Cold and frozen food processors are innovating to help feed students and staff, while streamlining cafeteria operations.

“The reason we exist as a company is because we’ve taken that labor aspect, consolidated that, and ensured food safety for all of these smaller kitchens. We’re selling that convenience and backing it up with quality,” said David Lopez, president of Texas-based Food Craftory, which has experienced tremendous growth since the pandemic.

Established in 2009, the Food Craftory started in a commercial kitchen and has twice expanded. About 200 employees now work out of a 70,000-square-foot manufacturing facility that opened in December, with room to grow. They run 15 production lines simultaneously, producing 76 SKUs, in addition to custom catering and co-packing.

“I’d say we’re only at 25% of our capability right now, so we have a lot of room for growth. We are looking at different channels – frozen being one of them – frozen breakfast sandwiches and burritos, for example,” Lopez said. “We’re end-to-end, so we’re doing everything from securing client contracts to procuring all the ingredients to processing and delivering. We are receiving fresh bread and fresh produce in the mornings and we make anywhere from 35,000 to 70,000 fresh pieces a day – that could be wraps, sandwiches, salads or snacks – and we ship them out the same day. They will hit the shelves by lunchtime the next day."

locally-grown produce processed at the WMFPC
Tomatoes are among the locally-grown produce that is processed at the WMFPC. Image courtesy of the Western Massachusetts Food Processing Center
Food Craftory produces meal kits and boxed lunches
In addition to over 70 regular menu items, the Food Craftory also produces meal kits and boxed lunches for disaster relief workers. Image courtesy of the Food Craftory

You can find Food Craftory products at airports, hospitals and higher educational institutions throughout Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Missouri and Florida.

“For example, today we’re making S’mores cups for the University of Tulsa – it’s not on our menu, but we’re nimble and flexible,” Lopez said. “We’re really heavy in vending companies – whether it be a small company servicing micro-markets like coffee shops or convenience stores, or a larger vending company like Sysco or US Foods – we sell to all of those companies.”

A USDA certified, SQF Level III facility, the Food Craftory owns its distribution.

“We have about 51 trucks on the road at any given time. Two years ago, we weren’t out of Texas and now we’re in seven other states,” Lopez said.

In its 2023 School Nutrition Trends Report, the nonprofit School Nutrition Association found over 90% of respondents face challenges with menu items and staff shortages, limiting scratch cooking. Locally-sourced foods, like those handled at the Western Massachusetts Food Processing Center, can help fill the gap.

Established in 2001 as part of the Franklin County (Massachusetts) Community Development Corporation, the WMFPC assists entrepreneurs and food startups, working with hundreds of businesses and farms to bring CPG items to market.

“A typical week at the center could be producing bourbon barrel-aged maple syrup on Monday, making hot fudge on Tuesday, freezing Blueberries on Wednesday, making pickled red onions on Thursday, and processing thousands of pounds of tomatoes or tomatillos on Friday for a local farm,” said Liz Buxton, director of operations at the WMFPC.

Food Craftory product
Image courtesy the Food Craftory

The center’s 2,000-square-foot production floor features moveable equipment to allow lines to change daily, depending on the food being processed.

“Since 2010, we have been processing local fruits and vegetables in both shelf-stable forms and frozen for schools. In 2015, we put in a small IQF nitrogen-freezing tunnel to increase our output,” Buxton said. “We package in 25-pound bulk boxes and have produced diced carrots, coined carrots, diced sun tan bell peppers, stripped sun tan bell peppers, broccoli florets, diced butternut squash, diced parsnips, a diced carrot-parsnip blend and diced potatoes.”

Foodservice providers continue to develop new foods to meet the demands of today’s palettes, like the cranberry-pecan chicken salad or jalapeño cornbread developed by the Food Craftory’s in-house R&D team. Options for religious and dietary needs, like gluten-free and vegan foods, are becoming menu staples.

“Innovating and packaging is really important,” Lopez said. “How can we make our products more convenient? Because that’s what we’re selling. I think that’s where the market trend is – going away from extended life – people want good, fresh food, and they want convenience.”