Our 2021 award goes to Cuisine Solutions and Stellar for their sous vide facility in San Antonio, Texas
The cooking process begins with meat passing through ovens that sear the outside and leave grill marks as desired. All photos courtesy of Matthew Niemann / Matthew Niemann Photography
Solar panels in the parking lot and native vegetation are part of the facility's sustainability program. The black and red color scheme was used prominently to promote the plant as a flagship facility for Cuisine Solutions.
To combat that, the entire site was undercut by seven feet and filled with 11 feet of fill dirt to establish a stable foundation. Once that was complete, the focus turned to how the building and the site would be developed, designed and built to represent the company’s priorities. In addition to the solar panels, other sustainability priorities of the site were designed and implemented, including extensive stormwater mitigation and native vegetation. The aesthetics were important as well; the front entrance is a sleek, modern design using the company’s black and red color scheme to grab the attention of anyone who comes to the site.
“They wanted that building to reflect the way they like to treat their employees,” says Landowski. “This is their flagship. They wanted to be, and they should be, proud of that facility and they wanted their employees to feel the same way.”
That philosophy extends throughout the facility, as employee safety and ergonomics were a top-of-mind consideration in each aspect of the building. Welfare spaces are designed to be comfortable and welcoming for employees who are on breaks or lunch. Workspaces are designed for safety and cutting down on repetitive motion as much as possible.
“There are rooms that go from minus 13 to 50 degrees and anywhere from 50 degrees to probably ambient. It's all part of getting the entire plant balanced out.”
—Brad Johnson, project manager, Stellar
The outside, aesthetics and employee areas are obviously important. But the plant is the world’s largest sous vide facility, with a maximum capacity of 360,000 pounds of product per day, so the production process is critical to meeting both production targets and sustainability goals.
“Everything's got its challenges,” says Johnson. “There are rooms that go from minus 13 to 50 degrees and anywhere from 50 degrees to probably ambient. It's all part of getting the entire plant balanced out.”
Identifying those challenges and building the process in a way to meet them was a primary focus. The plant runs both meat and egg products, and needs different packages and processes for specific versions of those products. The production processes are highly automated, with failsafes in place that allow for product to be removed from the production line, cooled, and brought back into production later if needed. Lines can also be quickly adapted to go from meat to eggs or vice versa, and conveying lines for cooked meat products include sections that can be swapped out for installing slicers as needed.
Meat passes through the ovens for searing and grill-marking, then moves on to the conveying system to continue through the process.
“We make sure that all safety protocols are followed for first and foremost,” says Jim Oko, director of process development, Stellar. “But also, how are you going to operate this stuff? You know, are valves easily accessible, is automation where it needs to be, is IT communicating with all the vendors and all that good stuff?”
Once those questions are answered, the day-to-day operations become the most important aspect of meeting goals. The design and operating strategy matter, but if employees and supervisors aren’t focusing on carrying that strategy out in the proper way, then meeting both production and sustainability goals becomes a challenge.
Both meat and egg products are vacuum packed in plastic, then conveyed and loaded into the sous vide cookers.
The conveying lines at the end of the ovens split to feed multiple coolers, where the meat is chilled before being packaged and cooked via sous vide.
Egg products are deposited into preformed cups, then sealed and conveyed to the sous vide cookers.
The conveyors include segments that can be swapped out for tools such as slicers as needed.
“You're typically in a factory where there are a lot of silos that form very easily between departments and here, one of the key objectives was to make sure that we don't have that siloed approach in our culture.”
— J.R. Malena, VP, Operations, Cuisine Solutions
The plant was designed for ease of access to equipment and infrastructure, as well as providing clear pathways for employees, ingredients and finished product.