SMALL MEAT WRAPPER SUITS POTASH BROS. STORE JUST FINE

CHICAGO -- If you think bigger is always better, take a look at Potash Bros.' new, automatic, meat-wrapping machine, which the 52-year-old operation here has installed in one of its two stores.The machine, the Solo Prima packaging system, from Mettler Toledo, Columbus, Ohio, takes up just 10 square feet, fitting much more neatly into Potash's low-volume meat room than the 30-year-old unit it replaced.

CHICAGO -- If you think bigger is always better, take a look at Potash Bros.' new, automatic, meat-wrapping machine, which the 52-year-old operation here has installed in one of its two stores.

The machine, the Solo Prima packaging system, from Mettler Toledo, Columbus, Ohio, takes up just 10 square feet, fitting much more neatly into Potash's low-volume meat room than the 30-year-old unit it replaced. That machine, which employed a conveyor belt, occupied about one-quarter of the room, said George Tober, Potash's meat department manager.

Suitable for other perishables departments as well, the recently introduced Solo Prima unit is "probably the smallest automatic wrapper in this market," taking up the same room as a hand wrapper, said Jim Noteman, Mettler's business manager for the back room.

As more chains move to central meat preparation, in-store meat rooms are getting smaller, necessitating a smaller wrapper, Noteman said.

Because it is replacing such an old machine, the new system "will save us between $1,000 and $3,000 a year in maintenance costs," said Tober. The former machine was experiencing too much downtime and "nickled and dimed us like an old car," he said.

But that's not the only way the system cuts Potash's costs. By wrapping nearly all packages with an 11-inch roll of PVC stretch film, rather than larger-sized rolls, the Solo Prima system will also save Potash on film costs, Tober said, though he didn't provide an estimate. "The reduction in maintenance and film costs alone will allow us to get a return on investment in a short time," he said. The machine cost Potash $15,000, Tober said.

Noteman said the Solo Prima machine is more affordable for small independents like Potash because it doesn't label packages, and it operates at a slower speed -- up to 12 packages per minute -- to accommodate manual labeling.

The new system provides "a much tighter wrap for our products," Tober said, adding that it can wrap meats like rib roasts and spare ribs that the older machine couldn't handle. Pricing is also easier and more accurate with the new machine, he said. It also employs an electric eye to adjust to different-sized packages, whereas the old machine required manual adjustments, he said.

About 30% to 40% of stores use automatic wrapping machines, Noteman said. He called hand wrapping "an art" requiring considerable training, not to mention the physical stress it causes. Automatic systems are "a lot easier," he said.

Tober said the second store will get a Solo Prima machine after the store is remodeled.