With 60 full-service and quick-serve franchised Pepe’s Mexican Restaurants and national distributors that supply universities, hospitals, schools, corporate dining facilities and the United States military, Pepe’s Incorporated has the capacity to prepare, cook, chill and freeze 3,000 – 4,000 pounds of Mexican food products every hour to keep up with its customer’s demands. Maintaining food safety and quality control standards throughout the entire processing cycle in this fast-moving facility is absolutely critical.

Every aspect of Pepe’s production facility has specific guidelines and procedures to ensure product safety and integrity. This includes the rapid chilling of product which has been cooked and hot-filled into pouches – an area of food production that is particularly beset with challenging temperature parameters, which if violated, can open the door to product contamination. Pepe’s unique system of automated, continuous pouch chilling, called Chill-Flow™ which was developed by Lyco Manufacturing, has enabled the company to keep its product moving through its facility at high volume and zero percent pouch damage, while adhering to the strictest standards of USDA and FDA requirements.

Pepe’s Fine Mexican Cuisine 

Established in 1967, this family owned and operated business has grown from humble beginnings to become a famous chain of Mexican restaurants located throughout the Chicago area and northern Indiana. Pepe’s Mexican Restaurants offers a broad selection of traditional favorites like tacos, burritos, tostadas and enchiladas, but also authentic Mexican style dishes, such as Picadillos, Pollo en Salsa Ranchera, Carnitas, Menudo, Pollo en Mol’e and Guisados Frijoles a la Charra.

Aside from its many restaurants and far-flung institutional businesses which extend nationwide, Pepe’s also provides private label food manufacturing. Every aspect of the company’s business has been influenced by its family values for quality products and service to its customers.

Pouch production line

From the very beginning, Pepe’s made all of the food for its restaurants in one location to keep a better grip on production costs, quality control and uniformity. Even in the restaurant’s early days, the company utilized pouch technology for storing and transporting its products. The use of pouches is popular now, but 40 years ago it was not in mainstream use.

Pepe’s would cook its food products and pack them into pouches which were then chilled using cold running water and ice. This process took considerable time and was very laborious. They would then freeze the pouches and ship them out to their restaurants where they would be reheated and assembled into meals. Pepe’s was cooking and freezing soups, stews, beans, rice and various sauces in this manner. As volume increased, this system became impractical and Pepe’s research more efficient means of chilling. As a result, Pepe’s follows a very similar format today, but with much more sophisticated technology.

In the company’s 65,000 square-foot USDA inspected facility, Pepe’s cooks its products in large 100 – 500 gallon stainless steel kettles, at a temperature ranging from 190 to 220 degrees F depending on the requirements of the product type. After cooking is completed, the products go into a filling station where they are packed into five-pound plastic pouches. The pouches are then mechanically sealed and go by conveyor to a continuous chiller. Coming out of the chiller at a significantly reduced temperature enabling Pepe’s to meet USDA guidelines, they are conveyed to a drying station, then put into boxes and palletized. The boxes are stacked so there is approximately a one-inch space on all sides to allow for cold air circulation. They are then put into a blast freezer at zero degrees F where the product is frozen. The pouches are kept in cold storage between zero and 10 degrees F until needed.

Critical temperature controls needed for pouch cooling

Bacteria like to grow in the “Danger Zone”, an environment that is between 40 and 140 degrees F. During a commercial cooking process, like at Pepe’s, the raw ingredients pass from a chilled refrigerator which is at 40 degrees F or lower, to a cooker and then brought up past 140 degrees F as quickly as possible to the final cooking temperature, thus minimizing the time that food products are kept in the Danger Zone. The same is true on the other end of the product line, reducing the temperature as quickly as possible through the Danger Zone to below 40 degrees F is essential.

In pouch cooling, however, there is more of a chance of bacteria multiplying at the cooling stage than at the heating stage, primarily because of a prevalent lack of understanding of the cooling dynamics within pouched food products. When cooling a five-pound pouch, for example, unless that pouch is agitated and manipulated in the cooling process, it may cool on the outside of the pouch to below 40 degrees F, but the inside of the pouch will still be warm or even hot. If the pouch is taken out of the cooler at that point and put directly into a sub-zero freezer the pouch will develop a hermetic

seal of ice trapping in not only the heat but providing a perfect environment for bacteria to propagate.

