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Continuous Processing - A Recipe for Success

May 5, 2006
Continuous processing brings restaurant-fresh salsa to retail shelves.

In addition to ambience, El Pinto restaurant in Albuquerque, N.M., is known for its signature chile and salsas. In fact, demand for the sauces, based on traditional family recipes, motivated owners Jim and John Thomas to produce them for retail distribution.

After experimenting with some simple automation, the Thomases recently built an 8,000-sq.-ft. facility primarly for salsa production. Starting from a 35-gal. kettle and a pump in a corner of the kitchen, they're ramping up to 2,000 cases per day to meet the demand for eventual nationwide distribution. Facilitating the switch to continuous processing was a scraped-surface heat exchanger from Waukesha Cherry-Burrell (WCB).

The brothers adopted a number of new technologies since taking over the family-owned restaurant 10 years ago. A steady expansion of the salsa production line is no exception. They first set up shop in part of the restaurant's kitchen with a batch process. A pump moved salsa from the single 35-gal. kettle to a positive piston filler. Production demand soon required the addition of four more kettles.

Even with this expansion, El Pinto's production staff experienced a lot of downtime waiting for product to cool to a specified temperature before filling. Of greater concern was inconsistent product quality because it was hard to monitor how much boil-off occurred during batch cooking. As John Thomas notes, this lack of control wasn't acceptable. "We wanted our product to be as fresh as possible and just like what we serve in the restaurant."

Salsa production at El Pinto restaurant went from small batches for restaurant-use only to 2,000 cases per week for retail sales. Automation, featuring a WCB Votator heat exchanger, enabled the leap in production.

A team made up of the Thomas brothers, their on-site engineer and fabricators worked together to come up with a solution. They talked to companies in their area about processing operations and equipment manufacturers about heat exchange options. When a representative from Walker Hi-Tech, a distributor in the Albuquerque market, demonstrated a Votator 4 X 120 scraped surface heat exchanger from WCB, El Pinto's team could see the immediate benefits of switching to continuous processing.

The 4 X 120 is a unique concentric heat exchanger designed for heating and cooling moderately viscous products. The scraped surface design gently handles particulate products such as El Pinto's salsa, which has chunks of vegetables up to ½-in. thick.

El Pinto started into continuous processing gradually by renting a small Votator unit. Testing it in the actual production line convinced the team this was the equipment they needed. They worked with WCB to specify a unit that would meet their goals for capacity and product quality.

In the new line upgrade, raw products are mixed in a 700-gal. mixing tank and pumped about 30 ft. to the heat exchanger. Input temperature is 36° F, and the Votator heats the salsa to 195° F. The product is transferred to a hopper and then to a double-head filler for packaging. The majority of the salsa is packaged for retail distribution in 12-, 16- and 32-oz. jars. Product for wholesale use is distributed in 1-gal. plastic containers.

With continuous processing, the line's capacity has increased significantly to 1,000 cases per day up, from 400 or 500 cases with the old batching system. The transition to the Votator has been fairly easy for El Pinto's production staff after receiving PLC training from Walker Hi-Tech's staff.

But the most noteworthy improvement John Thomas sees is the consistency of the product, because the Votator cooks the product to specifications batch after batch. "Sure it saved energy and staff time waiting for product, but the most important result was a product that was very similar to what we serve in the restaurant. That was our number one goal."

Even though the switch to continuous processing produced more than satisfactory results, the Thomases were not content to stop there. When finished, the new salsa production building will house another Votator 4 X 120 and a rotary filler to replace the current piston model. The operation will have the flexibility to run smaller batches using only one Votator and the old filler.

"We started out making everything by hand," Thomas recalls. "Now we're getting a very consistent product with continuous processing and we're very happy with our end product. And from what we hear, our customers are, too."

For more information, call SPX Process Equipment at 800-252-5200 or see www.spxprocessequipment.com/sites/wcb/products/heatex/ssheatx.htm.

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