Taking Fresh-Cut To a New Level

To think it all started with portobello mushrooms.
About 11 years ago, one of Baldor Specialty Foods’ foodservice customers wanted to know if the company, then selling whole produce along with other food products, would provide portobellos with the stems cut off and gills scooped out.
President Michael Muzyk corralled one of his trucks and drivers and went into Manhattan from the Bronx, N.Y., headquarters.
“We bought a stainless steel table, a three-compartment sink, a cutting board, a hose and a knife,” Muzyk said. “We came back and found a clear area in the warehouse – a tiled area – and said, ‘All right, we’re going to do some fresh cut.’”
Today, Baldor’s fresh-cut operations have moved far beyond that simple entry into the segment. With about $4 million in equipment, a state-of-the-art facility including an in-house lab and about 120 employees working two-and-a-half shifts a day, Baldor’s fresh-cut products compose about 10 percent of the company’s produce sales.
“I can’t believe how it’s grown,” Muzyk said.
Baldor has a lot of health care customers whose foodservice operations are managed by third-party corporations.
“There was a time I remember sitting down with companies like that, that said ‘We don’t buy fresh cuts, period,’” Muzyk said. “Today, it’s probably 30 percent of their spend.”

Demand is up
In the beginning, fresh cut could be a tough sell.
“Fresh cut in the New York market was slow to take off,” Muzyk said, “but it’s absolutely soaring now.”
John Stewart, director of client procurement services for Sodexo in the northeastern United States, said there was a time when fresh cut was viewed as not worth the extra expense. Kitchen managers and chefs found it was cheaper to take the bus boy with time on his hands and put him to work peeling, slicing and dicing than to purchase product pre-cut. Cutbacks in staffing have changed that.
“They don’t have that person (standing around) anymore,” said Stewart, a longtime Baldor customer.
At the same time, quality has improved.
“Ultimately, when you crack open a bag of iceberg or romaine, the quality is assured,” Stewart said.
And touring Baldor’s fresh-cut facilities, Stewart was impressed with the elaborate measures in place to ensure food safety. Being able to buy produce already triple washed, sanitized, sealed and bagged is a big selling point.
“At the end of the day, the less you have human intervention in something like field greens, the better off you are,” Stewart said. “From a food safety standpoint, it’s a much better controlled environment.”

Focus on safety
That is by design. Muzyk said food safety has always weighed heavily on his mind as the fresh-cut operation has grown.
That’s why Baldor follows a Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) food safety management process.
And after last year’s cantaloupe scares (see related article on page xx), Muzyk called his team together and they decided to build a lab on site. They had already been sending samples to a third party for testing after processing, but decided they wanted to test product on its way in, too.
“What if the fruit came in with bacteria on it? How could we catch that, as opposed to waiting until the end (to test), which we still do,” he said. “But what if we test the melons before they go into the cleaning room?”
So that’s what they’re doing, on site.
“We incubate to be sure there’s no bacteria, and if not, it goes on,” he said. “If it is, we send it on a different road which doesn’t even come into the building.
“Although it’s very expensive to do, it’s another way of security that I can put my head on the pillow at night.”
And even as he has worked with New York state officials to help increase use of local produce, Muzyk is mindful of the food safety aspects involved.
“What people don’t want to talk about is if it’s safe,” he said. “Commercial farms in California, Arizona, Texas, Florida – their food safety programs are sometimes in the millions.
“You get local and they don’t spend so much on food safety.”
Baldor requires local growers to meet minimum requirements. They must be able to prove that irrigation water is tested regularly and that there are pest controls in place.
Baldor’s HACCP team is as likely to visit a farm in Santo Domingo as it is one on Long Island.
“If they can’t meet these minimum requirements, they can’t sell to me,” he said. “We had a local farmer actually answer the question of ‘What’s your pest control?’ with, ‘It’s the shotgun in the back of the pickup.’”
How local produce is handled post-harvest is also a concern to Muzyk. He believes in a model that removes the farmer from distribution, and participated in a test last year that he things shows promise.
“We brought bulk romaine down from a farm in upstate New York,” he said. “We picked up the produce on a refrigerated truck and trucked it to the Bronx. We cleaned, chopped, processed and bagged it. We got good yields, and good costs, and shared it with the farmer (that) if this is a business model that makes sense for you, how much can you grow?
“This coming summer, we’re hoping to commit to a contract for, if not 100 percent of his harvest, as close to it as I can get, and return to him a sizeable profit.”

Responding to the market
From day one, Baldor’s fresh-cut growth has come in response to customer demand, as well as recognizing opportunities.
“We’d find a piece of equipment to snip the end of beans, so we bought string bean snippers,” said Muzyk, a Culinary Institute of America graduate. “We were peeling potatoes by hand until there was enough volume and consistency that we bought a potato peeler.”
Baldor used to order peeled onions from the West Coast. Now it has an onion-peeling machine.
Responding to growth in demand for cut pineapple, honeydew and cantaloupe, the Baldor team found a piece of equipment in Italy last year that’s due to be installed any time.
In fact, the company processes about 500 fresh-cut items, with that number changing and growing based on customer demand, and including smaller custom orders.
James Smith, director of purchasing for the New York Marriott Marquis, buys fresh-cut products from Baldor for the hotel’s catering and restaurant operations.
“Baldor has been flexible and accommodating in our request to add new items to their existing fresh-cut program, as well as modifying existing cuts to meet the specs and requests of our chefs,” Smith said via email. “Partnering with Baldor allows our chefs to be more productive, focusing on the art of cooking rather than spending time at the cutting board.
“Labor is the highest cost of running a kitchen, and Baldor’s fresh-cut program helps us control these costs.”
Muzyk said he recently met with a large corporation that is thinking of removing knives from its kitchens altogether.
“They’re saying, ‘We want to pay the chef to cook – not peeling garlic, not peeling shallots, not cutting carrots,’” Muzyk said. “‘We want to bring him or her that produce all finished the way they want it – all they’ve got to do is prepare it.’
“That’s taking fresh cut to a new level.”

By Kathy Gibbons, contributing writer

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