Among the major impacts of the Pandemic on the restaurant and foodservice industry has been a heightened focus on safety. Many foodservice operators across Metro New York and the Nation have turned to sous vide cooking to find a solution. The highly acclaimed technique of vacuum sealing and slow-cooking foods in a hot-water bath continues to grow in popularity.
With that in mind, Total Food Service sought out the world’s leading manufacturer and distributor of sous vide foods: Cuisine Solutions and their President and CEO Felipe Hasselmann. Headquartered in Sterling, VA, the company operates six plants across the globe. From big-name clients like Hilton, Costco, and others in the restaurant, airline, hotel, and foodservice sectors, Hasselmann took us inside the sous vide industry.
Can you share the history of Cuisine Solutions? Who is the visionary behind the creation of the company?
The company launched in the United States and France in 1989. Chairman Stanislas Vilgrain, our founder, had the vision to develop a business that could mass-produce sous vide. He wanted to harness the technology that was used by Michelin chefs and in fine-dining restaurants to produce sous vide on a
Who was the target industry when you launched and how has that target evolved?
Our initial target was the foodservice industry. A large concentration of our customers were airlines and foodservice. However, after September 11th in 2001, we were faced with challenges when people didn’t want to travel. From that point on, we started developing different channels. For example, we began diversifying the business by supplying the military and retail industry. This allowed us to see not only how sous vide technology could apply to those different channels, but also how the technology would be accepted in those markets.
What were the military’s goals for the use of sous vide?
We were supporting the troops in Iraq and Afghanistan and were honored to be voted best food supplier in terms of safety and quality on three occasions. One of the things we did for the troops was called “morale meals,” which consisted of supplying higher-quality meals for the soldiers twice per week to improve their morale.
What has been the key to the growth of sous vide in the restaurant industry?
We saw a great opportunity for sous vide to help the foodservice industry and restaurant chains in particular. We started working with fast-casual and quick-service restaurants. From that we started creating trends, working on innovation, developing recipes, and evolving our products. Today we sell to over 22,000 restaurants around the world, partnering heavily with hotels where the focus is on room service, events, etc., and helping them minimize waste and reduce labor costs.
How has the pandemic changed the way your business operates?
We saw a great opportunity during the pandemic to upgrade what is referred to as a “ghost kitchen” or “dark kitchen.” When we really started looking at it, we knew that we could upgrade the concept by using smaller kitchens, smaller spaces, and less people while using a larger variety of products with more safety-and-quality measures. That’s where dark assembly kitchens (DAKs) come in. DAKs work like this: The product comes from our kitchen fully prepared and ready to go. Then when the restaurant receives an order the only thing that the chefs have to do is reheat the product, assemble the packaging, and it’s ready to go! Currently, our VP of Culinary, Chef Sean Wheaton, oversees CS DAK in New York.
When you began in 1989 was there the technology to use “blast chilling”? How has the technology evolved since then in terms of executing the process?
In terms of technology, none of our plants are the same. We’ve invested a lot of money into technology and manufacturing. For example, compared to our first plant, our second plant has 20% to 30% of the same technology. When I say technology, I mean the equipment for cooking, chilling, and freezing. The third plant has less than 10% to 15% of what we have in the first plant. We’re now on our seventh plant, which opened three months ago, and for this project we really went all-out. The space is a 300,000-square-foot manufacturing facility in Texas. We have a team of engineers who travel worldwide to find equipment that we can customize to our process. We do this in order to gain an edge over our competitors. Another important aspect to understand is that sous vide translates to “under vacuum” in French. So technically anyone who vacuum seals a product for cooking could call it sous vide. However, our competitors will find that our equipment is almost impossible to copy.
Do your chefs have a vision? If so, do you then need to figure out how to execute that vision from a sous vide standpoint? How does that work?
Before the economic downturn, operations was always ahead of our business. Now, operations is tryingt o catch up due to the amount of innovations we create in the market. At our company we have a saying, “10 miles wide and 100 miles deep,” which means we’re not a company looking for market share, we’re a
company looking for a long-term partnership with our customers. We’re often considered innovation partners and we really create a synergy between our chefs and partners.
