The Meat of the Matter
By Andrew Snook
High-performance thermoform packaging machinery enabling hard-working ethnic foods processor to keep up with its growing production volumes
Solmaz Food knows what it takes to make quality meat products.
The company’s origin stems from humble beginnings when its founder, Tahsin Solmaz, decided to become a butcher working in downtown Ankara, Turkey, in 1965. After 15 years in the trade, Tahsin Solmaz decided to open his own butcher shop in Istanbul.
After finishing high school, Mehmet Solmaz followed in his father’s footsteps and learned the trade while working alongside his dad, operating two high-traffic butcher shops in downtown Istanbul.
During this time, Mehmet’s passion for producing prepared meat products flourished.
In 2001, the Solmaz family decided to immigrate to Canada, where Tahsin opened a new butcher shop on Danforth Avenue in Toronto.
Shortly after, Mehmet created a small wholesale meat business to supply local restaurants, astutely identifying a promising opportunity to fill a void in the market for quality halal meat products.
Before long, he and his father began preparing a variety of tasty halal products including chicken, beef doner, shawarma and kebabs—ultimately starting up their own processing facility in Mississauga, Ont., in 2007.
Five years later, Tahsin’s young son, Faik, and his son-in-law, Yurt Gedikoglu, joined the family business—producing traditional Turkish sausage, sujuk and pastirma, as well as doner for restaurants requiring halal-approved ingredients.
The company quickly made its name known for its bestselling traditional sausage product called sujuk, offered in barbecue, mild and hot flavours.
“I can say proudly that we are the biggest sujuk traditional Turkish-style producer in Canada,” says Mehmet Solmaz, who took over as president of Solmaz Food in 2015.
“We are expanding that line with our new products and new brands of sausage in different packs,” Solmaz told Canadian Packaging in a recent interview. “That’s our Number One product by volume.”
The company’s product offerings expanded rapidly over the next few years, evolving from just five different varieties of deli products in at the start to more than 50 unique products that it sells nowadays.
“Having my brother, my brother-in-law and his brother all play certain roles in the business creates synergies that give us different ideas,” Mehmet explains. “We try and take those ideas at a doable level and bring it into a manufacturing level.”
By 2016, the company required a new facility to continue expanding its operations.
“That year we were in the position to expand our business,” Solmaz recalls. “The location in Mississauga wasn’t enough, so we moved to our new location at the end of 2016,” he explains.
The move from the modest 4,000-square-foot Mississauga operation to a 20,000-square-foot plant in the west-end Toronto suburb of Etobicoke enabled the company to boost its staff to 20 full-time employees, including family members, working a single daily shift.
“Since we started operating here [in Etobicoke], we’ve expanded the business into different new markets and product groups,” Solmaz relates.
“We have also developed and improved our manufacturing capabilities in many different ways.”
As Solmaz points out, Solmaz Food is currently one of the leading companies for halal-approved meat processed products in Canada.
“It’s because we bring out a lot of new innovative products that no one had brought out until this time in North America,” he says.
“For example, everyone has pepperoni, but we brought a lot of different products that go onto pizza.
“We tried to convert restaurant-style meats into halal formats—diced sausage, chicken, ham, bacon …
“When we look at those types of products, we also take this idea into different packing models and different portion cuts to go into the retail segment.”
Notably, the Solmaz family is constantly trying out new products and recipes with the understanding that not everything it makes can be a bestseller.
“Not everything you process can be sellable, but there’s a lot of R&D programs and products we’re running in the plant all the time,” Mehmet says, adding the company currently offers approximately 70 different SKUs (stock-keeping units) for the food-service and retail sectors.
Due to spiking demand for their products and product varieties, Solmaz Food soon found demand was exceeding the limits they were able to reach potential customers outside Ontario.
To overcome this, in 2021 the company became a federally-licensed meat processing plant.
“Starting from the beginning of 2021, we started to improve and develop the structural base of our plant,” Solmaz recalls.
“We also had to improve our packaging and total look of the products, so that’s when we invested in another rollstock machine and other equipment, including a new smokehouse, a new portion cutter, a new inline metal detector inside the stuffing area, another metal detector on the packaging line, and a date coder.”
According to Solmaz, one of the company’s key investments to enhance its operations was the purchase of a new Reiser Variovac Optimus thermoform packaging system for its packaging lines.
Solmaz says he already familiar with the Reiser brand, having had purchased a Vemag Robot500 machine years ago for producing its innovative sausages.
“About five years ago, he wanted to produce a new skinless sausage product called kafta,” says Jeff Kennedy, sales representative for Reiser (Canada) Ltd in Burlington, Ont. “We sold him a machine that would divide that and make those shapes for him.
“It was a Vemag Robot500, with a special attachment that we put on it for him,”Kennedy recalls. “The relationship started then.
“We started talking to him about thermoforming about three years ago,” Kennedy continues. “He had bought a previous machine from Italy, where unfortunately the parts weren’t available and the service he needed wasn’t available.
“It just wasn’t able to do what it was supposed to do, which was to make MAP (modified atmosphere packaging) packages.”
The purchase of the Reiser Variovac Optimus thermoformer has been a great experience for Mehmet and Solmaz Food to date.
“It’s perfect: I wish I made this decision five years ago when I purchased my second rollstock machine, but at that time it wasn’t available in the market,” he says.
“The things I like about this equipment are that it’s very simple and very easy to use — it’s not a complicated machine.
