The Hungarian Rhapsody
By Andrew Joseph, Features Editor; John Packman, PhotographerGeneral Bagging/Weighing
Old World recipes and modern-day packaging technologies deliver a tasteful winning recipe for meat market masterclass
Long beloved by classical music aficionados as a timeless inspiration for Johan Sebastian Strauss’ beautiful Blue Danube waltz, the great Danube River that runs through much of central and eastern Europe has helped move many creative hearts and minds on to greater heights through the ages, including a certain Toronto delicatessen shop whose customers just can’t stop singing the praises of its flavorful Hungarian and other eastern European-based meat creations.
Although officially operating under its current Blue Danube Sausage House corporate banner since 1994, the family-owned deli business proudly traces its roots 50 years back to 1963, when Miklos Balega opened up his first shop at the Elizabeth’s Meat Market in Toronto to smoke and cure high-quality cuts of meat according to the traditional eastern European recipes and techniques he picked up from his father, who was a professional butcher back in his native Hungary.
After having taught everything he knew about the business to his three children—Gizella Vidolovics, George and Nick—in 1994 George and Nick proceeded to open up the Blue Danube Sausage House in the west-end Toronto suburb of Etobicoke, where a busy and lively storefront served as a fitting retail-area facade for the company’s manufacturing operation in the back of the building—turning out a variety of tasty and flavorful, European-styled fresh prepared foods ranging from sausages and deli cold-cuts to fresh-baked pastries and a plethora of imported dried-food products.
“Our father’s loyal customers quickly followed us to our new home because they knew that the name of Balega meant quality,” company president Nick Balega told the Canadian Packaging magazine during a recent interview.
With products literally flying off the shelves, in 2010 the company moved its manufacturing operation further west to a 10,000-square-foot plant in Mississauga, Ont., followed a year later with a startup of a permanent sales kiosk in Kitchener, Ont., right in the heart of Ontario’s ‘meat country.’
While the business originally started out by working exclusively with pork meat, Balega says it has successfully diversified over the years so that pork currently accounts for 70 per cent of its output, with beef, chicken and turkey making up the remainder.
Room to Grow
“Compared to our previous location, our Mississauga plant now has two packaging lines housed in a much larger packaging room, and we also added new and larger capacity hot and cold smokehouses,” says Balega.
Employing 15 full- and part-time people, the Mississauga operation makes optimal use of family recipes handed down from generations past to serve up over 30 varieties of fresh and smoked sausages, salami cold cuts, headcheese, liverwurst, bologna, ham, smoked and roasted bacon products, bacon chips, wieners, Hungarian hurka and debreceni sausages, and many more delicious varieties that its loyal customer base can’t seem to get enough of, Balega relates.
According to Balega, the company’s top five bestselling product lines include the dry-cured and smoked Hungarian Csabai sausage; smoked pork products; cold cuts like summer salami, kolbasa and wieners; dry salamis packaged under its new Blue Heritage brand label; and roasted products like bacon bits, which alone account for about 2,000 kilograms of weekly production output.
Citing plans to add another storefront location at its Mississauga operation in the near future, Balega estimates that his company’s stores sell about 25 per cent of its total manufacturing output.
“We also prepare meats for various other shops throughout the GTA (Greater Toronto area) and parts of southern Ontario—about 60 outlets in total,” says Balega, confiding he would like to expand its sales into the U.S. starting with the Cleveland area, which boasts a sizeable ethnic Hungarian community.
While the term ‘Old World traditions’ is often-used in meat industry circles, Balega contends that most of the time it only applies to the original recipe itself, whereas Blue Danube treats it more as a badge of honor and a running commentary on how the company prepares its meats: no added nitrates, fillers, or artificial colors; all gluten-free formulations; and using only a natural hardwood blend for smoking the meats.
And while the Mississauga plant’s new smokehouses, coolers and production line equipment have played a major role in helping the company grow its production capabilities, Blue Danube is committed to the notion that this growth will never compromise the top-quality taste profile of its products.
“We also specialize in making custom orders using the customers’ own recipes, as well as providing co-packing options so that any customer order can be made, packaged and readied for sale,” adds Balega.
“In fact, our new industrial-capacity co-packing equipment can handle the largest packaging requests, ensuring that their finished product will look professional and appealing to their shoppers.”
Balega says moving into the new Mississauga production plant provided a good launchpad for growing the company’s share of the its wholesale market, in addition to enhancing its custom-order and co-packing capabilities.
