Labatt Food Service opened its new, 65,000-square-foot, $28 million meat cooking facility and the barbacoa, brisket and tamales are already heading to customers by the truckload.
“We’re cooking,” said Fred Silva, general manager of Direct Source Meats, owned and operated by Labatt. “It’s taken less than a year to build the plant, but the idea has been simmering for more than three years.”
“Our guiding philosophy at Labatt is to help make our customers more successful, and that has enabled us to become the nation’s ninth-largest food distribution company,” he said. “This new plant was built in response to requests from our customers, who want to be able to consistently and safely serve the products they and their customers love, cooked to their own, unique recipe.”
“There have been so many high-profile food recalls and plant sanitation issues over the past few years, and as we went around looking at plants that could cook meats for customers, we really weren’t satisfied with what we saw,” Silva said. “We decided the best solution was to build our own, where we could control everything from recipes to food quality to production to sanitation. The fully stainless steel plant is equipped with a hygienic air system and even the lighting is important. There are no dark corners here – it’s very well-lit and that’s one of the keys to quality, safety and sanitation.”
Huge fast food and restaurant chains are large enough to have complete control over a cooking facility because they are such big customers and can dictate very specific requirements, he noted. However, there are many, many smaller chains and customers that are of substantial size but aren’t big enough to dictate terms to a food processing plant, and they have to take what they can get in terms of recipes and other cooking practices.
“At this new facility, we can meet the unique needs of each customer,” he said. “We have a test kitchen here that can replicate virtually anything that could be done in a food processing plant or in any restaurant. Our customers’ chefs can come in and spend a day with us so that we can work with them on their recipes and decide together on the best way to produce the food they need.”
“The plant is supported by a research-and-development team composed of five food and animal scientists,” Silva said. “Their expertise allows us to fulfill all customer requests and produce all organic or all natural products to their specs. Antibiotic-free, GMO-free, clean labels – it’s all on the table here for our customers.”
Reflecting the particular food culture of Texas, the new facility can cook up to four million pounds of barbacoa, 9.5 million tamales (that’s 792,000 dozen) and 1.7 million pounds of smoked brisket a year. And that’s with just one shift working. With expansion capability already built in and an additional shift, those numbers can triple virtually overnight.
Barbacoa (source of the word “barbecue”) is a way of slow-cooking meat, often from cow cheeks, that is very popular in South Texas and along the Mexican border. At the highly-automated Direct Source plant, huge kettles cook the barbacoa over four hours, after which it is packaged, frozen and shipped. One customer alone will sell more than two million pounds in a year through its food service outlets.
“That customer could never consistently get the quality and quantity of barbacoa they needed, so they started talking with us,” Silva said. “The customer told us ‘we NEED that product, cooked OUR way,’ and that’s what kick-started the effort to build this plant.”
Tamales are made with specially-designed machinery, cooked in a steaming room and then are customer-ready, going to restaurants, school districts and other institutional customers.
Briskets can be smoked with wood designated by the customer – pecan, oak, hickory, mesquite – according to customer recipes that appeal to people in different parts of the country. The brisket can be prepared whole, sliced or chopped – with or without barbecue sauce -- depending on customer needs. In addition to briskets, Direct Source can also smoke turkey legs and breasts, and pork for pulled pork.
A custom-built spiral freezer takes food from a cooking temperature of 180 degrees to zero in 60 minutes, sending the cooked product up a half-mile-long conveyor belt in a very tall freezer so that all sides of the product are exposed constantly to a minus-50 temperature.
“We have tremendous flexibility built in,” Silva said. “We can also produce picadillo and carne guisada for Mexican food, shredded chicken, beans, soups, barbecue sauces, chili and gravies.”
Direct Source worked with Team Group out of Euless, Texas to design the plant, which Team Group then constructed over an eight-month period. The new plant is in southeast San Antonio, essentially across the street from Direct Source’s raw meat processing facility which preps and sells 13 million pounds of raw beef, pork and poultry a year.
“In many ways,” Silva said, “our new facility is a natural evolution for us, so that we can supply customers with raw or cooked product, depending on their needs.”
Labatt Food Service is privately-owned and primarily operates in Texas, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Arizona. Founded in 1910 in San Antonio, the company today has revenues of more than $1.3 billion and some 1,600 employees.