In a gleaming, contemporary test kitchen in the agricultural heartland of America, French Master Chef Jean-Marc Tachet garnishes a dish of fresh spring lamb. Tachet has just completed a dish that demonstrates an ancient cooking technique for an audience of food scientists and customers of one of the largest food processing companies in the United States, SugarCreek. It is a craft he learned as a young boy in a small village in the Rhone Valley of France, and though it is a long way from home to this test kitchen, it is here that he is helping to build a coming food production revolution that will unite these two worlds.
It is a revolution that combines one of the oldest means of preparing food with information technology that captures a master chef’s skill and renders it on a massive scale. This technology allows SugarCreek to raise expectations for the taste, quality, and nutrition of prepared food, and creates new possibilities for global food production, security, and distribution.
Jean-Marc Tachet’s passion for cooking began when he was just a young boy. Growing up, Tachet would spend his summers with his grandparents’ in the small, picturesque village of Saint-Pierre de Chandieu. He would hunt, fish, and forage with his grandfather, learning to choose only the freshest fruits, vegetables, game, and fish. Inside the tiny kitchen of his grandparent’s cottage, he learned to cook by his grandmother’s side. For Tachet, it was the most formative period of his life. “I learned that it is the cook’s role to take only the best that nature offers, and then magnify its goodness. It is the philosophy that drives me today.”
Tachet went on to become the youngest chef in history to be awarded the Meilleur Ouvrier de France, the highest honor possible for a French chef. And at his family-owned restaurant in the French culinary capital of Lyon, he won wide renown as a master of sous vide, a variation on a style of cooking his grandmother often used.
Sous vide, French for “under vacuum,” is a method of cooking in which food is sealed in airtight plastic bags and then cooked slowly and evenly in a warm water bath over the course off several hours or days. The tremendous advantages of the sous vide method are that it cooks food to perfection while preserving its full nutritional value, and it offers preservative-free food storage.
It was Jean-Marc’s skill and technique in elevating this ancient method of cooking to culinary mastery that attracted the attention of SugarCreek. The company had determined that sous vide offered the solution it was looking for to radically improve the quality and economics in the food service industry. The heart of this strategy was to bring sous vide–prepared foods to the company’s commercial customers in the restaurant and institutional food service industries on a massive and previously unprecedented scale. To help SugarCreek deliver on this goal, the company invited Chef Tachet to come to America to teach its own chefs, technical leaders, and customers the techniques of the master.
Founded in 1966, SugarCreek is a family-owned food company with manufacturing operations spread out over several states in America’s rural heartland. SugarCreek enjoys a sterling reputation for manufacturing specialty, snack, and other prepared foods. One key to the company’s success is a commitment to staying ahead of the technology curve.
As Ed Rodden, SugarCreek’s CIO, says, “Almost every business today is a digital business. I like to say we’re a technology company operating as a food company.” And for SugarCreek, the technology the company depends on is that of VMware. “VMware underlies all of our business processes,” he says, “and connects all our operations.”
“We’re 99 percent virtualized on VMware,” says Michael Noone, SugarCreek’s senior systems administrator. “All our manufacturing processes, all the devices out there, all our machines from processing to packing, are all running on VMware technology.” VMware virtualization enables SugarCreek to manage and control the software running each of its individual plant processes.
Another key to the company’s growth strategy is anticipating the evolving needs of its customers.
According to Rodden, “The food business today is going through radical change. The brands of old don’t have anywhere near the significance they used to have.” Consumers today, and especially millennials, he says, “are more focused on the social and environmental factors around foods.”
What consumers want, Rodden says, is “variety, superior quality, clean labels, and clean sourcing. Sous vide is perfectly structured as a cooking system to satisfy those requirements.” The company realized that sous vide on a very large scale was only possible when underscored by a robust technology platform. This combination would allow SugarCreek to expand into a new and unprecedented array of prepared food categories: meat, poultry, seafood, and eventually, starches, and vegetables.
In 2015, SugarCreek’s dual focus came together with the opening of one of the nation’s most technologically advanced food processing, cooking, and packing plants in Cambridge City, Indiana. It is also the largest manufacturing facility in the United States specializing in sous vide.
“The most interesting thing about sous vide is it allows you to produce chef-quality results when you may not even know how to cook.”
