Ontario meat processor strives to maintain harmonious balance between authentic tradition and modern technology.
December 17, 2012
by Andrew Joseph, Features Editor; Cole Garside, Photographer
Having established itself as a successful processor of smoked meats in southwestern Ontario long ago, Sikorski Sausages Co. Ltd. has also long been aware of the constant need to keep improving its daily business in order to remain a key player in the fiercely competitive meat processing industry and a hotly-contested regional market.
And over the years, the London, Ont.-based family business has come a long way from being exclusively a niche smoked-meats processor specializing in pork to diversify into various turkey, chicken, beef and veal products to keep up with the constant shifts in consumers tastes in timely fashion.
But while this naturally involved many changes to the way the 29-year-old company manufactured its products with continuous investment in the latest-generation processing and packaging technologies—it remained faithfully committed to maintaining the same traditional, authentic Old World cooking recipes that have made it such a well-respected brand name in the first place.
In fact, it didn’t take the company all that long to quickly find its business niche by supplying its flavorful and smoky deli meats and sausages to the well-established Polish and other central and eastern European communities in the region, faithfully replicating many beloved old-school recipes of long and short sausages, wieners, deli meats, cold-cuts, patés and head cheeses, along with a healthy range of muscled hams, loins, roasts and bacon.
The warm marketplace response to its products so soon after startup prompted it to form a sister retail company under the Starsky Foods banner—today operating three strategic retail locations in the nearby densely-populated Ontario cities of Hamilton, Mississauga and Oakville.
Along with shipping its meats to Starsky Foods and about 400 smaller mom-and-pop retailers catering to the European ethnic communities, Sikorski Sausages today also supplies the deli counters of large grocery retail chains like Loblaws, Fortinos, Zehrs, Longo’s, Highland Farms, Commisso’s Fresh Foods and Sobeys—capping off three years of rapid growth that has its chief executive officer Peter Sikorski highly upbeat about the company’s growth potential.
“Although the Sikorski family was comfortable with the success and growth of the company, I looked at it and thought that if we don’t modernize our facility and food safety procedures, the company would lose its competitive edge in a year or two,” recalls Peter, the eldest son of company founder Marek Sikorski who joined the family business five years ago after completing his business degree at the University of Toronto.
“I really wanted to apply my energy and the business acumen I had acquired in school to take my family business up to the next level,” Sikorski told Canadian Packaging on a recent visit to the company’s modern, ultra-clean London facility.
After receiving due guidance and advice from his father, Sikorski launched a five-year plan that would not only ensure the company’s survival, he explains, but help propel it to the very forefront of European-style meat processing in Ontario—a plan that involved taking the small, family-owned business into a new state-of-the-art facility where food safety would be of the utmost importance.
When the company doors had first opened in 1983, it was a mere 1,500-square-foot shop located in one of four units of a multi-use business complex, but between 1985 and 1995 it acquired and equipped the three remaining units to expand production.
In 1995, Sikorski Sausages coordinated a major expansion and retrofit of the 10,000-square-foot plant to facilitate higher food safety standards and production levels, enabling it to finally become a player of note in the Ontario meat-processing world.
By 2008, Sikorski says that although the brand had developed great customer loyalty by effectively differentiating itself from the competition, he felt that future product demand was still being constrained by limited and aging production space, along with increasing sanitation and food safety regulations.
“The goal was to retrofit the existing facility and to build a 15,000-square-foot addition that would update Sikorski Sausages with the latest in food safety systems, while also creating a space that would allow us to triple our production capacity,” states Sikorski.
Sikorski recalls he spent a year designing the new facility with the help of plant managers, to ensure that rooms were built to meet their specific purpose, a modular design that would allow for future expansion at the lowest possible future costs.
Along with Krzysztof Doniec, the company’s chief mechanic, Sikorski opted to manage the construction personally, rather than hire a general contractor.
Breaking ground in 2009, the project was completed by the end of 2011, with the company continuing its day-to-day business while the expansion went on around it.
“Although the old 10,000-square-foot facility was nothing to sneeze at, nowadays we process some 140 SKUs (stock-keeping units) of smoked meats in a state-of-the-art, 25,000-square-foot plant with 48 dedicated employees,” relates Sikorski, recalling the comprehensive $4.5-million modernization project.
Sikorski says that upon completion of the upgrade, the company was only running four days of production a week.
