Canadian Packaging

Good to the Bone

George Guidoni   



Cutting-edge X-Ray product-inspection technology helping shawarma-restaurant pioneer ensure optimal product quality and safety coast-to-coast

Being an ethnically diverse, multicultural and open-minded country like Canada comes with many benefits when it comes to food choices, with a plethora of restaurants and eateries across the country offering a wide range of globally-inspired foods to please virtually every taste and craving.

But even so, it would be hard to find a better example of an ethnic dish capturing the Canadian mainstream consumers’ loyalty and affection more skillfully and with bigger aplomb than what Osmow’s Shawarma has done with the wildly successful introduction of a Middle Eastern cuisine staple into the country’s quick-service restaurant business landscape.

Founded in 2001 by Egyptian-born entrepreneur Sam Osmow, the fast-growing restaurant chain today encompasses 134 franchise locations across Canada, in addition to a brand new restaurant recently opening up its doors in Miami, Fla., to reveal the company’s long-term ambitions of becoming a global success one day.

Based on the family-owned company’s stellar track record in Canada to date, there are many good reasons to think that this goal is well within reach, at the very least.

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Like many Canadian newcomers, Sam Osmow had his fair share of challenges to overcome in his pursuit of a better life for himself and his family after arriving here in 1998.

After working a variety of odd jobs for several years to make ends meet—from pumping gas to retail sales—Osmow finally scraped up enough savings to buy a submarine sandwich shop in Mississauga, Ont., in 1999, but the investment fell far short of his expectations.

“After two years of underwhelming sales and a second mortgage on the house, I wasn’t seeing the success I had hoped for,” Osmow admits.

However, after one of his customers tried Osmow’s home-made Shawarma and suggested he add it to his menu, Osmow had an epiphany—a sudden realization that Canadians would love shawarma if it was readily available to them.

As it turns out, his initial hunch soon became a self-fulfilling prophecy.

After remodeling and renovating former Polar Sub shop with the help of his young family, he reopened the outlet under the Osmow’s Shawarma banner and worked tirelessly to encourage the local community to give this eastern Mediterranean dish a try, including handing out free samples at various local festivals and other social gatherings.

Before long, people were lining up for up to two hours at his shop to get their hands on this delicious, flavorful and nutritious dish—originating in the 19th Century Ottoman Empire—consisting of seasoned meat cut into thin slices, stacked in a cone-like shape, and roasted over a slowly-turning vertical rotisserie.

Typically made with lamb, chicken or beef, the meat is thinly cut from the outside with a big carving knife as it rotates around the rotisserie, falling down in little juicy meat chunks that are then mixed with shredded vegetables and/or pickles and served on pita flatbread as sandwich wraps.

A wildly popular street food in Osmow’s native Egypt and many other parts of the Middle East, the flavourful dish quickly became a hit across Canada, nowadays matching the mainstream appeal of similarly-cooked meat dishes like doner and gyros.

According to Sam’s daughter and Osmow’s president and chief marketing officer Bernadette Osmow, the company chose to modify the authentic shawarma recipe to make it more appealing and accessible to Western tastes, albeit not to the extent that the Chinese food dishes served in North America vastly differ from their authentic Chinese counterparts.

“We advertise ourselves as ‘Modern Mediterranean’ cuisine,” Bernadette Osmow told Canadian Packaging on a recent visit to the company’s Mississauga headquarters and the nearby central meat processing facility handling vast quantities of chicken, lamb and beef that are trimmed, seasoned, marinated and packed into large five-kilogram chubs that are swiftly shipped directly to the company’s restaurant locations.

“We have essentially westernized our product in order for the North American markets to enjoy this delicious food,” she says.

“Customers can still have more authentic shawarma by customizing their order with parsley, onion, tomatoes and turnips,” she says, “but we also have added the options like lettuce, peppers and what not… the stuff we would not serve back home in Egypt.

“So it’s westernized to an extent,” she says, “but we also like to offer options to make it just the way the customers want it.

“Our menu is fairly varied,” Osmow says, citing several different wraps offered daily, along with various salad combinations, side dishes like rice (rocks) and French fries (sticks), and vegetarian falafel-based options.

“We actually removed a lot of items off our menu recently because it was just too busy before,” she relates.

“We wanted to make sure that we concentrated on things that we did extremely well, and on the food items that our customers love to eat, like the shawarma wraps and our signature ‘Chicken on the Rocks,’ which is chicken shawarma served on top of rice, topped off with our famous garlic sauce.”

Located a short walk from the head office location, the company’s busy 40,000-square-foot meat processing plant goes through over 100,000 kilograms of chicken and 20,000 kilograms of lamb and/or beef per week, according to Bernadette, with its full-time staff of 40 people working on a two-shift schedule Monday to Friday.

All the meat processed at the facility is halal-certified, she points out, and the company only uses dark meat to make its chicken shawarma dishes—providing a deeper, more complex and nuanced taste profile and texture that white breast meat simply can’t match in terms of tenderness and juiciness.

“It is very flavorful and is something your mom would cook at home fresh from scratch,” says Osmow, adding that all head office employees are also trained to actually cook the meat processed at their facility on rotisseries installed at the restaurant locations on-site in order to understand and appreciate the entire product flow—from plant floor to the customers’ plates or takeout orders.

“Carving the meat just right so that it comes off in perfect Julienne-style strips is something of an art form,” says Osmow.

