The Primal Instincts
By Andrew Snook
Vast industry experience and relentless focus on high product quality help upstart meat processor lay down a solid foundation for future growth
When Oleksandr Zahrebelnyi made the decision to move to Canada from Ukraine just over three years ago to start up Canada Meat Group (CMG), there was no way for him to foresee some of the major hurdles that lay ahead for him.
Fortunately, the company’s president and founder had a well laid-out plan and the necessary work experience to make his venture a success.
“We used to have a meat processing plant and slaughterhouse in Ukraine. Three years ago, we decided to relocate our business because we understood at that moment the difference in quality of Canadian beef,” he says.
Many of the products Zahrebelnyi was producing in his home country were also halal-certified, and he saw Canadian beef as a good opportunity to build on this business.
“It was very important to source to high-quality beef for our customers,” he says.
Zahrebelnyi took his time and did some research, travelling to Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Ontario to look for an ideal place to build his new meat processing plant.
He ended up making North Bay, Ont., his new base of operations after meeting with a representative from the city’s office of economic development.
“He helped us find land in an industrial park, and that was a start,” Zahrebelnyi recalls.
Shovels hit the ground soon afterwards in September 2018, and in March of 2020, Canada Meat Group’s 16,000-square-foot plant was fully operational.
Unfortunately, the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic had just been declared.
“One week after COVID started, we got our license for our federally registered plant, and we were under the challenging decision to open the production when everything around us was closed,” Zahrebelnyi says.
After a couple of weeks of thinking it over, he and his partners made the decision to start up operations at the plant.
This was a particularly difficult decision because Zahrebelnyi had expected to be able to hire and bring over experienced workers from the Ukraine that he had previously worked with, but because of the pandemic that was no longer possible.
“So, we started with hiring some people locally,” he recalls, “and that process was very difficult. It was very challenging for all our team members.
“At the same time, we did a very good job and now we’ve built—and are building still—a strong, experienced team which now produces now the best quality of Canadian beef,” says Zahrebelnyi, adding the plant currently employs about 20 full-time people.
Zahrebelnyi says the labor situation isn’t too bad for finding people who want to work in North Bay, but finding people with experience is very challenging.
He says the biggest disadvantage is having to train them, but at the same time, if you’re patient and have a great team to welcome new team members to help them find their place in the company, you will still find success.
With the plant’s de-boning operations able to process up to 40 heads of cattle per day, the facility is equipped with a powerful blast freezer that can freeze up to 20,000 kilograms of product daily to complement its wide variety of fresh primal cuts and other meat products.
The plant has three different production lines, a de-boning process and a frozen process, which Zahrebelnyi says is standard for the industry when you create products from the entire carcass of a cattle.
Zahrebelnyi says one of the hot-button issues for the industry today when it comes to meat products is the awareness level of the consumer when it comes to the origins of your products.
“How you make your product, how you care for your product, from farm to table, people are thinking more and more now about where these products were produced,” he says.
Canadian consumers are very interested in supporting the local economy and buying locally produced products, Zahrebelnyi says, adding that Canada Meat Group offers a “locally and vertically-integrated company with an open and clear story of our products’ production.
“We explain where the product was produced and where the raw materials are sourced from,” he adds.
Maintaining a strict HACCP (Hazard Analysis Critical Control Points) protocol, the company is federally certified to comply with all the pertinent Canada Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) regulations and halal certifications.
The company’s most popular products include ground beef, burgers, steaks and boxed meats. In total, Canada Meat Group produce more than 50 products between its fresh primal cuts and frozen product offerings.
That said, Zahrebelnyi and his team are always researching opportunities to offer new products to their customers.
“Every day we are working on product development, and figuring out how to best handle those new products at the production site,” Zahrebelnyi explains.
When it comes to improving production efficiencies at the plant and finding opportunities to grow the business, optimizing packaging operations has certainly been a priority for Canada Meat Group.
The company has invested significantly in its packaging operations since starting up.
For its packaging needs, the company has turned to the highly reputable food packaging experts at Reiser (Canada) Ltd. in Burlington, Ont.
The relationship between Canada Meat Group and Reiser began a couple of years earlier at the International Production & Processing Expo (IPPE) meat industry trade show in Atlanta, Ga. As a follow-up to the show, Zahrebelnyi made contact with Reiser’s Canadian sales representative Jeff Kennedy.
“Oleksandr was looking for general information at the time. I took a trip up to North Bay and took one of our beef specialists.
“We had a general conversation, put together some pricing… and then it all sat for a while,” Kennedy recalls.
“Oleksandr was just opening up his plant and he was busy with a lot of other things,” he relates.
“These value-added items were certainly of interest to him, but it wasn’t an immediate need. Bringing in the bulk beef and portioning it into primals, that was the focus of the plant at the time—to get it started.”
Nevertheless, in 2020, Reiser began supplying Canada Meat Group with various packaging solutions to help the business establish itself.
“The first piece we sold him was a Supervac GK-403B line, so this was the next step up for him,” Kennedy says.
“He was using a simple double-chamber vacuum pack but wanted the shrink tank to have a more attractive-looking package,” he says, “along with some higher throughput.”
