Cuisine Solutions to open new plant, expand production capabilities

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Stanislas Vilgrain was president and chief executive of Cuisine Solutions. He is the company’s chairman. The story also incorrectly said Cuisine Solutions had $87.4 million in profits by 2008. The company’s annual sales totaled $87.4 million by 2008. This version has been corrected.


Stanislas Vilgrain, left, chairman of Cuisine Solutions, with Bruno Bertin, the company’s executive chef, at the food company’s headquarters in Alexandria. (Evy Mages/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)

On any given day, Cuisine Solutions prepares and packages about 300,000 meals, ranging from beef provencal to mushroom risotto, at its headquarters in Alexandria.

Now, with the opening of its newest plant — a $30 million, 56,500 square-foot facility in Sterling — the company says it will be able to produce four times what it currently does.

“Sales growth in the last three or four years has been very good, so we thought, let’s use everything we’ve learned and not only have additional manufacturing [capabilities], but also better technology,” said Stanislas Vilgrain, chairman of Cuisine Solutions.

Eventually, Cuisine Solutions plans to move its headquarters to the new facility from Alexandria, where the company has been for 23 years.

It has been a tumultuous decade for the company, which became all but debilitated in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

Jars of spicy corn soup and jars of sliced beef salad with ponzu sauce. (Evy Mages/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)

The company — a pioneer in the use of sous-vide, a method in which food is vacuum sealed and cooked in water at very low temperatures — had built its business around catering to airlines and conference centers. All of a sudden, business dropped off a cliff. Between 2002 and 2004, the company posted more than $11 million in losses. Vilgrain said he was sure the business was headed straight to bankruptcy.

“When Sept. 11 happened, we were only focused on on-board services and banquets at very large hotels and banquet halls,” he said. “Well, suddenly you couldn’t fly for a week, and even when you could, nobody wanted to.”

Slowly, Vilgrain began turning things around. He broadened the company’s focus and began selling meals to military bases in Iraq and Afghanistan. National chains such as Panera Bread, Whole Foods and Costco signed on. In 2005, the company eked out a $1.7 million profit. By 2008, it had $87.4 million in annual sales.

“We knew we had to expand our [business] to other markets,” Vilgrain said. “So we did that, and we’ve survived.”

In 2009, Vilgrain took the company private and delisted from the New York Stock Exchange in an attempt to save money on reporting requirements and administration fees.

“Being able to get out of the market has helped us,” he said. “We’re not focusing solely on the quality of our earnings anymore.”

Vilgrain would not disclose the company’s latest revenue or profit figures — one of the perks of not being publicly traded, he said — but added that the company has continued to grow every year since 2009.

Today, Cuisine Solutions continues to provide first- and business-class meals to airlines such as United and Continental, but more and more, Vilgrain said he’s getting calls from large corporations such as Google that are interested in serving the company’s sous-vide meals at their offices.

“There is a lot of flexibility because we don’t sell whole meals — we sell components of meals,” Vilgrain said. “A restaurant or a company can pick a piece of chicken or a piece of beef and add a vegetable or starch, or they can make one of the components — the sauce, for example — themselves. It’s very easy to set up an assembly process.”

Sous-vide, which was pioneered in France in the late 1970s, requires a special level of training, Vilgrain said. For starters, the process is extremely slow: Short-ribs take 72 hours to cook; other foods require up to 120 hours.

The company created a training program that partners with, and trains, prominent chefs, such as Jean-George Vongerichten and Daniel Boulund. Demand has been so high, Vilgrain said, that Cuisine Solutions has begun offering online courses in four languages to teach its clients the basic techniques of sous-vide.

“It took at least 10 years for sous-vide to become accepted,” Vilgrain said. “Now that it is well-established, we want to make sure that everybody is trained on it and can do it well.”

Abha Bhattarai covers local retail, hospitality and banking for The Washington Post. She has previously written for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Reuters and the St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times.
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