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Meeting the consumer demands of today and identifying them for tomorrow

13 November 2014

Tulip, owned by The Danish Crown group, has made the decision to dedicate its Wednesbury site to slow cooked, pulled meats, in collaboration with HFR Foods. Graham Clapp, Director at HFR Foods about their collaboration and vision for the future.

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The Tulip factory in Wednesbury is deceptive in its scope. Acquired in 2011 when Tulip bought chilled meat producer Parkham Foods, the site has been converted to slow cooked, pulled meat production. In October 2013, HFR Foods and Tulip began discussions on a project that would culminate in the opening of the Wednesbury site in April 2014 in collaboration between the two companies with a £2.3 million investment.

“We were in a fortunate position with Tulip having the space available and HFR Foods having the business plan in place,” explains Graham Clapp, Director at HFR Foods. “The range was almost fully developed, and it was a case of getting the factory up and running between December and April in time for the summer rush. It’s a credit to both companies to have had that vision, to undertake all that work in such a short timeframe for launch. We had to seize the opportunity as it appeared, and that’s why we’ve got over 24 SKUs launched already.”

Summer is an important season for the slow-cooked, pulled meat industry. With its origins in the American barbeque market, its biggest months are those in the summertime. With around 140,000 – 150,000 packs going through the factory already, it’s a level the company want to at least maintain through the winter months, at around 40% capacity, which gives the business room to grow and expand. “We’ve got significant aspirations for the business,” Clapp says. “The sous-vide (SV) market is in growth, and we’re excited to be a part of it. But it’s important to get it right. This is the single largest facility in Europe doing slow cooked pulled pork and there’s so much potential to be explored.”

With the US market both well-established and booming, it’s recently made its way to Europe and has, until now, been mainly focused on street food culture, which has helped to drive the sector. It’s relatively early days, but the Tulip and HFR Foods collaboration sees great potential in the market for the future of UK food manufacturing.

The factory

The factory follows a simplified process. Intake comes into four bays for the four different meats that are processed through the factory; pork, chicken, beef and ham, to ensure that the meat is kept separate. The meats are also separated between fresh products and those to be smoked, which also take different routes through the factory. 

The fresh meat is given its flavouring by being mixed with rub, all set to different recipes, through a tumbler. The tumbler can hold up to 1700 kilograms, although depending on the product, lesser weight is more desirable to stop the muscles from separating with too heavy a load. 

After the meat has been tumbled with the rub, it is transferred to one of four processing lines. Three of the lines are Multivac Thermoformers and one a Marel Target Batcher. The meat portions run through the line and are deposited by weight into cells. The weight is vital, as products that are underweight will be discarded later on down the line, wasting cooking and packaging time. The challenge is keeping the product to within a tolerance. 

Once packaged at the end of the line, the product goes through the steam cookers. The cookers, manufactured by Gernal, pasteurise the meat and encourage longer shelf life. Unfortunately this is where the bottleneck will appear if at all, as the ovens can run for up to five hours. A blast chiller brings the temperature of the product down as quickly as possible.

Products that are smoked are brought to one of the two smokers maintained at the factory, before heading back to the start of the line for flavouring and packing.

The meat products are then passed through to one of three lines for secondary packaging. “The cartoning equipment supplied by T. Freemantle to Tulip Wednesbury is simple and flexible and capable of a wide range of product sizes,” says Richard Kitchen at T. Freemantle. “A fast size change means that the equipment fits perfectly into this highly diverse production facility.” Flatpack boxes are fed through the line, where the boxes are opened up and the product inserted before they are fixed. As the line progresses, the product passes through the Autocoding system for code printing, depending on the legal necessities and the retailer’s requirements. 

The lines are set apart with room to expand, so adding new lines should provide minimal disruption to production. 

Looking to the future

The Wednesbury factory is the first plant dedicated to the slow-cooked, pulled pork market, according to Tulip and HFR Foods. With strong growth in the past three years, the company made the decision to create a bespoke, efficient factory dedicated to the market, as opposed to other companies who have attached the process to factories that mix their markets. 

With strong backing from major retailers, the company is looking to broaden their customer base into the foodservice market, as the company looks to expand. “We’ve got 11 or 12 SKUs coming in very soon, and they’ll be winter-driven, as opposed to the summer products,” says Clapp. “The summer is an easier market for these kinds of products, so winter will be a focus for us, on trying to get winter-based products on the map. The last thing we want is to lose efficiency in winter because the product output slows down, so it’s an exciting challenge for us as a business.

“We’ve picked up on the American barbeque trends and that’s done well, but we’re thinking ahead to Christmas,” Clapp continues. “What can our products do for the Christmas market? Or Valentine’s Day. Mother’s Day. And people are moving away from the traditional Sunday roasts now. They’re getting more adventurous with what they want from retailers and what they can produce. We can help fill that desire for choice.”

New product development

New product development is critically important for ranges looking to expanding and grow, particularly when it’s a fledgling market. “We’ve just come back from the United States, where we visited New York and the barbeque belt, including North Carolina,” says Clapp. “Product development has to come from innovation, sparked by what is possible and what works for others. From our point of view, we’ve really invested in the operations and manufacturing side for product development by taking our operations director on the trip, because whatever we see and develop, we have to ensure that it’s possible to manufacture and look at how we can implement it, which I think a lot of companies overlook. Rather than thinking of cost, we want to understand the market and make sure we can deliver a good product.”

The market for slow cooked, pulled meat products is booming in the US. Considered a delicacy, particularly in the South-eastern states such as Tennessee and North Carolina, there is a suggestion that the UK food market will soon be following more US trends. But of course, the UK consumer has different habits and wants from the US consumer, so it’s a balancing act of sorts, as well as a chance to delve into new products and innovation for the global industry.

“We’re already starting to specialise, and even in this specific field, we can start to concentrate on the trends we’re seeing and what it means for the future,” says Clapp. “What we’re seeing is that this has the potential for being the future of modern meat.” With somewhere between 60 – 70% of consumers not aware by 4pm what they’ll be eating for dinner, and with an expectation of spending no more than 30 minutes cooking, slow cooked, pulled meats are a viable and good solution. Consumers no longer have the time and, in many cases, the inclination to spend over two hours preparing a family meal. And it’s up to food processors and retailers to develop high quality, low time-consumption options for today’s market.

Clapp suggests that the industry could look at traditional meats and see where the companies can assist consumers. Casserole beef, for example, is a typically slow dish to create with a preparation and cooking time in the region of 2.5 hours or more. But if the beef was prepared before it even hit the shops, slow-cooked and unflavoured, then the tender beef would speed up the cooking time for consumers and lower that cooking time to within a reasonable timeframe for consumers.

In particular, they are looking to wrestle convenience and meat product market share back from ready meals. “The future of modern meat should be owned by meat processors,” says Clapp, “rather than meat processors who sell to a ready meal business. I think that over the next 10 years, the traditional meat aisle will be transforming in line with changing consumer demand.”

And the collaboration between Tulip and HFR Foods has enabled them to create a factory with the scope to evolve with the changing landscape ahead.

“There are lots of areas we’re looking at and going on that journey for our consumers,” Clapp says. “We’re not just waiting for the market to come to us; we’re going out and looking at ways to help consumers. There’s a lot of scope to develop this market, and we’re excited about what the future will bring.”

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