Do your products use an e-commerce platform or the traditional foodservice broad liner model?
We’re nationally and internationally distributed. You can access our products through any broadliner in the United States. Obviously, different products are available in different regions, but if someone wanted something, it could certainly be brought to them through either distributors or players like Amazon.
I would assume that the walk-in box becomes a key for a restaurant/ operator utilizing a sous vide menu?
Yes, the restaurant gets a delivery several times per week. There’s a walk-in freezer as well as a walk-in refrigerator for produce and fresh items. Our product comes in frozen. Then the kitchen manager decides what they need for the next day and puts it in the defrost cabinet overnight.
Talk about this new partnership with Pret A Manger in New York. How did this come about? What are their goals for the project?
As you may know, Pret A Manger belongs to JAB Holding Company, and we have a great relationship with them. We sell to Pret A Manger in Europe and in the United States. At one point, we started talking about the power of home meal delivery and all the issues that chain restaurants experienced due to the pandemic. During that conversation it came up that we have been looking at the ghost and the dark kitchen areas, and we were confident that we could upgrade the concept. It’s a great partnership because
now we have a situation that’s safer because the products are not being cooked from scratch and actually were produced in a USDA-approved manufacturing environment. Now we can differentiate ourselves to our partners with this additional service of selling products to be reheated at home. Partners like Pret A Manger can sell our menu out of their kitchen and choose from our 290 products, and they can prep meals to sell online or to-go. This solves the problem of kitchens being underutilized due to the pandemic.
Now they have the chance to sell our products using the same structure. Restaurants can potentially see their revenue double or triple because they still have people walking into the restaurants.
What is the takeaway from your collaboration with TV’s Jon Taffer on his new restaurant concept?
Jon has created the Taffer’s Tavern concept. The first unit has opened in Alpharetta, GA. It is a full-service casual restaurant concept that features a pub-style look. With Jon’s background and a return bar service, Taffer’s Tavern will showcase outstanding bar fare and signature cocktails. With his expertise from his Bar Rescue TV show, he understood how sous vide technology could modernize and meet the needs of the new restaurant customer. So he came to us to help him create a cutting-edge restaurant concept that combines food safety with a consistent, delicious, perfectly prepared menu. Our company worked with Jon and his culinary team for several months to develop proprietary recipes that are exclusive to his new restaurant. This included The Tavern Burger: an all-beef brisket blend patty with American cheese, iceberg lettuce, tomato, onion, mayonnaise, and ketchup, served with herbed steak fries.
How do you see Pret A Manger and Taffer’s Tavern marketing their sous vide-based concepts?
A lot of the marketing will be through sales platforms like DoorDash, Grubhub, and Uber Eats. There will be some digital advertising, regional email advertising, and social media advertising as well as signs in their stores that have a QR code that links to our website. If you go to our website you can see all of the menus. As the urban workforce is shrinking with many people not returning to offices in Manhattan and other cities around the country, is this a way for companies to still extend a foodservice footprint into their employee’s homes? We all need to evaluate how the last year has impacted how and where we eat. We still need to wait for the data. However, we do have plans to keep expanding on the East Coast. Luckily for us with the current pandemic situation, the concept is flexible. We’re able to change recipes, products, and menus within 48 hours. This allows us to adapt to the customer’s changing needs.
What’s needed in order to create a profitable return-on-investment (ROI) to utilize Cuisine Solutions and sous vide?
Again, that’s something we’ll be able to answer once we have more data from our current project. The references that we have in place today are basically what we’ve seen, heard, and read about ghost kitchens and dark kitchens and of course, by talking to and working with our partners like Uber Eats and Grubhub. Compared to their business model, we’re actually offering more with better flexibility and uniqueness, and at a better price point. Our project with Pret A Manger will allow us to finally put the data into a model and be able to answer these types of questions for potential customers.