Fredericksburg-based chicken company Bell & Evans received Food Engineering’s Plant of the Year award for its new $360 million facility.
“Animal welfare is just one of the elements where the Fredericksburg facility excels, along with a thoughtful focus on every detail when it comes to food safety, automation, sustainability, energy savings, staff satisfaction and much more, which is why we’re giving Bell & Evans our 2022 Plant of the Year award,” said the industry outlet in its announcement of the decision.
In its own press release about the award, Bell & Evans noted that “it didn’t take long” for the company to receive recognition for the plan, which began operating in early December 2021. Construction of the 411,500-square-foot plant had begun in July 2020.
Michael Bracrella, chief operating officer of Bell & Evans, said that the award was very exciting.
“A lot of hard work went into designing and building (the plant),” said Bracrella.
The biggest challenge ended up being COVID-induced logistical complications. Most of the equipment in the plant is European. Bracrella said that early in the pandemic, shipping seemed to be doing fine, but during the later part of construction, they saw prolonged delays on some of the 800 or so containers headed to the Fredericksburg construction site.
“One shipment sat outside of the port for three weeks,” said Bracrella.
The project was financed through a $300 million credit facility by Dutch Rabobank. According to the Food Engineering report, the Bell & Evans project was the only of the bank’s investments to remain on schedule through the pandemic.
Bracrella said that CEO Scott Sechler had purchased the land for the plant about a decade ago and was planning – and researching – for its construction since then.
Much of that time was spent studying closely how European facilities operate, calling to mind another Lebanon Valley entrepreneur who transformed his business by paying close attention to what was happening on the far side of the Atlantic. Bracrella said that Sechler estimates he’s been across the “pond” some 100s of times.
“Mr. Sechler very much likes to study what the Europeans are doing,” said Bracrella. “We like to call this project European Plus.”
Bracrella said that the air chilling used by Bell & Evans is a good example of this. “You don’t see water chilling over there,” said Bracrella.
Bell & Evans today operates one of the only air-chilled plants in the U.S.
Air-chilled chicken has a significantly lower water content than water-chilled chicken, and studies have shown there are shelf-life and sustainability benefits to the process as well. On the flavor front, air chilling is said to result in more chicken flavor due to locking in natural moisture.
Air-chilling isn’t new for Bell & Evans, but the production scale enabled by the new plant is.
The entire plant was laid out linearly to limit turns in the processing process. Bracrella said that the new plant increases Bell & Evans production capacity by about 40%.
“I traveled the world and spent my entire career collecting ideas for this new plant,” said Sechler in a press release. “Over the years, we expanded and retrofitted our old plant to meet our needs, and we were ready to build this state-of-the-world facility using every bit of knowledge and experience we have.”
“We spared no expense to achieve our goals, and we’re really proud of this place.”
Does this expanded capacity mean we might see Bell & Evans advertising nationally soon? Probably not.
“At Bell & Evans, we are selective of our retail partners so traditional national advertising isn’t part of our strategy,” said Bracrella. “The additional capacity, however, does allow us to drive increased sales via promotions with our customer base, as well as use new production capabilities to create new, unique items.”
“Our increased marketing spend is laser focused to support our customers growth, as well as increase consumer exposure to drive traffic to stores.”
The factory can actually produce chicken at even faster clip than its currently rated, but U.S. regulatory statutes aren’t necessarily written with the European model in mind. As those regulations get updated to match modern production techniques, Bell & Evans will be able to notch up its output without further physical plant investment.
That too, however, is in the card.
Within the plant, there’s an additional 20% of space that can later be converted into a second processing and packaging area, according to Food Engineering’s report.
The company has also already begun planning for a second harvest facility – a mirror image plant – to be located behind the current building. Bracrella said that effort might be in the 5- to 10-year range.
With an expanded physical plant also comes increased needs for labor in a very competitive market, but Bell & Evans incorporated those concerns into its designs for the facility as well. Bracrella said that the facility was built with team members in mind.
“You look at the cafeteria, some of our safety and ergonomic things we did,” said Bracrella, pointing to the fact that every space a person stands at the plant is climate-controlled, well lit, and ergonomic.
The cafeteria, which serves at-cost food, is open to every Bell & Evans employee. Perhaps unsurprisingly from a chicken company executive, Bracrella said that “any chicken item is my favorite,” but he highlighted in particular the cafeteria’s ready-serve grill, which has a different dish each day. Fresh juices and free coffee are also available.
Unfortunately, it is only open to employees, so that chicken quesadilla is likely out of reach for now….
The company also offers free on-site health care at its wellness center on Route 22, with satellite offices at the plant. Family members are also welcome at the main wellness center.
Bracrella also said that the company has invested in automation to handle repetitive tasks like box stacking. The plant has North America’s first fully automated live and empty loading and unloading systems for chickens, according to Food Engineering’s accolade, with no forklifts involved. An automated high-speed camera system is also used to identify potential containments and other risks on every bird processed.
The plant features a total of seven palletizing robots, four pick-and-place robots, and an Automated Guided Vehicle in its warehouse that’s currently undergoing testing.
According to the Food Engineering report, this automation also helps improve animal welfare, by minimizing distress to the birds by keeping them in quiet, dark, and air-conditioned spaces, and using slow induction anesthesia to render the birds unconscious slowly and gently. Bell & Evans says that arrival to harvest, chickens are not handled by humans while conscious, a benefit to both sides of that equation.
Read more about the plant in Food Engineering’s article (free registration required).
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