Creating and launching a new product in the food industry is an enormous undertaking. Once the product has been formulated and produced in a pilot plant, the process and production must be scaled up to meet the growing demands of consumers. Gathered Foods needed Food Plant Engineering’s food processing design and construction expertise to incorporate their proprietary vegan tuna process into their first large-scale, hygienic operation. Our team knew how to visualize the facility from start to finish and designed each space—from production to packaging—based upon not only the company’s current needs but on their anticipated growth. This project required a great deal of collaboration, as Gathered Foods looked to us for help sourcing equipment and meeting regulatory standards. We strived to maintain the unique integrity of their process and meet their overall needs.
To accommodate a growing business and a rapidly changing market, FPE allocated space in the facility design to allow for quadrupling the capacity of Gathered Food’s proprietary process and supporting processes, including freezing, mixing, forming, and packaging. The space was allocated to allow for the installation of additional processing equipment without expanding the footprint of the building. The layout can be adapted different production methods as new markets for vegan products arise. Opportunities for further building expansion were also considered when the existing space becomes fully utilized.
While the core process for manufacturing Gathered Foods’ products is proprietary, Food Plant Engineering was responsible for integrating into the design the supporting food processing steps necessary to transform the initial product into its final form. After the propriety process—during which dry ingredients are transformed into the moist base product that replicates real tuna flakes—the flakes are processed using traditional food production methods to manufacture various products, including patties. Equipment used to produce the final products includes paddle mixers, vacuum fillers, plate formers, spiral freezers, and tunnel freezers. Patties are packaged in either a vertical form, fill, and seal machine or a horizontal form, fill, and seal machine. The secondary packaging includes carton and case formers and sealers. Metal detectors and checkweighers are used throughout the different stages of the process for food safety purposes.
When developing a facility design, it is important to plan for the location of mechanical rooms, shipping/receiving docks, and utility entrances. These areas are difficult (if not impossible) to move if the building needs an expansion in the future. The location of these areas must be coordinated with other process support areas such as locker and break rooms, offices, chemical storage, and lab spaces. All areas must then connect with each other and the processing functions to allow for the flow of personnel, equipment, and trash in the facility. Often the solution for accomplishing this is to develop well-placed corridors for connecting the spaces. This project utilized a central corridor to separate hygienic zones, provide access to docks and mechanical areas, allow for the move-in of future equipment, and provide a connection for a future building addition. Knockout panels were added to the corridor for future freezers. Numerous gowning areas were placed along the corridor for employees to wash hands and put on PPE before entering more hygienic zones.
Research and development (R&D) and quality assurance (QA) labs were incorporated into the facility. The R&D lab was built as a multi-use space for product development, incorporating areas for food preparation, cooking, baking, and packaging operations. The QA lab was planned to allow for basic operations for sample retention and analysis. Using similar materials as the process areas, FPE constructed both spaces to comply with food safety standards. Added storage and open counterspace allow for flexibility as the business explores new products and continues to grow.
Food Plant Engineering provided Project Management support for both the design and construction of the Gathered Foods facility. During the design phase, a Project Manager worked closely with the architectural and engineering teams to monitor the schedule. Weekly meetings with the owner were held to discuss the company’s needs, desires, and the requirements for the final design of the facility. Once the design was complete, the Construction Manager worked on-site directing the construction process and communicating with stakeholders regarding the budget and expenditures for construction.