HAYWARD -- It's like a phoenix rising from the flames, and this particular phoenix can churn out 17 million pounds of deli meat a year.
Two years to the day that the Columbus Foods processing plant in South San Francisco burned to the ground, the longtime Bay Area meat-monger unveiled, with much fanfare, a $31 million Hayward facility that incorporates the latest technologies in the world of food slicing and packaging.
"What you'll see inside is one of the most advanced meat processing plants, not only in the United States but in the world," said proud Columbus CEO Tim Fallon, channeling a bit of Willy Wonka before a tour of the plant Thursday.
A thick ribbon of salami wrappers was then ceremoniously cut by Hayward Mayor Mike Sweeney, who announced that while he's got a lot of Irish ancestry, there's Italian on his mother's side and "if they knew today I was at a plant for slicing salami, they would be smiling down at me."
One cannot tour the cool and clinical world of meat slicing and packaging without proper preparation. Smocks are donned, as are booties, hair nets and beard nets.
Cleanliness is key -- parts of the plant have vestibules that incorporate magnetic locks which allow a door on one side or the other to open, but never both at once. It ensures the filtered air on the clean side doesn't mingle directly with undesirable air.
"Every time you slice a product, you open up a risk," explained Adam Ferrif, chief
Photography is forbidden, especially near the slicing lines where much of the innovation and action takes place.
"It's a proprietary process," Ferrif said. "These are the most modern facilities in the state."
On Thursday, whole turkey breasts, cooked at the South San Francisco facility and vacuum-packed into "logs" for the trip to Hayward, sat two abreast on a conveyor belt at one end of a long multi-tasking contraption.
Every minute or so, the logs move up the belt and into the machine. Then the pace picks up, especially after they hit the blade.
"See that? It looks like a strobe light," said tour guide and Vice President of Operations Ken Neishi, pointing toward a flashing portal at the heart of the machine. "It's not a strobe light, it's just a light, but the blade is moving in front of it at 500 to 800 rpm."
And just like that, a turkey log becomes lunch meat, 12,000 to 14,000 pounds of it in each eight-hour shift.
Neishi also showed off a $4 million hyperbaric chamber, which squashes listeria and other microbials with 87,000 pounds of pressure per square inch. That's like being 38 miles beneath the surface of the ocean, Neishi said, and CEO Fallon pointed out that the deepest known part of the ocean, the Mariana Trench, is by comparison a mere 6.78 miles deep.
Fallon is excited about the potential of the new facility, and said it was a silver lining to the dark cloud of the 2009's fire.
"Out of tragedy came great opportunity," he said.
Since the fire, Columbus was using competitors' facilities to slice and pack product. Fallon lauded the generosity shown by those companies, which included Saag's of San Leandro.
"If you think about it, it's 'There, but for the grace of God go I,' " Fallon said. "It could have happened to any of us."