“We had conducted and outsourced a significant body of research regarding

pouch heating and cooling parameters in an effort to optimize our procedures,” says Nalini Kamireddy, Quality Assurance Manager with Pepe’s. “In one of these tests where we supplied five-pound pouches of our food products, the product was heated and a temperature probe was placed in each pouch. They were then put in a wind tunnel test chamber, which brought the temperature down to minus-20 degrees F, while being exposed to 100 mph winds. After two hours, the outside one-half inch of the pouches were frozen solid, but the inside of the pouches remained at over 100 degrees F for more

than 12 hours. The outside one-half inch of ice that encapsulated the hot product acted as an insulator, and kept the heat in.”

Pepe’s concluded that if the pouch is not manipulated in the cooling cycle so that the hot product in the center of the pouch comes to the outside surface for exposure to the cold medium, then the inside of the product will remain hot. The company began a search to find some process that would take its five-pound pouches of hot product (32,000 pounds per day) and cool them from 200 degrees F to below 40 degrees F in a time frame compliant with USDA and FDA standards. The USDA requires products to be cooled to less than 40 degrees F within 6-1/2 hours.

Continuous pouch cooling – more uniform heat transfer with zero percent product damage

“We began a search for a chiller that could handle our needs,” Kamireddy explains. “Some systems utilized mechanized buckets – the pouches were placed into them and moved through a series of cold water showers which chilled them. We tested these, but because there was no agitation of the pouches they were cold on the surface but the inside remained warm. We also tested chill systems utilizing minus-20 degrees F propylene

glycol. But again, without an agitation function it was not cooling the inside of these very dense pouches.”

The pouch cooling solution which Pepe’s selected is called Chill-Flow, developed by Lyco Manufacturing, a pioneer in the development of equipment for the heating, pasteurization and cooling of flexible pouches. Its pouch cooler is an unusually efficient system – it continually and gently agitates each pouch through the cooling process, producing a consistent mix of the contents throughout the pouch. Heat transfer is uniform, eliminating pouch hot spots.

The pouches are fed into the Chill-Flow machine by a belt conveyor. The machine utilizes a completely enclosed rotary drum design, 72” in diameter and 28’ long, functioning like an auger. The drum has a perforated skin sheet wrapped around it that is fixed to the auger flights, eliminating pinch points. These flights gently move the pouches through the system. The pouches are carefully turned over and massaged, while totally submersed in water that is 33 degrees F, as they advance in the cylinder. Once through the machine – in a first-in/first-out sequence – the pouches are then gently deposited on a belt conveyor for packaging and storage in the freezer. 

Product damage is zero percent, significantly lower than what is typical with other chilling methods. Pepe’s has run hundreds of thousands of pouches through the chiller with no bag failures caused by the system.

Pepe’s Chill-Flow pouch cooler brings the temperature of its five-pound pouches to below 40 degrees F in 60 - 90 minutes, making it the fastest pouch cooling system commercially available. It is 30 percent faster and 15 percent cooler than conventional belt systems, which can only cool to 55 degrees F. Pepe’s pouch chiller provides consistent process parameters for temperatures and recipes, gentle product handling and automatic control of the pouch cooling.

Minimizing risks

Aside from maintaining strict temperature parameters, Pepe’s further minimizes its product risks by qualifying its suppliers with letters of guarantee and rigorous inspection including quarantine of incoming ingredients until approved by its in-house Quality Assurance Department. Pepe’s also monitors its environment for various pathogenic bacteria. Food preparation surfaces including kettles, valves, filling equipment, chilling equipment, utensils, floors, walls, ceilings, and drains are all inspected. Pepe’s quality assurance lab maintains detailed records of its Standard Operating Procedures (SOP’s), Sanitation Standard Operating Procedures (SSOP’s) and Good Manufacturing Practices (GMP). These records are reviewed by USDA inspectors in a daily “pre-op” inspection.

Pouch trend expanding

The use of pouches in the food processing industry, serving both consumer and institutional markets, is expected to continue its strong growth at a rate of 5 to 6 percent per annum for the next five to six years. Pepe’s is one foodservice company that has embraced pouch processing fully, well before it was even on the radar as a popular packaging option.

Food processors should take serious heed of this expanding pouch market trend. As they move forward with their own pouch heating and cooling applications, they should assess the benefits and drawbacks of different systems. Hopefully, Pepe’s application has helped shed light on critical points that need to be considered in pouch cooling operations.


For more information on Lyco Manufacturing, Inc., and its food processing

equipment solutions, visit their website at www.lycomfg.com.