“It’s easy to clean and easy to maintain,” says Solmaz, adding he like the fact that the doesn’t carry a lot of complicated attachments or complex components that make difficult to set up.
“It’s perfect for employees to use, and as an owner it brings a peace of mind knowing your employees aren’t dealing with complicated equipment that requires added responsibilities,” he says.
Solmaz says that one of the top features on the Reiser Variovac Optimus thermoformer is the high-performance Busch pump incorporated into its design.
“We use Busch pumps for all other machines,” he states. “We have been getting service from them over 10 years, and we know we can rely on the service and parts availability all the time.
“Busch carries great units and systems that you can depend on 100 per cent.”
Another one of the key features of the Reiser Variovac Optimus thermoformer is its proprietary Rapid Air Forming capabilities.
“We use compressed air to form the pocket,” Kennedy explains. “ This allows us not only to run at high speeds, but also to have the ability to run thinner forming films.”
The machine’s simple solid stainless-steel frame design offers years of reliable service, Kennedy points out, while the washdown design ensures compliance with the highest hygiene standards.
Among other notable features, the Variovac Optimus thermoformer is built with an intuitive operating system with a seven-inch touchscreen display, along with the ability to program and save up to 40 individualized machine recipes, as well as multiple language options.
“The performance of the machine is double what we had before: it is very fast,” says Solmaz. “For certain products, we have doubled the production output.”
Switching to the Variovac Optimus thermoformer has also produced significant time savings, according to Solmaz.
“The old machine needs about 20 to 25 minutes to set up, whereas the Variovac takes about 10 minutes to be ready to go, as long as you have the films ready in place.”
Solmaz says the company is planning to introduce pre-printed films to use on the new machine in coming months by adding special reading sensors—eliminating the time-consuming manual labeling tasks.
Going forward, the company is also planning on doing significant packaging redesigns, he adds.
“We have a lot of different products, so we’re using local printing houses for printing the labels that go on to the packages.
“We’ve reached a level where we have very big volumes to produce, so we decided to take our rollstock products to a pre-printed film version,” Solmaz says, adding the new thermoforming machine will give Solmaz Food the capacity it needs to continue to grow in the future.
“It will be really helpful to us in 2022,” he says. “It will fulfill all our growing and expansion we want to do this year.
“Within a few months, it will be our big player,” Solmaz relates.
“We’re currently doing between 30,000 to 35,000 kilograms of finished product a month on the processing line,” he says, “while at the moment, the machine is only taking 10,000 kilos of it.
“For 2022, we are planning to push production to 55,000 kilograms a month,” Solmaz confides, “with 50 per cent of it done on our new Variovac.
“Moreover, all new products will also be on the Variovac,” he adds. “It’s not finalized yet, but we have some new products in the works, and we’re already adding some new dies on this machine.”
In closing, Solmaz says he chooses to work with Reiser because of their technical expertise and strong customer service.
“That’s one of the reasons I chose Reiser,” he states. “Knowing we have to deal with many other issues in the market, it’s helpful to have skilled people who know those machines to address any technical problems.
“Reiser is only one phone call away. They show up the same day, or next day at the latest, at my plant and solve my issues.
“They’re fully stocked with parts and are always ready to give us full service with no excuses.”
As Solmaz relates, the COVID-19 pandemic forced the company to pivot quickly in how it served the various markets for its meat products.
“Before COVID, I would say 65 per cent of our business was in food service and 35 per cent was retail.
“When COVID hit, we lost food service. For the first six months it just wasn’t there, and it affected us big-time,” Solmaz says.
“It didn’t pick up right away, but over the next two to three months we improved the retail business a lot, while putting a lot of new products out.
“All those products were old recipes we’ve been holding onto in the shop, but became a reality due to COVID.
“The business then picked up in the middle of COVID lockdowns, with food-service and retail balancing themselves out.”
Currently, food service comprises about 35 per cent of the business, Solmaz says, with retail accounting for the rest.
“But moving forward, because we have some plans and expectations on the way the market is going, we feel it will eventually be balanced fifty-fifty,” Mehmet says.
“The federal license is a bonus for us, which will bring back our food-service customer, while also allowing us to sell into other provinces.”
Mehmet says the biggest challenge of operating in the pandemic was navigating all of the restrictions.
“We have the machinery capable to produce everything, but because of the COVID restrictions for processing and places we deliver, we have to follow the protocols.
“That created delays in production at our facility,” Solmaz relates. “Where we once had 10 people work in the same area, we’d have to bring it down to five; where there were five people, we would bring it down to three.
“We managed it very well in terms of employee safety,” he says, “but there were a lot of delays in bringing products on time to customers.”
The ensuing supply chain disruptions were also a serious challenge, Solmaz adds.
“Supply chain issues started showing up after about three months,” he says, “but we managed all our purchasing at the beginning of 2020 very well by planning and ordering ahead of time, so we felt the effects at only about 15 to 20 per cent.
“We were lucky without knowing it when we did the last of our purchasing agreements in the beginning of 2020 … we were blessed,” he adds.
While Mehmet acknowledges the presence of other capable competitors in the market for halal meats, he says the market still offers plenty of room for growth for all newcomers.
“We are in a very niche market still in the early stage of developing itself, with many people who specifically want to buy halal products to accommodate their changing cultural consumption habits,” he says.
“With new products always available, it is very much a growing market.
“On the other hand, it is it is competitive because there are a few big players,” he concludes, “while the growing number of small to medium processors are continuing to add to competition, which is great for everyone in the business.”