Canadian Packaging

Putting meat on the table

Deli meats processor carves up a bigger slice of the market pie with cutting-edge technologies and Old World craftsmanship


December 1, 2010
by Andrew Joseph, Features Editor

Workers at Piller’s main Waterloo facility load freshly-sliced meat onto a Repak packaging system purchased through Reiser Canada.

There are no easy short-cuts to success in any mature manufacturing industry these days, and anyone looking for instant riches in the crowded marketplace for processed meat products is very likely in the wrong line of work.

So like most successful family-owned Canadian meat processors nowadays, the Waterloo, Ont.-based Piller Sausages & Delicatessens Ltd. is much more of a testament to the virtues of patience, tradition, quality, craftsmanship and a strong work ethic—all timeless values that only seem to get better with age—rather than to splashy marketing or aggressive pricing that don’t always deliver the sort of deep-rooted consumer brand loyalty that helps companies ensure long-term longevity in the notoriously cutthroat business.

Founded more than 50 years ago, the company’s long-enduring, unwavering commitment to producing the highest-quality processed pork, beef and poultry products—while fully maintaining the ‘Old World’ charm and flavors as dictated by five generations of being involved in the meat-processing industry—is today commendably matched by its willingness to package those products by using the most advanced, technologically-savvy and state-of-the-art packaging equipment available in the marketplace.

None of this came about overnight, according to Piller’s chief executive operating officer Gerhart Huber.

 

Open Shop

“In 1957, my father Wilhelm Huber opened a small butcher shop in Waterloo, using old family recipes and traditional European meat processing methods to get started [and] two years later, his brothers and my uncles, Edward and Heinrich, joined the business that we call Piller’s today,” recalls Huber.

Strips of sliced smoked meat are separated by thin wax paper inserts prior to being packaged.

“In fact, our current central facility is built right atop that original shop, with some of the walls still a part of the place,” Huber told Canadian Packaging on a recent trip to the Waterloo headquarters—one of five Ontario-based Piller’s plants totaling over 500,000 square feet of production space to turn out a broadly diverse range of high-quality, flavorful, tasty European-style sausages and delicatessen meats.

With numerous prestigious industry awards to its credit—including top industry recognition for Piller’s signature Black Forest ham and air-dried salamis—the company today ranks as one of North America’s leading producers of deli-style and sausage meats, produced under the flagship Piller’s brand label and as private-label products for major grocery chains and foodservice customers.

Making its products available in a wide variety of formats—including sliced, diced, single-serving, large portions (club packs), smaller mini-packs and in bulk—Piller’s products are mainstay items in the deli aisles across Canada at all the major retailers such as Sobeys, No Frills, Food Basics, Costco and Walmart, as well as at a multitude of independent grocers and deli shops from coast to coast.

From left: operations manager Wolfgang Bittrolff and plant manager Terry Cliche show off some of the Piller’s Westphalian Ham slices packaged in twin-packs.

Also operating another facility in Waterloo, along with sister Ontario plants in Arthur, Brantford and Toronto, the company now even exports some of its output to promising select markets in the U.S. and Mexico, Huber proudly points out.

“But even through all the constant growth we have experienced over the years, Piller’s continues to operate utilizing the same natural aging, curing and smoking processes that had customers lining up outside my father’s butcher shop over 50 years ago,” he states.

“In every one of our facilities, we use state-of-the-art meat processing equipment, the most up-to-date smokehouses, and the highest-quality slicing and packaging machinery,” asserts Piller’s vice-president of corporate marketing Robert Huber, citing a sophisticated, company-wide computer network linking the warehouses of all the five plants at all times for maximum production efficiency, order fulfillment and customer service.

“At our warehouses, we utilize barcode scanning technology in the racking system for accurate, high-speed order-picking of the product, which is sent to the conveyors for immediate delivery to our shipping area,” he explains. “As a result, we have the capability to manufacture all of our products at any one of our facilities in a way that allows us to meet the demands of any customer, with any special request, at any time of the year.”

As one would expect from a company producing over 400 different SKUs (stock-keeping units) per year, product innovation is practically second nature to Piller’s, according to Robert Huber, Gerhart’s cousin, who estimates that the company launches at least 20 new products each year in a continuous quest to keep pace with the ever-changing consumer tastes.

“Although we are proud of where we came from, we’ve always kept our eyes on where we are going,” he states. “In the future, we will focus on new product development and existing product improvement to satisfy consumer preferences for nutrition and convenience.

 

Global View

“Our research-and-development team will continue to create innovative products, and we will continue to integrate the strengths of all of our operating divisions to ensure that all our resources will be optimized—thereby helping us execute our plans to expand into more markets globally.”

To bring these ambitious goals to life, Piller’s is continually investing in modern processing and packaging equipment, as evidenced by the purchase of three new packaging machines earlier this year—specifically the Repak RE 20, Repak RE 25 and a Repak RE 30—from the Burlington, Ont.-based Reiser Canada, Canadian subsidiary of leading food processing and packaging equipment manufacturer Reiser International.

“We’ve enjoyed a long working relationship with Reiser,” says Gerhart, noting that to date Piller’s has purchased 17 different Repak models over the years.