“Right now we process about 5,000 kilograms of fresh meat a week just for the Blue Danube products,” states Balega, “but we will also co-pack 2,000 kilograms of a customer’s beef, chicken, pork and turkey meats over an average week.
“They deliver their meat, and we process and co-pack it for them.”
According to Balega, the manufacturing and packaging line has been designed with a flow-forward approach in mind, whereby everything moves from the front to the rear of the plant without deviation—avoiding all the common contamination risks.
One of the plant’s two production lines employs a Sipromac model 620A double-chamber vacuum machine for sealing the product in bags, while the second line deploys a compact, model R126 thermoformer designed and built by renowned German-based packaging machinery manufacturer Multivac, which Balega hails as the “star performer” of the Mississauga plant.
Balega relates that he first became aware of the virtues of the R126 thermoform packaging system through an article published in Canadian Packaging, which he later recalled while visiting a meat-processing plant in Brampton, Ont., where he spotted an older-generation Multivac thermoformer.
After commenting that he was thinking about purchasing a Multivac system himself, Balega was quickly reassured that Multivac was “the way to go” by his hosts, he says.
“They called it the Cadillac of the industry,” recalls Balega, “and like the automobile itself, their Multivac machine was solid, classy and reliable.”
Although there are many features of the R126 that Balega liked, such as its small footprint, he says he was especially pleased with the machine’s hygienic design that makes it remarkably easy to clean.
“It has a full washdown capability both inside and out, and thanks to the perfectly placed and easy-access side panels on it—along with the space—we can get our cleaning materials to all parts of the machine to perform a thorough cleaning.”
Because the Multivac R126 was designed and built to ensure the exterior provides a smooth sloping surface without recesses where water and dirt can collect—without any sharp corners or edges.
This makes cleaning the machine is a snap, says Balega, complimenting its easy-open side access panels that provide operators with plenty of room to get inside the thermoformer to clean the chain-guide and chain, lift units, motors, valves and cabling to ensure top-notch hygienic food safety.
According to Multivac, standard design features of the R126 include:
- Durable stainless-steel construction;
- Patented hygienic chain-guide design;
- Industry-leading hygienic machine design;
- Optimal washdown (IP 65) protection;
- Comprehensive safety systems;
- Open-architecture IPC control system;
- User-friendly touchscreen control panel;
- Automatic production data acquisition and storage;
- Cut-off length of up to 360-mm;
- State-of-the-art electric lifting system;
- Flexibility in the use of materials, cutting systems, and packaging formats;
- Easy-access machine frame.
Balega says that the R126 is used predominantly to pack pre-sliced bacon, which is hand-placed upon tabletop Bizerba scales prior to being moved into the Multivac thermoformer.
“Running at full capacity, the R126 performs seven cycles in a minute—giving us 21 finished packs every 60 seconds,” points out Balega.
“We purchased the R126 three years ago, and I have been very happy with their service,” says Balega, complimenting the attentive technical staff at the manufacturer’s Multivac Canada Inc. subsidiary in Woodbridge, Ont.
“We can phone them up any time, knowing that if we can’t resolve an issue over the phone they will send someone out to us right away to do it in person.
“On service alone, I would recommend Multivac to anyone,” says Balega.
“Beyond that, the quality of the seal we get is also a fantastic reason for further recommendations,” says Balega, while also expressing high praise for the high-strength, moisture-resistant corrugated shipping cases supplied by the Toronto-based boxmaker Atlantic Packaging Products Limited.
“After packing, our products are placed into the cases from Atlantic, and are moved into a fridge or freezer until we deliver to our customers, or they come and pick-up from us,” says Balega.
“After coming out from a cool storage facility, water condensation forms on the corrugated, but it never seems to weaken the structure of the carton—meaning there’s never a danger of the product falling onto the ground from a compromised corrugated carton.”
To make sausages and wieners, Blue Danube uses a pair of Handtmann machines: an AL linker, and a mid-range VF 616 sausage vacuum filler.
“Both machines are hard-working and provide us with excellent packed and formed sausages and wieners,” Balega extols.
As for future plans of growth, Balega says they are all based on the notion of keeping in touch with the company’s customers and its loyal consumer base.
“We often get special orders from our customers, who come in here every once in a while and tell us about an old recipe their grandfather used to make,” Balega relates. “So we use their descriptions the best we can to try and replicate that recipe for them.”
Says Balega: “And even though we have some top-notch equipment like our Multivac R126 thermoformer, which allows us to up our production speeds, it is still imperative for us to make our products using ingredients that make our products taste as traditional and authentic as the best products made in Europe.”