the latest processing innovations; what Cator couldn’t find, Cardinal employees built.

The result is a highly versatile facility that can produce every one of Cardinal’s 150 burger items, including those made with its latest burger breakthrough, Natural Texture FormingTM. That product, released in Canada about three years ago, made its debut in the United States as the “Revolution Burger” through a partnership with Certified Angus Beef and Sysco Corp. The burgers are available in more than 50 Sysco markets across the country.

The processing equipment may have come from all over the world, yet Cator points out the mere act of buying new technology doesn’t guarantee success.

“I’ve watched company after company review what’s being done in Europe and bring it back here, without respect for what the North American consumer is after, instead of looking for the innovation behind what’s being done and seeing how it can be used to meet the customers’ needs,” he explains.

The real innovation, he says, involves taking that European technology and “North American-izing” it to produce products that appeal to Cardinal’s customer base and solve the needs of its customers.

The creativity and perseverance shown by Cardinal employees is evident throughout the production process, from patty papers that are dispensed at a previously unheard of rate to a conveyor that can drop products from the top of a spiral freezer to the packaging area in perfect alignment for packaging. The concept for some of the Cardinal designed equipment has since been sold to Marel for mass distribution.

When all five lines are running at full capacity, Cardinal has the ability to produce 1,500 burgers per minute in Brampton. The addition of the U.S. market will help smooth out the peaks and valleys of the company’s burger business, which is a seasonal one in Canada.

Cardinal is not just focusing on burgers, though. The company’s Kettle-CookedTM, sealed environment technology has made the company a leader in cooked ribs, pulled pork as well as batch-style products, and that business is expected to continue its growth curve. On top of all that, Cardinal is planning on making a huge splash in the world of portion controlled products with a process every bit as innovative as the burger making operation.


Fact Box

Cardinal Meat Specialists

Brampton, Ontario, Canada

Founded: 1966
Products Manufactured: Burgers, ribs, roasts, pulled meats, bone in  chicken, veggie  burgers
Markets: Retail under many brands, foodservice
Cardinal Meats opened its new headquarters in 2011 and is planning on completing an expansion for portion control processing in 2013.

Best in burgers

Cator notes that while the company has more than 150 burger types — including all proteins, sizes, inclusions, hormone free and veggie burgers — the one thing the company has never made is a commodity burger.

“It’s all unique and diversified and specialized,” he says. “Each customer for those products feels like it’s the absolute best product, and it is — for them.”

The new plant in Brampton became a necessity as Cardinal outgrew its grinding operation in Mississauga. Investing in new packaging technology or form/fill equipment required more and longer processing lines.

The plant itself, a former steel facility, went from vacant to fully operational and SQF Level 2-certified in just over six months, and Cardinal was able to roll out new technology it couldn’t in its old plant.

The new facility has five lines, all of which are modular and can produce every one of the burgers in Cardinal’s extensive portfolio. Even the largest pieces of equipment are interchangeable. That feature allows Cardinal to be more efficient in its slower periods and also helps maintain one of the best fill rates in the country. The processing equipment is state of the art, but no expense was spared in the rest of the plant either.

“Whether it be insulated panels or management of light systems to the latest in refrigeration, the technology we’ve used has been the latest and the greatest,” Cator says.

He points to the very air itself as an example. The air in the plant is continually being purified, which is typically a feature of only the most progressive ready-to-eat facilities. That technology helps clean the surfaces in the room continuously and eliminates the risk of mold growth.

Initially, Cardinal planned to run four lines with room for a fifth to be added in the future. However, one of the company’s largest competitors went out of business during construction.

“Our customers, right at peak season, were in a desperate need, so we dropped in the fifth line and were able to do the installs while the other lines were running, because of the [plant’s] setup,” he explains. “We launched about 35 products over an eight week period.”

Much of the focus lately has been on the Revolution burger technology. Though the product is just three years old, it already accounts for about half of Cardinal’s burger business. The natural texture forming equipment produces patties using a zero pressure environment, as opposed to other machines that push the meat through at high pressure.

“The eating benefits are fantastic,” Cator says. “You get a faster cooking product with more even cooking. The flavor is better because it stays on the grill for a shorter period of time. Each strand of meat gets sealed, so if you have a product that has a spice or inclusions, the flavor profile is maintained on a much more natural basis. The product is not getting abused by being on a grill for a long time.”

The end result, Cator notes, is a product that both eats better and is less processed than a more conventional burger patty. In order to make a big splash in the North American market with the burgers, he decided to partner with Certified Angus Beef and Sysco to create a truly premium product with a huge sales force promoting it nationwide.

The Natural Texture Forming equipment was discovered during a trip overseas. The equipment Cator saw was only producing 30 portions per minute, and was geared for steak tartare and meat loaf.  He needed it tailored for burger patties, and the equipment had to run about 10 times faster at the Cardinal plant.

“We North Americanized that technology and found ways to employ it,” he says. “Nobody was able to run these technologies as fast, and nobody had been able to deploy patty paper technology at the speeds we are doing until we came along. We brought the European technology over and found a way to advance that.”

Burgers, produced at 300 patties per minute at each line, enter into a spiral freezer. When they are frozen, Cator wanted to have the products move from the top of the spiral freezer to the packaging line, perfectly oriented and ready for the packaging line employees. When he could not find the existing technology to do that, he brought the problem in-house, and Cardinal built and patented the technology. The company is using five of the Vertical Conveyor SystemsTM, and it built several more before Cator sold the technology last year.

“They have zero changeover time between products and can deal with any speed you can throw at them,” he says proudly. “They bring the patties down in nice alignment and perfect speed so that the metal detection can be as accurate as possible.”