“Because we have owned numerous Reiser machines, we have been able to provide them with a lot of feedback on an ongoing basis—and they use that feedback in the construction of their next-generation Repak machines.”

Called a flexible compact packaging machine by Reiser, the RE 20 is a high-strength, high-performance machine—designed for packaging widths up to 460 mm, a cutoff length of 600 mm, and a maximum drawing depth of 120 mm—that can handle many intricate and challenging package shapes, according to Gerhart, as well as rigid film applications.

For its part, the RE 25 model provides the flexibility of allowing operators to change the web widths and cutoff lengths as required—working with film widths between 420 mm and 560 mm, a maximum cutoff length of 800 mm, and a drawing depth up to 160 mm.

“For us, what really stands out is its high-speed packaging performance, ability to handle rigid film applications, and its labeling superiority,” states Gerhart. “It’s a darn nice machine that works really hard for us.”

A multihead Markem-Imaje 9040 continuous inkjet coder applies best-before data and lot code information onto every package of meat product processed by Piller’s.

As for the high-end Repak RE 30 machine—featuring cutoff lengths of 800 mm, film width range from 305 mm to 650 mm, and a drawing depth of 190 mm—the high-performance system is perfectly at home in Piller’s production environment, with its three-shift, five-days-a-week schedule and a combined total of 31 production and packaging lines.

“Depending on the product line we are packaging, we will run our Repaks anywhere from 10 to 20 cycles per minute,” says Gerhart.

“All I can tell you is that we are very pleased with all of our Reiser Repaks—all 17 of the systems that we have purchased over the years.”

According to Reiser, all three new Repak machines utilize a kinetic closed system where the die-set is centrally balanced to generate an optimal distribution force—meaning faster processing times.

Moreover, the machines incorporate a robust rapid air-system to ensure better forming quality and corner reinforcement of the package—enabling the use of thinner films and achieving higher cycle rates.

“However, a key factor in our purchase of these three next-generation Repaks—aside from their longevity and flexibility—is the hygiene aspect,” Gerhart points out. “The surface has been angled to avoid pooling, so it’s easy to clean, plus it comes with a heavy-duty, stainless-steel construction.”

It was similar hygienic considerations that also prompted Piller’s to purchase three Cryovac Old Rivers vacuum-packing machines from Sealed Air, Cryovac Food Packaging Division, including a model 8600E automatic bag loader and two new, stainless-steel Cryovac Old Rivers 8600S rotary vacuum chamber systems, developed in full compliance with the AMI (American Meat Institute) and National Sanitation Federation guidelines requiring equipment to be cleanable to microbiological levels.

“The 8600S is really all about sanitation and hygiene; it has all the benefits and reliability we’ve come to expect from the 8600 series, but with even a more hygienic design,” relates Gerhart, citing critical sanitary features such as corrosion-resistant aluminum construction of the eight vacuum chambers; easily removable hoses for more effective sanitizing procedures; and strategically-located spacers between all metal contact points to prevent the build-up of moisture and bacteria.

 

Clean Act

Naturally, cleanliness is godliness at each of Piller’s five HACCP (Hazard Analysis Critical Control Points)-certified production plants, Gerhart asserts, adding the plants are currently at various stages of completing their respective SQF (Safe Quality Food) Level 2 certifications of the Safe Quality Food Institute this year, with Level 3 certifications to follow in 2011.

“We are very proud of the fact that one of our plants was one of the first processed meat facilities in Canada to get the SQF Level 2 certification,” Gerhart states. “We’re also taking a proactive approach in our ready-to-eat areas, where we are doing multi-level equipment teardowns based on our own multi-swab results, while also doing a lot of work with different cleansers and sanitizers.

“Whenever we look at purchasing new equipment, we always look at how we can reduce the handling of the product by our employees via more automated machinery designed to facilitate better cleaning.”

To ensure optimal quality assurance on its packaging lines, Piller’s makes extensive use of the IQ and the IQ2 metal detection equipment manufactured by Loma Systems.

“Quite frankly, we trust Loma’s reliability,” relates Gerhart. “When we first went to Loma looking for a great metal detection system, they were at the time the first that could be connected to a network using a program called Loma Net, which captures all the data from the metal detectors.”

A worker at Piller’s main Waterloo facility prepares product to be vacuum-packed on a Cryovac Old Rivers 8600S machine.

A control panel for a Weber slicer at the main Piller’s production plant in Waterloo.

In respect to product coding, the company employs a total of 34 model 9040 multihead CIJ (continuous inkjet) coders from Markem-Imaje, according to Gerhart.

“We really like the print quality and capability provided with the multiheads, enabling us to do either single- or double-line printing,” he notes, “and they are also very easy for our employees to operate.”

States Gerhart: “We love using the latest technologies in meat processing equipment to help us provide a safe product for our customers.

“Along with recipes that are truly distinctive and tasty—we’ve won 44 international awards over the years—we are always looking to the future to see how we can improve the experience for our customers,” he concludes. “With our superior quality products and our technically-advanced processing and packaging equipment, Piller’s will continue to grow and thrive well into the future.”

Photography by Cole Garside