“But that didn’t last too long,” he notes. “To facilitate growth, we knew we would need a larger sales force, new marketing strategies, and a plan to introduce our products to whole new market segments.”
Along with capacity expansion, Sikorski Sausages also had to make the necessary capital investments in top-of-the-line packaging equipment in order to protect its products from contamination after they leave the processing facility.
One of those investments was a brand new Multivac R535 thermoformer capable of performing both MAP (modified-atmosphere packaging) and vacuum-packing for bulkier products as bacon, hams and sausages.
Along with being a high-speed, high-output machine, Sikorski is keen to point out that the R535 helps ensure a consistent hygiene cycle as this packaging solution exceeds international safety requirements.
“And it also provides us with a very smooth packaging process,” mentions Sikorski, “with greater efficiency that helps us save time and resources.”
According to Multivac, the R535 is designed for easy comprehensive cleaning—both inside and out—with modifications to the film transport chain guide, chain design, lifting mechanisms, motors, valves and mechanical elements, and an easy-to-open frame profile for cleaning and maintenance.
Sikorski says he really appreciates the R535 system’s smooth slanted surfaces—without a single edge or corner—so drainage after cleaning ensures that no residual dirt remains on the surface of the machine. “We also like the fact that we can quickly and easily change tooling on the R535, thanks to its side extraction mechanism,” admits Sikorski. “It has a simple drawer action that we can use without having to take apart the hot tool surface.”
Sikorski says the plant’s R535 uses a large 660-millimeter die that helps form deep drawn packages to seal in the freshness of bulk meats.
Aside from the obvious benefit that MAP process provides to meat processors, Sikorski says that ultimately he chose to use the system to better protect the product during the rigors of the shipping process.
“At this point, shelf-life becomes a non-issue for us,” he explains. “Part of our philosophy is that we treat our product like fresh bread.
“We deliver fresh product to each of our 400-plus stores at least once per week and impress on the deli manager to order only as much product as they feel they will sell before the next shipment,” he explains.
In essence, Sikorski says he prefers to think of the R535 machine “like a dust cover: to protect it from airborne pathogens and to get it safely from our facility to the customer’s meat counter.”
For MAP sealing, Sikorski Sausages utilizes a gas mix of 25-per-cent carbon-dioxide and 75-per-cent nitrogen supplied by Air Liquide, a leading global manufacturer in the supply of industrial gases.
Sikorski recalls: “I had been familiar with Multivac and their wide range of products for quite some time before we purchased one. For me, I really like the fact that Multivac was known for their superior level of construction and quality.
“No processor wants downtime, and with Multivac, we knew the robustness of the R535 was exactly what we required as our company continues to grow,” he states.
Along with a Beckhoff 12-inch touchscreen HMI (human-machine interface) ELO Accutouch terminal, the machine utilizes the high-performance Busch R5 pumps and Norgren pneumatics, while its control panel incorporates Siemens Sitop power supplies, ABB circuit-breakers, and a SEW-Eurodrive Movitrac frequency inverter.
On another production line, after manually loading a temperature sensitive film vacuum bag with a meat portion, workers place the packs into a VC999 07P vacuum-packing machine, which seals the meat within the bags by applying pressure and heat.
The sealed bags are then placed onto a conveyor and moved into a VC999 85.47i shrink-tank, which uses hot water to further shrink the bag film around the meat product to produce a perfect-looking final package.
After the packaging is done, Sikorski Sausages stores the product within collapsible, reusable polypropylene plastic ShuttleBin 330 folding containers manufactured by Macro Plastics Inc.
The product is then picked and hand-packed into corrugated cartons supplied by Rock-Tenn, which are then weighed and have an adhesive label printed by an Ishida pre-pack scale printer.
With the company currently in the process of achieving federal certification, Sikorski says he is pleased with his new facility and its new high levels of hygiene and food safety.
“I am very proud to have a state-of-the-art facility where our food safety is paramount,” extols Sikorski.
“We placed all conduits away from the walls to make them easier to clean behind; we created curved edges along all wall corners; the floors are at a two-percent slope to accommodate better drainage, and are coated with a polyurethane epoxy finish for better cleanability; and we utilize a rack-type refrigeration system that sends me an email if the temperature of any room deviates from set thresholds.”
States Sikorski: “The upgraded facility, the fantastic new thermoformer, and all of the safety protocols we have initiated have all helped Sikorski Sausages grow these past three years, but more importantly, they have also helped us prepare for the future as well.”