Once the decision was made that a new, larger plant was necessary, Cardinal employees were asked about new technologies or production improvements that could really benefit both Cardinal and its customers. The employees came up with a list of 21 new technologies that should be deployed while building the new facility. All 21 have been deployed, and 10 of them have created real points of differentiation for the company. Thanks to the improved throughput in the new facility, Cardinal grew about 40 percent in output in the last year.

While the task of deploying so many new technologies in a new plant was difficult, nothing was dismissed as being impossible, which is not a word in Cator’s vocabulary.

“Every time we come up with a product that in theory can’t be done, they know the one word that I really take offense to is ‘can’t,’” he points out. “It usually stimulates a lot of conversation. If a customer needs it, we’ll find a way in order to deploy that.”


There will be an APP for that

The decision to move to a new facility began about three years ago when Cator’s executive team set some very lofty goals for the company’s future. The goals were to grow the grinding business substantially, grow the Kettle Cooked business to the point that it was the size of the grind business, and do it all by the end of 2013.

“We saw that as very viable, because people are looking for more convenient products and less processed products,” Cator says, adding that the company is well on track to meet those goals. “To do that, we really had to expand the breadth of line that Kettle Cooked could touch, as far as product lines.”

Kettle Cooked, or sealed environment cooking, cooks the protein without oxygen, which eliminates any warmed-over flavor profiles that can come with traditional cook technologies. The cooking process provides a long shelf life for products without using extra preservatives, and it provides a tender product by using the meat’s own juices, rather than pumping it with water. It also does a better job of infusing a product with seasonings or spices, resulting in a better tasting, less processed product with a long shelf life.

Cator points out that consumers see a recipe for a shepherd’s pie on TV and want to try it, but they don’t want to spend hours and hours cooking the beef roast and cubing it to add to the recipe.

“What they really wanted to do was to combine the Kettle Cooked product with the pastry or spices they have at home,” he says. By buying beef at a store that has already been properly prepared, consumers can spend their time assembling the meal instead of preparing ingredients. By the same token, a chef at a restaurant who has the meat already prepared can then focus on combining different components to create a great entrée.

Traditionally, the Kettle Cooked has been used for time-consuming products that are difficult to prepare at home or in a restaurant, such as a beef roast or pulled pork. The company also provides protein for meal assemblers; companies that want to sell lasagna, for example, but don’t want the microbiological risk of raw meat in their plants turn to Cardinal for help.

 One area Cator believes is destined to grow for kettle cooking is in bone in chicken. He points to the success of rotisserie chicken in supermarkets.

“[The rotisserie product] has one huge flaw, in that it’s bringing raw chicken into the middle of a retail store,” he points out. “So along with raw chicken, they are bringing in Salmonella, Campylobacter or whatever else, because raw chicken has higher numbers of risks.”

The idea, Cator says, is for Cardinal to bring in a fresh, fully cooked all-natural product into the store minus the pathogens, where it can be finished at the store level. It eliminates the food safety risk and also eliminates the waste, since an order of any size can be prepared and sold in about 15 minutes. The idea is growing in popularity among retailers and also casual dining restaurants, which want to do away with their own rotisseries in favor of an easier to use product.

The next phase of Cardinal’s growth strategy will focus on using that Kettle Cooked technology on portion controlled products.

“How can we do mainstream, high value products, but better than a consumer can do at home or a restaurant can do? Our team looked at what technologies were out there. We did a lot of tours primarily around Europe and across the U.S., and we came back with APP technology,” says Cator.

APP, or Advanced Protein PortioningTM, will take Cardinal’s range of forming technologies and combine it with the company’s sealed environment cooking expertise. Instead of batch products, the new lines will process things like formed steaks, sausages, vegetable products, sandwiches and more.

“We have wonderful portion control capabilities in our grinding operation, whether it be whole muscle restructured, ground or inclusion products,” Cator says. “Our kettle cooking technology has the ability to take undervalued cuts or hard to prepare products and find ways to make it more palatable, have a better flavor and longer shelf life for meat as an ingredient.”

“Then we looked at the needs out there,” he adds. “The restaurateur was looking for a combination of those two, and our APP technology is just that.”

Cardinal is in the process of finishing off an expansion at the Brampton facility that will accommodate the APP operation. Once that expansion is complete and operational, Cardinal will have about 200 full time employees between its Brampton location and the kettle cooking facility in Mississauga.

Cator is quick to credit the employees for adapting to the new technology so quickly and their commitment to the company’s long term goals.  While the company was in the process of transitioning its grinding operation to Brampton, the employees were brought over to the new facility regularly to see the progress and offer their input. As a result, the company did not lose a single employee when the new plant opened.


A change of thinking

As part of looking for new technology, Cator traveled around the world, touring facilities in England, France, Hungary, the Netherlands, Russia and Germany. First he would go to supermarkets to look at the variety of products available, and then he toured the manufacturing facilities to see the process. Many of the plants were not meat processing operations, but they still proved to be valuable learning experiences.

“There are some great, leading edge technologies being used,” Cator says of the European market.

Cator came back to Canada and went to his customers to discuss the technologies, as there was no point in deploying the technology if nobody would buy it. Cator focused on the potential capabilities in those meetings rather than the finished products, so the corporate chefs could see the technology and decide on the potential applications for their own businesses.

“Everyone likes to go read some research and then go and build the product according to what the research said,” he says. “The problem is, when you’re launching truly innovative capabilities, the market isn’t developed, so you can’t read something to find out what it would do.

“Instead, innovators look to the current trends: people are looking for more natural food, consumers are looking to be chefs themselves but need some help with the ingredient preparation. Restaurants want simpler products to prepare so they can focus on the front of the house and not the back.

“When those trends are in place, it’s being able to see those and build product capabilities into that space without having the supporting data that says, ‘Yes, it will be successful,’” Cator says. “That’s really what innovation is.”