Everybody loves a good success story, so the Cold Pressure Council delivered two at the organization’s inaugural conference.
The council consists of suppliers to and users of high-pressure processing (HPP) systems, the pasteurization process that inactivates bacteria and viruses with pressure rather than heat. Formed in 2017, the council’s mission is to promote the technology to the food industry and to the American food-buying public.
The conference kicked off with Jack Aronson’s rags to riches tale, made possible by HPP. The founder of Garden Fresh gourmet salsa sold his business in 2015 to Campbell Soup Co. for $231 million and now is developing Clean Planet Foods along with the Great Lakes HPP Innovation Center, an HPP tolling operation. All three ventures are based in the Detroit area.
A serial entrepreneur, Aronson launched Garden Fresh in 1998 as a sideline to his restaurant, a chicken and ribs shack in Ferndale, Mich., just north of 8 Mile Road, the boundary of Detroit made famous by Marshall “Eminem” Mathers. Disgusted with the poor quality of salsa sold in supermarkets, Aronson and his wife began making fresh, all-natural salsa in 5-gal. buckets in the kitchen of Clubhouse Bar-B-Q for local distribution. A buyer for Meijer Inc. liked it enough to slot it in the chain’s stores, and other grocers soon followed.
With a label proclaiming, “Made with pride by chef Jack Aronson,” a 16-oz. retail tub sufficed for refrigerated sales until Costco picked up the brand. The club store demanded 3-lb. induction-sealed containers. The physics of mass and the effect of time on biological activity resulted in explosions in many buyers’ refrigerators.
“We became the highest-returned item at Costco,” Aronson confessed. At the time, the retailer accounted for $11 million of Garden Fresh’s $40 million sales volume. A $4 million investment in an HPP system became the essential fix.
“That machine saved us $150 million in lost sales,” he reports. “We started being the least-returned item in (Costco’s) deli.”
Kurt Penn also came to testify about HPP’s positive impact on clean-label foods. Penn is the founder of Good Foods Group LLC (goodfoods.com), a purveyor of fresh, refrigerated dips, salads and fruit and vegetable drinks.
Penn’s food processing experience began in his mid-20s with his mother’s 1991 purchase of an Old-World sausage maker in Chicago’s Fulton Street market. Four years later, he founded Penn Valley Farms, which tapped into emerging interest in better-for-you sausage with Han’s All Natural premium-priced turkey and poultry links. Seven years later, Penn Valley was sold to investors that assembled a portfolio of organic and natural protein products that included Coleman Natural Foods and sold it to Perdue Farms.
“We struggled to get good shelf life” for Penn Valley’s organic chicken sausage, he recalls. When he learned about the benefits of HPP pasteurization, “I was blown away by the shelf life extension.” When drafting the business plan for Good Foods, “HPP had to be part of the equation,” Penn asserts.
Natural and organic had coalesced into clean label by the time Penn founded Good Foods. With the help of a loan from a Chicago bank, the company purchased a small 10-liter HPP machine from Avure Technologies Inc. and commenced production on the city’s northwest side in the same 10,000-sq.-ft. facility that previously manufactured Penn Valley’s products.
Enhanced food safety and extended shelf life helped Good Foods win shelf space in Midwest Costco stores, kickstarting a sales spurt that overtook capacity at the Chicago location. Within five years, Good Foods relocated to a 110,000-sq.-ft. facility in Pleasant Prairie, Wis., where four industrial-scale Hiperbaric presses, including two of the highest-capacity machines on the market, are pasteurizing finished goods.
More recently, the firm opened a plant in Mexico with the goal of establishing itself as the leading supplier of guacamole. Two HPP presses, including the original 10-liter machine, process locally sourced avocados, eliminating the transportation and attendant spoilage issues in trucking the fruit to Wisconsin for pasteurization. Both branded and private-label guacamole is produced.
“HPP had to be part of the equation when we started Good Foods,” says Penn. “It’s one of the cornerstones of the business and is critical for preservative-free foods that are safe and have shelf life.”
Clean Planet may not duplicate the growth trajectory of Garden Fresh, where sales doubled every year for a decade, but that did not deter Aronson from investing $8 million in his tolling operation, which can accommodate up to four presses in a 250,000-sq.-ft. facility. “It isn’t cheap and isn’t easy, but that hasn’t stopped us from embracing HPP,” he says. “HPP has found its groove and is catching fire.”
Quality assurance challenges
Success stories like Garden Fresh and Good Foods advance the Cold Pressure Council’s goal of encouraging more food companies to use HPP technology, either with their own presses or through the services of HPP tollers. The council also wants to promote consumer awareness of the technology’s taste and nutrition benefits and to simplify process validation for food manufacturers.