US Foods Implements Innovative Technology to Match Growing Demand for Gulf Fish

From Acre in Auburn to Baumhower’s locations throughout the state, a high demand for fresh Alabama Gulf Seafood at numerous restaurants has inspired increased efficiency for US Foods in Montgomery.

“Right now, we’re seeing a lot of benefit with our customers and the recognition Alabama Gulf Seafood has within the state, especially down in the Coastal areas,” said Bryan Caldwell, director of marketing and merchandising for US Foods Montgomery. “This product is really starting to drive sales and give recognition to the fresh seafood program that we have based out of Montgomery.”

US Foods Montgomery recently began implementing innovative technology to create more precise and efficient cuts to their Gulf fish—and to keep them fresher for a longer period of time.

They’re the first broad-line distributor in the state to adopt this process, and according to Caldwell, the initial response has been tremendous. US Foods has now gone from roughly 400 pounds of Gulf fish sold per week to close to 1000, and the demand is only increasing.

Adding Equity

US Foods’ Montgomery facility, in conjunction with Save On Seafood, recently began implementing innovative laser-cutting and packaging technology in order to increase the precision of product orders and maintain a longer timetable for freshness.

As a result, Gulf seafood fans can expect quality cuts of their favorite finfish—like Grouper, Red Snapper, Amberjack, Pompano, Tuna, and Mahi-Mahi—at any of the restaurants serviced by US Foods Montgomery.

“It’s a great cost-saving procedure for anybody that’s operating in the back of a restaurant trying to cut fish themselves and figure out where their costs actually are,” said Gib Migliano, president of Save On Seafood. “We just got a new machine that is even more accurate.”

Laser-Cutting Technology

The process seems self-explanatory on the surface. But the machine that implements this technology (which comes from Denmark) is quite impressive.

Once the fish are pulled in from Gulf waters and gutted by the folks at Save On Seafood, they’re shipped directly to US Foods in Montgomery three times a week. The fish are then placed on the machine’s belt and passed through a laser beam, which will determine the density of the fish. A camera within the machine will then take a picture of it and transmit a signal to the machine’s computer, and the computer sends a signal to the knife that tells it where to cut the fish in order to waste as little as possible.

According to Migliano, this machine can make four cuts per second, and it’s accurate to within 0.2 ounces.

Extended Freshness

The laser-cutting process—which takes place on-site at the Montgomery facility—is only the first step of the procedure for US Foods’ seafood department.

Once the cuts have been made, the seafood product is then put through what’s called MAP packaging (Modified Air Packaging). Once the product is placed in its tray, the oxygen is evacuated from the tray in order to prevent decomposition, which in turn extends the shelf life of the product.

Additionally, once the product is packaged, a TTI tag (Time Temperature Indicator) is applied. This tag will let customers know when their product is about to expire based on the color of the tag (i.e. a green dot means it’s fresh, an orange dot means it’s about to expire).

Thanks to this MAP and TTI technology, restaurants and other seafood buyers can bring in this Gulf seafood product and keep it in their house much longer (a shelf life of approximately eight days) without having to worry about spoiling.

According to Dwyane Chavis, seafood specialist at US Foods Montgomery, this process is an important part of their operation, and a big reason why their customers keep coming back.

“The response has been absolutely incredible,” Chavis said. “A lot of the customers are very interested in Alabama Gulf Seafood, and this technology is a big selling point. There are no other seafood vendors that are doing MAP packaging. Our packaging is a great deal.”

Increasing Demand for Gulf Product

As Caldwell points out, this new technology is currently in its early stages. But an increased demand is expected as the awareness begins to spread.

“Right now, it’s almost an educational process with the customers, because [MAP packaging] is really new to the industry, especially our area,” Caldwell said. “We do all this for the ease of the customers, to make their life easier, and to just delight them and give them a broader product catalog to pull from. That’s really the bottom line.”

“At US Foods, we strive for truth in labeling knowing that it is such a hot button today,” Chavis said. “We’re actually giving the customer the species, and the origin, and it’s true. Everything we do is consistent.”

Guy Lott, sales and support for the Alabama Seafood Marketing Commission, points out that, according to the American Culinary Federation, the number one trend for 2014 is locally sourced meat and seafood, and the number nine trend is sustainable seafood.

Alabama Gulf Seafood is constantly striving to bring the safest, freshest Gulf products to consumers throughout the state and beyond. Because US Foods Montgomery is at the forefront of broad-line distributors with their in-house process, this technology provides another distinct advantage for consumers.

“We always like to sell the idea that it’s tide-to-table, or hook-to-fork,” said Lott. “That goes right along with a lot of things we see for the hot trends in restaurants. I feel like this technology really fits into what needs to be done in the state of Alabama.”