Nothing says comfort food like a chicken pie. The aroma wafting through the house as it cooks. That delicate, crispy crust. The savory, chunky chicken mixed with thick gravy.
Those sensory delights and a commitment to quality are helping to make Willow Tree Farm a household name in the prepared fresh and frozen poultry market. Once only available at its retail farm market in Attleboro, Mass., the company’s premium poultry pies and deli-fresh chicken and turkey salads are distributed to supermarkets on the East Coast and via its Internet store.
“Willow Tree Farm has come a long way from its days as a small poultry farm in the New England countryside,” says the company’s president, Walter Cekala. “We grow because we remain open-minded and try to stay ahead of the curve, always making sure we keep our high quality commitment as the demand for our products increases.”
Over the years, changing its overall merchandising strategy without compromising its corporate philosophy meant reassessing and upgrading Willow Tree Farm’s manufacturing plant.
From Eggs to Chicken ProductsThe Cekala family started its farm in the late 1800s, focusing on producing egg-laying broiler chickens for the local market. But like its namesake, Willow Tree Farm needed to sway with the times. Staying successful meant keeping up with demand and technology while looking for ways to produce products better, faster and cost effectively.
“Our family saw the decline of the local egg and poultry farmer and decided it was time to move forward. We began producing chicken pies and salads, and our customers loved them,” Cekala says.
Soon, demand for the chicken pies, turkey pies and chicken salads sold in the Willow Tree Farm retail store grew, expanding from local sales to regional. About 8 to 10 tons of chickens are shipped into Willow Tree Farm daily, mostly from mid-Atlantic poultry farms. Although every product is made completely from scratch, the methods of cooking and processing the poultry have evolved to keep pace.
At first, the company used large gas-fired kettles to cook the poultry in the small facility. After cooking, the chicken was deboned by hand and separated for use in pies or salads, also made by hand. Willow Tree Farm’s employee base grew to about 110 workers. The operating plant at Willow Tree Farm needed a makeover to streamline the process so that more poultry could be readied quicker and better without sacrificing the homemade quality.
Research into equipment to replace the kettles showed that a space-efficient inline cooker would require less room and cook the poultry continuously through a conveyor system. Willow Tree executives opted for the ContinuTherm steam-powered continuous cooking system by Blentech Corp., Santa Rosa, Calif. For the steam boiler to power the cooking process, Cekala selected Clayton Industries, City of Industry, Calif.
Clayton representatives worked with Cekala to design a compact boiler room that accommodated two 40 BHP steam generators as well as a condensate return and makeup tank, water softener and blowdown tank. Although Clayton representatives started up the boiler room, they also provided operator training so that Willow Tree workers could obtain boiler licenses. While Clayton Industries continues to provide feedwater treatment services and periodic preventive maintenance, the boilers now are run solely by Willow Tree employees.
With the new processing line, Willow Tree Farm can stay ahead of the demand that comes from a growing company.
“Since the installation of the new cooking line, Willow Tree Farm has been able to increase its production by 30 to 40 percent with no increase in plant size,” Cekala said.
The inline cookers mean poultry can be processed quickly and efficiently even though - true to company traditions - the chicken and turkey are still deboned and prepared carefully by hand.
Clayton Industries, City of Industry, Calif., manufactures direct-fired steam generators and waste heat steam generators. For more information from Clayton Industries, call (800) 423-4585 or visit www.claytonindustries.com.