The Supervac brand of automatic belt vacuum chamber packaging machines feature a double bi-active high-pressure sealing system, where heat and pressure are applied from above and below the packaging material to produce two superior seals. According to Reiser, the innovative sealing system is designed to eliminate leaks, rework and returns.
These machines are designed to handle the production requirements of two or more double-chamber packaging machines, reducing labor costs and increasing productivity. Moreover, the Supervac requires only a single operator to load, run and style the packages.
Since that time, Kennedy says Reiser has been there to support Zahrebelnyi in any way it can.
“He now relies on Reiser and me for the processing machinery, as well as for things that don’t even involve Reiser directly, like inspection equipment, labeling equipment and fat analyzing.
“Anything that he’s looking for he calls me first, even if he knows we don’t sell it, because he knows I’m going to help him out,” Kennedy states. “That’s just the way we work.”
After improving efficiencies in their primal packaging business with the Supervac machine, Canada Meat Group decided that the next step would be to get into the burger and ground beef brick market.
For this initiative, Reiser was again able to supply a packaging solution that met their needs.
“We knew that selling him a Vemag Robot500 would do those types of things for him,” Kennedy says.
The ground beef and burger business started out well, and Canada Meat Group started attracting interest from retail customers, along with inquiries about co-packing opportunities.
That triggered another packaging opportunity for the company—namely the Reiser Variovac Optimus thermoform packaging system.
Zahrebelnyi says he decided to go with the Variovac Optimus thermoforming machine because of Reiser’s reputation for quality and excellent service, and also because some of his company’s partners had experience with the machine.
“This was one of the main decisions for us, which was made with a lot of analysis. We decided this was the best option for us,” he says.
The Variovac Optimus thermoformer features a solid steel frame design and a wash down design built for meeting the highest of hygiene standards.
The unit is also equipped with an intuitive operating system with a seven-inch touchscreen display, the ability to program and save up to 40 individualized machine recipes, and multiple language options.
The unit was installed at the end of 2021 and was able to provide Canada Meat Group the ability to produce a strong retail package.
“The equipment from Reiser was very important for us to open the new line,” Zahrebelnyi says.
With the Variovac Optimus thermoformer, Canada Meat Group can enhance and diversify its burger production with the addition of home-made style burgers and patties.
“We’re trying to be as flexible as possible to fill the voids that already exist in the market… not just make products that almost every other meat processor is selling,” Zahrebelnyi says.
“We’re a federally licensed plant with almost all certifications for white and red meat, any kind of products from beef to veal and poultry, all with or without halal certification.”
The company also recently obtained its organic certification, which Zahrebelnyi says will open doors to some co-packing opportunities.
“We were able to work with him on that and build and specify a machine not just for what he needed to package today, but also what might be coming down the road,” Kennedy says, adding that he has great respect for the way Zahrebelnyi manages his business.
“I admire him a lot, because even if he doesn’t have the business [for a new machine], he will go out and buy the equipment, and then find the business to pay for that equipment… he’s quite the entrepreneur.”
Zahrebelnyi says it can be extremely difficult as a new producer to get a foot in the door with some of the major players.
“It’s tough. This industry looks like it’s very big, but at the same time, it’s very tight,” he says, adding that many of the competing companies have long-standing relationships with customers that stretch over multiple generations.
“You can see a plant that already exists that’s 30-, 40-, 50- or 60-years-old, with its business is moving from grandfather to father to son through three or four generations … it is a similar situation in retail.”
Zahrebelnyi says as a new player in the market, it is sometimes impossible to get the opportunity to meet with larger corporations, especially grocery store chains.
At the same time, he says that by being patient, and being able to show why your company stands out from the competition by offering truly unique specialty items, you can still be successful.
Kennedy says he and Reiser have a great relationship with Zahrebelnyi and believe that Canada Meat Group has a very bright future ahead.
“He may not be my biggest customer, but he’s one of my favourite customers because he’s got so much drive to get things done,” Kennedy states.
“He sees things in a Big Picture way, always willing to take risk and jump into things with both feet,” Kennedy says.
“The future looks bright for him,” Kennedy adds. “There’s no doubt in my mind he’s going to continue to build his business and move forward.
“He’s very industrious.”
The company just recently added a new Bizerba model GLM-E 50 labeler with scale to further enhance its packaging offerings.
“We can now print labels with weight, price and all the information required, it’s fully automated,” Zahrebelnyi says.
As far as future investments go, he says the company is looking at enhancing its burger production line.
“We’re now thinking to add some additional conveyors to the burger line to increase the speed,” he says, noting that the company has been working hard on offering innovative packaging solutions for retail stores.
“We’re working on a ground beef packaging solution to keep it fresh up to 21 days. Most on the market are five to 14 days …so we’re trying to get more flexibility for our customers.”
“With inflation causing prices to rise on many different products, including grocery items, having a long shelf-life can certainly convert into cost savings.
“Every small point where you can save one cent, two cents or a couple of dollars, in the end, you can save a couple of thousand over a year, and it helps a lot.”
Zahrebelnyi says Canada Meat Group is fully equipped and prepared to take on new partnerships.
“We have a federally licensed and fully certified meat-processing plant,” he states. “If any meat producer needs some help, we are just one call away.
“They can just call us,” he concludes, “and we can help them produce and pack any kind of meat products they want.”