Meat and Tidy
By Andrew Snook
Innovative East Coast meat processor carving itself a bigger slice of the market through continuous investment in advanced packaging and processing equipment
The donair has been a staple for Atlantic Canadians for 50 years. The origin of the popular fast-food option found in pizzerias throughout Canada’s East Coast is a tale of two brothers travelling across the sea to build a better life for themselves.
Shortly after immigrating to Canada from their homeland of Greece in the early 1970s, brothers Peter and John Kamoulakos decided to get into the restaurant business.
Peter opened up a pizza shop in Bedford, N.S. where he sold traditional gyros. Finding it wasn’t a big hit with the local population, Peter created a new recipe based on the traditional lamb gyro using 100-percent beef and different spices, as well as a sweet sauce, to suit the palates of the local population. This is how the donair was born.
Peter and John enjoyed great success with their new product and decided to move into the retail market creating and marketing The Original Mr. Donair brand that they sold across Nova Scotia.
Sadly, Peter passed away in the 1990s, and Tony’s Meats Ltd. was contracted to produce The Original Mr. Donair products.
In 2005, John sold The Original Mr. Donair recipe and brand to Tony’s Meats, which continues to produce the popular brand of products at its production facility in Antigonish, N.S.
Started up in 1963, Tony’s Meats has also had its share of ownership changes.
The original owner, Tony Van Gestel, sold to his daughter Jenny and her husband Tony Overmars in the 1970s and they maintained ownership until their retirement in 2007, when they sold the company to a group of farmers that wanted to keep providing local employment and opportunities to fellow Nova Scotians.
The farmers owned the company until selling it to the Tony’s Meats’ senior management team in 2015. That team is comprised of general manager Dan MacGillivray (25 years with the company); international business development manager Aaron Tingley (21 years with the company); and operations manager Lenita Hanson (nine years).
“We went into it with our eyes wide open: those were exciting times to transition the business,” Hanson says, adding that the farmers’ main motivation to buy the company from the Overmars family was to have a place for processing the animals they raised.
“None of them were involved in the day-to-day business and didn’t have a background in federally regulated food manufacturing,” she explains.
“So with our combined knowledge, experience and passion for working in the meat processing business we felt the better opportunity for the business to grow was with the three of us at the helm, and I feel like we have grown.”
Since taking over the company, the new ownership has invested heavily in optimizing the production and packaging operations at the Antigonish facility.
Tony’s Meats has grown its product offerings and volumes significantly in that time.
The federally inspected, halal-certified production facility processes fresh and processed pork and beef products under SQF Level 2 certification and HACCP accreditation—producing more than 50 different products shipped across Canada.
In a typical year, about 60 per cent of the production is sold to the food-service industry, with the remaining 40 per cent sold into retail outlets.
“Peak production would be in the summertime–barbecue season, higher tourism—so restaurants are busy [normally], and holidays like Christmas and Easter,” Hanson notes.
“It’s a little slower in first couple of months while people are hibernating, but it’s generally pretty steady through the year,” Hanson says.
As Hanson relates, the 38,000-square-foot facility in Antigonish employs 64 people and operates year-round—producing beef and pork products under the Mr. Donair and Tony’s Meats brands.
“The Tony’s Meats brand was developed first in the ’80s—bacon, breakfast sausage, hams, kolbasa … those are primarily found in Atlantic Canada,” Hanson says.
“The Mr. Donair brand was really expanded in 2015. Aaron and his team have worked hard at expanding that, and its national distribution started soon after in 2016.
“It just keeps growing,” Hanson extols.
“We’re experiencing double-digit growth.”
The opportunity to acquire the company came at the perfect time, as Tony’s Meats had been forced to close the abattoir portion of its operations a couple of years earlier.
“In 2013, when we were forced to close the abattoir portion of our business, we were on the hook to lose 40 per cent of our revenue, so to gain that back we really focused on product development,” explains Tingley.
“We pretty much gained all that revenue back through the Mr. Donair brand and our co-packing business.”
“Co-packing has been an area of focus for us,” Hanson states.
“It goes hand-in-hand with our halal segment, where we have a lot of business.
“We have a unique ability to service that market.”
The co-packing portion of the company’s business was made possible when it invested in a brand-new Reiser Variovac Optimus thermoform packaging machine that was installed in the spring of 2019.
Upon purchasing the thermoformer, company management was enabled to accommodate all the sizes of packaging that their co-packing customers were looking for—particularly their halal customers, which was of great importance for expanding this part of their business.
“We were running into scheduling issues and capacity issues, but now we’ve doubled our capacity and separated the machines into two rooms: halal and nonhalal.