“There is a special technique and skill involved in both stacking the meat on the rotisserie in proper-sized layers,” she says, “and also in cutting the outer cooked layers of the stack at the right angles and in the right quantities.”

For all that, Osmow acknowledges that all the training in the world is not sufficient to address the biggest obstacle encountered in high-volume chicken processing, which is complete bone detection and removal prior to packaging.

After the whole chicken legs arrive onto the plant floor in bulk boxes, they are put through an automatic skinner machine that removes the chicken skin from around the leg.

The skinned legs then are then placed onto the hooks of giant Foodmate automatic deboning machine that removes all the main bones from the legs at astonishing speeds of up to 6,000 legs per hour.

Once fully skinned and deboned, the legs are transferred to the manual trimming stations, where sharp-eyed operators trim off any leftover excess fat and visible bone fragments still embedded in the flesh, using their sharp knives to make longitudinal cuts through the length of the deboned leg in order to flatten them.

While this process is effective for removing the main pieces of bone in the flesh, it is far from foolproof in terms of identifying and removing all the tiny little bone fragments generated during the earlier deboning process.

It is in fact these tiny fragments, virtually invisible to the naked eye, that are responsible for the vast majority of customer complaints related to the quality of the final product, which Osmow’s naturally take very seriously.

To ensure their removal prior to the production stages, the plant recently installed an advanced turnkey X-Ray poultry inspection solution supplied by Bolton, Ont.-based packaging line system integrators PLAN Automation, the exclusive Canadian agent for the full range or production inspection technologies manufactured by the Tampa Bay, Fla.-based Eagle Product Inspection (EPI).

Incorporating Eagle’s state-of-the-art RMI 400 X-Ray inspection system and leading-edge PXT (Performance X-Ray Technology) dual-energy technology for enhanced contamination and bone detection, the new system has vastly improved the final product quality of the chicken legs processed at the plant.

Capable of detecting tiny, calcified bone fragments down to one-millimetre in size, the RMI 400 automatically sends an alert to the reject unit each time it detects a bone or other contaminants—activating the reject conveyor to send the piece back to the operators’ trimming light-tables for further rework.

The system’s HMI (human-machine interface) pinpoints the exact location of the contaminant right on the screen to let operators know what they may be looking for, after which the reworked product is put back on the return chute that feeds the main line.

All the trim and other waste is discarded into a dedicated container at the workstation, while the clean product continues its journey on the takeaway conveyor for further processing.

With 99 per cent detection accuracy, PLAN Automation’s poultry inspection solution can run at up to 175 pieces per minute in single-lane configuration—and over 400 pieces in quad-lane configuration—providing the plant with powerful quality assurance capabilities to ensure optimal food safety and protect the brand’s reputation.

“It’s only been here for a month,” Bernadette Osmow notes, “and we have not had any customer complaints about bones since installing it, which is quite phenomenal.

“We are now able to detect bones down to one-millimetre in size,” says Osmow, adding the new system has also enabled the plant to reassign one of the trimming station operators to other duties at the plant.

“For us, the most important benefit of having this system at our plant is that none of our customers will ever have to worry about finding bones in their meal,” says Osmow, while lauding the X-Ray system’s user friendliness.

“It’s extremely easy to operate,” she states. “You just press a button to start, and it will then reject all the pieces of meat that have bone in them, pulling those products down and putting them on the rework light-table.

“An employee will then grab those pieces off the table, place them back on the light-table, remove the bone, check for any additional fragments that may still be there, and put it back on the conveyor to go through the X-Ray again, after which it will go into a tumbler for marinating.”

For Mat Bédard, PLAN Automation’s vice-president and chief operating officer, the successful Osmow’s plant installation offers resounding validation of Eagle’s PXT technology as a superior solution for calcified chicken bone and other low-density contaminant detection out in the marketplace.

“The PXT was especially designed for the poultry industry with the ultimate goal of providing the highest level of poultry-bone detection,” Bédard relates.

“It has become the new benchmark that provides the best possible inspection capabilities currently available on the market,” he states.

“It provides the ability to detect bone fragments down to one millimetre, metal shavings down to 0.2 millimetre, and some rubbers and plastics down to one millimetre in size,” he points out.

“In addition, PXT provides the lowest ‘False Reject rate,’” Bédard notes, “and delivers the highest inspection throughput, with processing speed of up to 175 feet per minute.”

To give credit where it’s due, Bédard extends his gratitude to Burlington, Ont.-based ProMech Enterprises for supplying all the infeed/outfeed conveyors, reject mechanisms, light-tables and other essential peripheral equipment to help turn the stand-alone RMI 400 X-Ray detector into a complete turnkey system solution with automated product recirculation capabilities.

“Detecting and rejecting small bones is only half the battle,” Bédard states. “In order for Osmow’s to run an efficient production line, we also had to design a complete solution around the X-Ray to manage the rejected product.

“For this project, we worked in close collaboration with ProMech to create a state-of-the art product recirculation and a secondary inspection station.

“This efficient feedback loop assures the highest level of food safety that also delivers maximum production efficiencies,” Bédard states, “while providing increased production yields.

“Although the PXT technology was originally designed to tackle poultry bone detection,” he says, “it also provides remarkable detection capabilities of products in all industries such as meat, dairy, food, beverage, baked goods, and many more.

“Regardless of the product or application,” he concludes, “PXT will provide unparalleled detection of very fine metals, including aluminum, bone, glass, stone, plastics and rubber.”

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