— Ed Rodden, CIO, SugarCreek
Making all of SugarCreek’s operations possible are a host of VMware technologies. SugarCreek operates data centers virtualized on NSX. “We’re primarily using NSX for two reasons,” says Ed Rodden, the company’s CIO, “micro-segmentation, which provides much greater security than anything prior to NSX, and automation. It’s a real efficiency thing for us from the developer’s standpoint.”
SugarCreek is moving into VMware Horizon for more efficient application distribution, and VMware Virtual SAN for better and more flexible storage. VMware AirWatch provides the mobility device management platform for the company. It manages all of the company’s Intel-powered tablets, laptops, and other mobile devices. “And we use vRealize Operations and vRealize Automation,” says Rodden. “VMware has become pretty much foundational to our network.”
“We don’t put a machine on our floor today that isn’t networked,” Rodden adds. “When it comes to VMware, what we’ve essentially done is build a virtual private cloud.” Based on a VMware Cross-Cloud Architecture that integrates vSphere, NSX, Virtual SAN, and vRealize, SugarCreek, he says, has also “built in the ability to burst out of our environment into other clouds. If we need more processing power, if we happen to need more storage, we’ll have that ability. And that’s based on the infrastructure we’ve put in place.”
“We’re really a relatively lean group,” Rodden concludes. “And that’s one of the reasons we focus so much on the ability to automate our processes.” Noone laughs and adds, “With VMware virtualization, we work really hard to be really lazy.”
“We proved that with VMware we save time, we save money. We save money all the time. That’s what we do.”
— Michael Noone, Senior Systems Administrator, SugarCreek
Ed Rodden, the CIO of SugarCreek, believes it all comes down to trust. “I have a philosophy,” he says, “that I always try to find people smarter than me, make sure they have the right tools and support, and then stay out of their way.” As a CIO, he continues, “I want my team to feel equal. I’m not special because I am the CIO. That just happened to be the role I ended up with. They are just as special.”
Michael Noone, SugarCreek’s senior systems administrator, says that Rodden’s team-first mentality helps the company quickly troubleshoot and resolve issues. “We’re a very small team, so we all wear a lot of hats,” he says. “It’s a team sport in SugarCreek IT. If there’s an issue, we all kind of band together and see what we can do to make things right.”
How the company first adopted virtualization is a great story that illustrates the team spirit at SugarCreek. The IT team wanted to virtualize its server environment, but the director of IT at the time was less enthusiastic. Knowing the rest of the team was behind him, Noone took the opportunity, while supposedly decommissioning old servers, to install and consolidate a few of them on the VMware platform. “But I left them running with something,” he says, “just making the lights blink on the front of them. Every time the boss came in,” Noone continues, “he could see the lights were blinking and everyone stayed happy.”
This situation continued for six months before Noone got the courage to finally reveal to management that SugarCreek’s IT team was actually running VMware virtualization software. “After that little proof of concept,” he says, “we went in and ran all our production, our mission-critical SQL servers, and exchange server on VMware. That’s how we started.”
Because of the great faith Rodden puts in his team, Noone says, “It’s awesome to be a part of SugarCreek. We get to push the technology envelope a lot.” For Rodden, his faith is rewarded with the trust SugarCreek management places in him and his IT team to bring its vision of improving the quality, nutrition, and taste of food to people all around the globe.
The restaurant and institutional food business is facing increasing challenges staffing and keeping skilled workers. And in a business where the ability to “turn a table” in a timely manner is often the key to profitability, the time it takes to cook and prepare meals is crucial. “I think the advent of sous vide as a commercial food process is going to have a radical impact on the industry,” says Rodden.
SugarCreek’s big bet on sous vide is not just a strategic business decision for the company, but a determined effort to bring about a significant change in the diets of their customers’ consumers.
Sous vide offers the potential to address societal health issues, such as obesity and diabetes, by dramatically improving the quality and nutritional value of quick service restaurant (QSR) food. QSR customers of SugarCreek would automatically start with food offering substantial improvement in both proteins and vitamins. The results could create a seachange in the health of the millions who depend on QSRs on a daily basis.
This is the promise and the vision of SugarCreek and sous vide. It is also the fulfillment of a dream for a master chef from a small village in France. Thanks to SugarCreek, this vision and his dream are now one. One vision and one dream of improving the quality, security, and distribution of food production worldwide. One plate at a time.