“Since adding the new machine, we’ve added at least 10 SKUs (stock-keeping units) on the halal side,” Hanson says.
The new Variovac Optimus thermoformer also offers Tony’s Meats the capability to run pre-printed films.
“That’s definitely an important option for some of our customers,” Hanson points out.
“Being able to provide these different solutions has allowed them to go out and find more customers and produce more products and grow the business,” adds Randy Belcot, vice-president of sales in Canada for Reiser.
The Variovac Optimus system provides high-quality sealing, vacuum, MAP (modified atmosphere packaging), skin, steam and shrink packaging capabilities with an output of up to 13 cycles per minute, using semi-rigid films up to 500 μ that are formed into perfect trays with the machine’s proprietary Variovac Rapid Air System.
Some of the notable features include a frame length from 2.5 to 5.5 meters; a film width of 320-mm to 460-mm; advance length of 150-mm to 400-mm; and a packaging depth of up to 110-mm.
Also featuring an integrated circulatory cooling unit without consumption of water, the Variovac Optimus has been designed according to the highest hygienic standards, according to Reiser, and comes with easily removable hinged side panels and angled surfaces to facilitate fluid runoff.
The fully-automatic thermoformer comes with an intuitive operating system on a seven-inch touchscreen display with the ability to program and save up to 40 individualized machine recipes, while also offering multiple language options to make the system universally accessible for non-English speakers.
The team at Tony’s Meats was already very familiar with the equipment, having had already employed another Variovac unit in its packaging department, which was purchased in 2007.
“We now have a twin to it,” Hanson says. “The 2007 machine has the same web width, the same advance.
“It’s basically the same machine, but the 2019 model has more capabilities, like on-machine date coding, gas flush capabilities, a different knife system, and requires less ongoing maintenance costs.”
Hanson says having the 2007 and 2019 Variovac models allows the staff to carry a lot of key common spare parts on the maintenance side, as well as the same films—helping the company manage its inventory more efficiently.
“That was a big motivation for us to purchase the new machine,” Hanson says, adding that having already enjoyed a really positive experience with the 2007 model was a major factor in the new investment.
“We’re getting a lot of good life out of it,” she states. “There’s not a lot of downtime from machine issues, so there’s reliability there.
“And of course, the price point comes into everything,” Hanson adds. “There was very good value in the machine.”
Tony’s Meats packaging department isn’t the only part of the plant to benefit from Reiser’s technologies.
The company also worked with Reiser to optimize its processing capabilities—investing in a Fomaco FGM26 M2 injector in 2015 for its processed products to replace their previous unit they had for more than 20 years.
Hanson says her company looked at other pieces of equipment, but decided to go with Reiser because of the service and value the company provides.
“It’s a common theme with a lot of the purchases that we’ve made with Randy and his team,” Hanson says. “They’ve been great to work with, very responsive.
“They work quickly to make sure we’re back up and running,” she relates, “and they have a strong inventory of parts.
“We really haven’t found ourselves in a pickle with any of the pieces of equipment,” Hanson notes, “and I think that’s really important.
“We have an appreciation for the service and wide variety of equipment that Reiser provides.”
The Fomaco FGM M2 injector is used to inject brine into meat muscle to provide enhanced flavor and moisture enhancement, as well as improved yield.
According to Reiser, the machine is designed to enable customers to handle all meat cuts, both bone-in and boneless, and at the same time meet the demand for low and high injection levels.
The unit offers a proprietary needle bridge system to perform 20 to 90 strokes per minute with 26 needles—single, double or quadro—whereby the M2 needle bridge valves are activated individually.
By injecting the brine only when the needles are embedded in the product, the system considerably reduces the quantity of return brine or marinade.
The system’s high-performance centrifugal pump maintains a constant brine pressure—regardless of the number of needles in the product— ensuring uniform distribution of brine for all product sizes.
The unit also has sectionally-divided stripper feet following the contours of the product, which also contribute to accurate injection as these will prevent the product from moving when the needles are retracted.
This provides a uniform needle pattern and prevents the product from being injected twice—or from not being injected at all.
Additional features include a self-cleaning F-80 cartridge-type filter, an easy-to-clean hygienic design, automatic monitoring of brine temperature, and an intuitive settings of pump pressure and production speed.
“We’ve been able to support them not just with equipment, but with our meat specialist to be on-site for installation and support,” says Reiser’s Belcot.
“Our meat specialist is a scientifically trained process technologist we employ to help them through the process,” says Belcot, “and we also assist them via the phone or Zoom to help them with any issues with new products.”
According to Belcot, Reiser’s continued support and reliable technologies had also enticed Tony’s Meats to invest in a Holac Cubixx 100L dicer in 2017 for processing of various diced and shredded products.
“The Cubixx design allows for precision cutting and throughput: it’s a great design,” Belcot says.
The Holac Cubixx 100L features a fully sealed product loading chamber with open drainages; a loading chamber closure with press block; hardened shear edges and product stabilizers; a touchscreen interface; and a compact design on two wheels.
The hardworking machine offers a maximum output of 1,600 kilograms per hour; feed motion of one to 35 mm; cutting grid sizes of 4 x 4 mm to 50 x 50 mm; and loading dimensions of 100 x 100 x 400 mm.
“It really made a huge impact immediately,” says Hanson, explaining the machine is primarily used for making pizza toppings.
“There are three formulations of salami, donair and ham that go through that machine, in fairly significant volumes.
“We were 1,000 to 1,500 kilograms per month with some of the products,” Hanson says, “but now, with the donair, we’re up to 1,500 kilograms per week.”
Prior to having the dicer, the products were being cut manually by hand.
“It was hard on employees physically,” Hanson recalls, “so there were many advantages to putting in that piece of equipment—from efficiency and volumes to health and safety.
“It has certainly allowed us to grow,” Hanson states. “In the last four years, it has paid for itself several times over.”
By offering support that goes above and beyond, Reiser has built a strong relationship with the team at Tony’s Meats over the years, according to Belcot.
“It’s been a partnership back and forth,” he states.
“With our support network of technicians and meat specialists, we were able to develop a strong relationship and partnership with them—building strong ties with Dan, Aaron and Lenita by helping them build their business.”
According to Tingley, Tony’s Meats needs to continue investing in new processing and packaging technologies to ensure the company remains competitive now and in the future.
“You’re competing with smaller regional operations,” Tingley says, “and you’re also competing with large multinational corporations.
“Most of our products are not unique, so there’s a lot of competition.
“To stand out on top you’ve got to have quality and competitive pricing,” Tingley says.
“That’s where our donair line has been successful—it’s a niche product,” Hanson adds. “There are few meat processors that are making that product.
There’s more coming in all the time, but we do have that history of being the original, which helps us promote our product.”
Production for the company’s key staple, sliced donair loaf products, begins when the incoming raw meats are mixed with a variety of spices to match the company’s secret recipe.
The products are then extruded into pans and placed on rolling carts that are moved into the company’s pass through style oven/smokehouse for cooking.
After cooking, the product is rapidly cooled to ensure the highest level of food safety and quality is maintained.
The product is then moved into the company’s ready-to-eat packaging room, where it is sliced to the desired thickness, scaled to the exact desired package weight, and then placed into the plastic pockets of film formed by the Variovac Optimus thermoformer.
As the pockets advance, the machine’s vacuum removes all atmospheric oxygen and then hermetically seals a layer of film to the form pocket—creating a high-barrier, extended shelf-life product.
After a best-before date is applied by a stamping system incorporated into the Variovac Optimus machine, the packages travels from the machine through a metal detection station, after which the finished labels are applied, the packages are placed in master cases, and finally placed onto pallets for storage and shipping.
“All of our products are traceable to our recipes and ingredients,” points out MacGillivray. “They track exactly what the lots are that go into a recipe down to the store level.”
“That’s key,” Hanson asserts. “Whether you’re shipping for local or national distribution, it is required not only for protection for consumers, but for protection of us as a business.
“It’s critical we have that control.”
Like almost all companies out there, Tony’s Meats needed to pivot and adapt to the changing environment that the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic created.
“From a sales aspect, we’ve obviously lost or slowed when the food service [clientele] has moved to take-out only, but we have seen an increase in retail which has offset those losses,” Tingley says.
“We’ve remained on par as far as revenue goes. When things open up, we’re probably looking at a bump in sales.”
Hanson says things were toughest at the start of the pandemic from an operational perspective.
“It was extremely challenging, there was no rule book. We were just trying to sort out things day by day,” she says.
While some meat processing plants had to shut down due to COVID-19 outbreaks sweeping through their facilities, Tony’s Meats has been able to avoid shutdowns to date.
“We’re very fortunate that we haven’t had COVID-19 in our facility,” Hanson reflects. “That’s allowed all of our employees to work all of their scheduled shifts, and we haven’t had to lay anyone off.
“We had some employees that had to step back to care for some older family members and had some folks with health issues working from home, but we figured out a way to make that work.”